A First Step to Becoming Partners Again

Discussing who does what is a first step to re-balancing your partnership.

Posted Feb 26, 2014

An imbalance in power between partners is a common feature of many relationships, including ADHD-impacted relationships. Often this falls into a “parent” (i.e. ‘responsible’) partner coupled with a “child-like” partner who is often inconsistent and deemed, therefore, to be less capable or trustworthy.

Call it ‘parent/child dynamics’ or ‘overfunctioning/underfunctioning’ the result is the same—a relationship in which both partners feel resentful and unhappy and where intimacy is lost.

Changing the power dynamics of the relationship can be complicated, but one place to start is redistributing responsibility for completing tasks. When I work with couples on this task I ask them to take specific steps:

  1. Take a baseline. Who is actually doing what? How long does it take? How easy is it for that person to do it? Some couples have to actually record what they are doing for a week or so to be able to answer these questions accurately. You do this step so that you don’t spend time arguing about whether one of you is doing enough. Put it on paper and see.
  2. Together, sit down and set priorities. What absolutely must be done (eating, sleeping, taking out trash, getting kids to school, paying bills) and what is optional (gardening, organizing the closet, sweeping out the garage)? If couples have trouble differentiating between the two, ask “could someone be injured or become unhealthy? Would we fall apart as a family if we don’t do this thing?”
  3. Volunteer for the “must be done” tasks until they are all allocated, then add back a few of the most important “nice to do” tasks. Try to match skills and interests with tasks.
  4. Set a schedule for completion. The person doing the task is responsible for this, not the partner. If you think your partner is unreasonably optimistic, wait until measurement demonstrates this is true before circling back to talk about it.
  5. Meet weekly to see what has been done…and what has not been done as promised. Celebrate the former. Assess what got in the way if something didn’t get done and make a better plan next time around. Think of this as ‘learning’ rather than ‘failure’ and you’ll be more likely to improve your plan and succeed. For those with ADHD, sometimes a symptom gets in the way. In this case addressing the symptom (with a better reminder system or more exercise, for example) helps prevent repetitive problems on follow through. And if the ADHD partner does not have a good reminder system in place, that definitely needs to be developed ASAP!
  6. Revise the system until it works for the two of you. Some couples do a quick check in each morning about the upcoming day. Others find that meeting once a week to discuss priorities and schedules works best. Be sleuths to figure out what your system will be.

The goal of this process is to make sure that couples have an open and overt discussion about who is doing what, and even more importantly when it comes to over and under-functioning, that each one of them gets to share responsibility for setting the family priorities. Too often, couples fall into a pattern where one partner ‘dictates’ and the other one ‘does’…or doesn’t do if he or she isn’t very interested in that particular priority.

For non-ADHD partners, handing over responsibilities to an ADHD partner who has a track record of inconsistency can be very stressful. Nonetheless, it needs to be done. Being in the ‘child’ position in parent/child dynamics as many ADHD partners are is quite diminishing and reinforces a lessening of desire to be involved in the relationship with the more dominant partner. Being the ‘parent’ is equally painful. Hand over one or two things at a time. Then lovingly detach yourself from the process of getting the thing done.

There are some caveats, though.

First, never hand over the financial responsibilities to an ADHD partner who has not demonstrated that he or she has great reminder and organizational systems in place and will pay the bills accurately and on time. Here is just one comment out of many that I have gotten over the years from people who have chosen to have the finances be one of the first things to get handed over, instead of the last:

“I let my husband, who is a CPA, do taxes for many years…I knew he was in trouble, though, and made a number of suggestions to help him out of this insurmountable hoarders mess (he had created)…after ALL that time, my reward for letting him have his self-respect and not nagging him about it was to hear one night after work, “Uh, honey, we owe $80,000 in back taxes and penalties…we need to refinance our house to pay for them…”

Transition, don’t abdicate. Difficulty completing tasks on the part of an ADHD partner often signals that there is an organizational skill set that still needs to be developed in order to improve success. Non-ADHD partners often make the mistake of simply saying “here, you do it now” without paying attention to whether or not the new skill set is in place. If it’s not, then couples will get the same result they have always gotten, and both partners will end up frustrated that nothing has changed. ADHD coaches and CBT can be very helpful for developing organizational skills.

Start small. Particularly when adults are first learning how to manage their ADHD better it takes a long time to get organized and work out what the new systems will be. Getting one or two things right leads to a better outcome than handing over many things and getting none of them right.  ADHD partners can really help themselves become more equal partners in their relationship by really taking full responsibility, from start to finish, of whatever projects they take on. Don’t wait for reminders…hopefully they won’t be coming!

Be willing to hire help. Household cleaning, paper filing, office organizing, yard work, driving kids around, and walking dogs are just a few of the things you can hire someone else to do to help out if you have the budget to do so. 

Be willing to drop some tasks completely. The older I get the more I appreciate this particular option. We really do take on much more than we actually need to do, and simplifying one’s life by saying “no” to ourselves and others can lower stress appreciably. Note, though, don’t just drop the “fun” stuff. You want to actually drop ‘unfun’ stuff so you can have time for the things that will enrich your life. I usually suggest that couples set a goal of dropping 30% of what is on their list. One way to do this is to cut down on frequency—for example, cleaning out the garage (if you must) every other year instead of every 6 months.

Exercise regularly. This will give both partners the stamina and focus to better stay on top of tasks. In addition, it will likely help you sleep.

The bottom line is that you only have a partnership if each person in the relationship has an equal say in what gets done, and an independent responsibility for doing it. It takes time to move away from parent/child, but you must if you are going to thrive. Sharing responsibility for the tasks in your life is a good start to creating a real partnership.