Are you in the role of being resident critic in your household – in particular, correcting your adult partner when things don’t seem to be going right? I work with couples all the time where one partner is often suggesting better, more timely, or more efficient ways to get things done.  These same partners also often tend to be the ‘reminder people’ in the relationship, taking on responsibility for making sure things get done with questions such as “Did you do X yet?” and “Don’t forget to..,”.

Within the context of the events in the relationship, this is often understandable.  After all, adults with ADHD often have a very loose affiliation with time (making them often late for various reasons); have trouble staying on task (too distracted!) and have trouble remembering and planning.  This means that tasks often don’t get done.  So that nagging and critiquing may seem justified – an approach to ‘move things along’ in a couple’s daily life.

There is only one problem.  It is also harmful and belittling, no matter how well intentioned.

Those who are doing the critiquing often respond when I suggest this with “if I don’t do this, nothing will happen around here and I’ll be forced to do it all myself – something I can’t handle.”  I hear you.  I used to feel that way myself in my own relationship.  Yet, regardless of the justification for the behavior, the end result is the same – anger and frustration on the part of the partner doing the critiquing (“I can’t believe I have to keep this up – why can’t you get your act together?”) and anger and feeling small on the part of the person on the receiving end of the verbal barrage (“why should I even bother trying?  I’ll never be good enough!).  Fight or flight responses kick in, which is why so many of these partners who are being critiqued (usually ADHD in my couples) choose to avoid interactions at all, rather than subject themselves to more ‘instruction,’ critique and disapproval.  Some fight back.  Neither approach works.

There is also another issue that lurks just below the surface in these interactions.  Over time, the person being told to do better begins to feel inadequate and ‘less than.’  Have someone tell you that you are doing things wrong enough times, and you are likely to start to believe it.  Feeling inadequate is hurtful for anyone, and particularly hurtful for men, in my experience.

So the constant critique has to stop. Criticism and nagging may get something done in the short term, but issues with time management and organizational skills are not short-term for those who have them.  Partners who critique and nag in order to ‘make things function’ in their relationship win the battle but lose the war.  Both partners become more angry and grow apart.  The person being critiqued starts to question him or herself in ways that are really harmful to their well-being.

What to Do

Let’s go back to the bottom line issue.  Stuff needs to get done, and it isn’t.  If ADHD symptoms are getting in the way, then the approach that works to change this dynamic is this one:

  1. The ADHD partner sets specific target symptoms and optimizes treatment against those symptoms (this does NOT mean just taking medications and, for some, may not even include mediations…see the online treatment guide at my website).  Behavioral treatments that keep the ADHD partner on task and organized should be part of the overall treatment plan.
  2. Agree that critiquing and nagging are not desirable and need to be stopped as they hurt your relationship.  If needed, set a verbal cue to identify when a partner feels they are being critiqued so the other partner can stop and evaluate what they are saying, and how.
  3. Set a task distribution system in which both partners spend some time together each week to discuss what must get done, who will do it, and when it will happen.  Don’t use the meetings to simply ‘dole out’ chores.  Instead, use them to agree to chores (all partners have the opportunity to say ‘no’!) and then to measure what is and is not getting done in an objective way, week to week.
  4. Modify your planning to fit (and improve) the reality of what you observe over time.  Things still not getting done?  Perhaps changing the treatment to improve specific skills will help; maybe hiring a coach or organizer; modifying the number of tasks to get done in a week; breaking the tasks into smaller chunks; adding reminder systems; learning mindfulness, and more.  Experiment until you find a system the works for you both.  They really do exist – there are MANY ways for ADHD partners (or disorganized people without ADHD) to create systems that help them get things done.

Why this Works

Partners work together in this system as equals, instead of one person ‘overseeing’ and critiquing the performance of the other.  This allows them to realistically set goals that move them away from nagging and critiquing while simultaneously pursuing treatments to get at root issues caused by ADHD symptoms.  It is respectful rather than diminishing.  In the process, couples often discover some important ideas:

  • They actually have too much on their list – something that doesn’t become obvious when the argument is over whether or not one person is doing enough
  • Each partner is important – evening out the status of partners greatly improves the relationship
  • ADHD partners often do things more slowly, even when they are on task.  This is because they have ‘invisible’ work to do organizing their brain that also takes time.  This is a challenge those without ADHD don’t face but need to be aware of.
  • Moving away from the ‘constant critique’ can greatly improve each partner’s respect for the other, leaving room to reinforce the positives
  • People, and your relationship, are more important than chores and stuff

The Other Option

Staying with the status quo – continuing to have the more organized partner police and critique the other – leads to significant relationship breakdown, sometimes to divorce.  Chronic anger and contempt can easily develop, with contempt being one of the best predictors of divorce, according to John Gottman’s research.  The diminishment of the partner being critiqued results in very poor self-esteem and a feeling very unsafe in the relationship.  The partner who is ‘policing’ hates the role.  Typically, the couple doesn’t feel very close as a result of their interactions, and their sex life disappears.

No one thrives.

If you are in a relationship in which includes criticism, ‘education’ and nagging I urge you to PLEASE not think of this as a ‘natural,’ and therefore justifiable, consequence of your lives together.  Instead, think of this as a plague infecting your relationship that needs to be treated quickly.  Look to your own role in the interactions – whether you are the critiquing party or the one who has trouble following through – and stop blaming your partner for how hard this is.  Instead, follow this path to a healthier and happier partnership.  ADHD partners need to improve their reliability and support systems, while the critical partners need to internalize that there is a better way to get things done.

And…Don’t Abdicate

One more tip to improve your chances of success.  As you transition to a better partnership around tasks, you’ll want to resist the temptation to just toss a bunch of tasks to the ADHD or less organized partner.  Before that partner can be successful in a new way (i.e. more timely, more organized) he or she needs to learn more skills and improve treatment.  So take your time and transition responsibilities with an eye to doing so as skills build.  A great way to assess this is during those weekly chore meetings, while the two of you are looking at what was successful that week, and what needs to be tweaked.

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