Actions and Additudes – 7 Relationship Strategies for Non-ADHD Partners

By Mike Fedel

I have enjoyed the first year of ADDA’s Non-ADHD Partner Peer Support Group. From the feedback I’ve heard, our participants enjoyed it as much or more than I did! Today, I want to share with you some “tips and hints” that worked for our partners.

NOTE: I’ve changed names, and, to keep it less confusing. Couples are “husband with ADHD” and “wife without.” Our apologies to guys and non-traditional couples.

I dug through my notes to find the very best advice our members offered each other. My criteria for deciding what to share with you were:  

  1. the idea has to have produced results for more than one couple,  
  2. it has to be practical and specific, and  
  3. it has to be something you can do yourself. 

Why “yourself”? One of the most common questions we hear is, “What can I do if my partner is not on board?” Unfortunately, many live with someone in denial or minimizing their behavior’s impact. 

I divided the suggestions into two types: Actions and Attitudes. Actions are behaviors you might try to put in place. Attitudes are ways of looking at your situation that you might find helpful. 

Action: Self-Care 

At the very top of the list is self-care. To work on your relationship, you must take care of yourself first. And that’s especially true if you have kids. Make sure you and they are as healthy as you can be while you work on managing ADHD in your household. 

What does self-care look like? Get enough restful sleep. Eat well. Exercise. And take time for the things you enjoy. It may seem impossible at first. “I’m already stretched too thin!” “Where will I find the time?” But all who tried it say it’s worth the effort. When you’re not exhausted and frustrated, it’s easier to fit other things in your schedule. 

Many said they had to get past feeling guilty or selfish when they take time for themselves. But they saw results in themselves, their kids and their relationships. Then they knew it was worth it. 

It might be easier than you think: Carol said she asked her husband to make a small grocery run with the kids. They were gone less than half an hour but during that time she was able to do the dishes. It doesn’t seem like much. But she enjoyed doing the dishes and felt recharged. 

Mary told us she keeps a “venting book” in the trunk of her car. When she gets too frustrated, she takes a short drive. She stops to write down her thoughts. It’s a way to get it out of her head and it’s a break from the situation. Another form of Self-Care. 

Attitude: Think of ADHD as a Cultural Difference That Will Always Exist 

We’ve had a few international members and couples from many different types of families. Some cultures have stricter expectations about the roles of husbands and wives. Families have different views about “appropriate” behavior. When you marry your partner, you marry their upbringing too. Everyone must adjust. 

Some members compared that with adjustments they’ve made to live with their ADHD partner. It’s a useful model. It helps us stop asking who’s right or wrong. They aren’t right or wrong. They are different. And they will always be with us. These aren’t things to “fix.” You must integrate them into the relationship. 

Thinking of these as cultural differences lets you feel less offended. The behaviors aren’t directed at you. It’s not that he doesn’t love you or doesn’t care. He grew up in a different world, with a different frame of reference. 

Action: BoundariesPart 1 – Set Them and Keep Them 

You’ve heard it a million times but what does it mean? And, does it work? There are good books, podcasts, and videos about setting boundaries. Instead of talking about it, I’ll share some of our members stories. Let’s look at boundaries they set and the impact it had: 

  • Kaye’s husband had problems with his headset. It made it hard for her to understand him when he called. Finally, she told him that instead of repeating that she couldn’t hear him, she would hang up. He should call from another phone or text instead. It worked. He took care of the problem. No fighting or threats. A firm boundary. 
  • Several members talked about their partners making them late for events. In Angela’s case, her (ADHD) husband was the one who cared if they were late, but he relied on her to push him out the door on time.  When she said she wasn’t going to do that anymore, he complained and argued but she stood her ground. He stepped up and took responsibility for making sure they were on time. 

A few others said they were quitting the Timekeeper job, too. With mixed results. In some cases, the husband stepped up and paid more attention. In others, though, they’re still arriving late, but have let go of feeling responsible. 

Action: Boundaries, Part 2  Establish Some BASELINE Rules 

This is another way of setting boundaries. Be clear. Be consistent. Members have had success when they used some of the following: 

  • You can’t be rude to people and blame it on your ADHD. If you do something impulsive and it has an impact – own up to it and apologize. 
  • Please refrain from using the words “I promise I will…” We both know the odds are you’ll slip up at some point. Then, you’ll feel bad, guilty and ashamed, and I’ll feel angry. Say something more like “I’ll commit not to do X for the next six weeks” and revisit it then. Or “If I do Y again, you have my permission to call me on it.” And DO call them on it. 
  • When you say things like, “Let’s do a movie this weekend”, it’s not a commitment. It’s only a commitment if you put it in the calendar. And don’t put it in the calendar unless you’re committed. 
  • If things are getting too heated, have a code word that means “let’s not have this fight right now, let’s talk about it later.” (More on this below.) 
  • I am not your alarm clock or your calendar. If you have to be somewhere, it’s up to you to get there. 
  • When you’re talking to me, please talk to me like there’s another person in the room listening. You treat me better when there’s someone else who might hear what you say.  

Would any of these be helpful for you? 

Action: Make Sure “We’ll Talk About It Later” HAPPENS 

Learning to de-escalate conflict is a basic survival skill for any couple. It’s helpful to have verbal or visual cues when an argument is going to escalate or go around in endless circles. 

One couple uses the word “kibosh”, another comes right out and says “we’ll get back to this later.” It defuses the situation, but if your partner has ADHD, there’s one more thing to consider. Given our “now/not-now” way of handling time, the odds are good that “we’ll get back to it later” won’t happen.  

So, you need to take one more step: make sure your partner commits to a date and time to do the follow up. You can suggest one or ask them to, but don’t leave it with “later”. 

Actions: Vacations: Just Do It 

Does this scenario sound familiar? Mom has been asking Dad about summer vacation plans for months. Dad is always busy but promises he’ll get to it “soon”. At some point, Mom takes it on herself to do the planning. When Dad finds out, he’s upset. Not only did Mom usurp his authority (never said that way, of course), but she isn’t thinking BIG enough. Mom’s vacation is a trip to Six Flags. Dad wants to rent a mobile home and drive cross-country. He’ll stop at the Grand Canyon, then do a little mountain climbing in Colorado. That is, if they don’t go to Europe. Or China. Or both. 

One of our moms ended up renting movies and having pizza night at home with her daughters. It was a wonderful stay-cation, but it wasn’t the original plan. They had bought plane tickets and made hotel reservations for a week out of town. But Dad kept delaying until they’d missed their flight and lost the reservation. 

At least two other moms said they’d given up on family vacations. They find interesting things to do around town. 

Sharing stories like these helped other moms take hold of their vacation plans. One made it clear to Dad that she and the kids are going on vacation with or without him. Another gave Dad two options. This made him feel like he was part of the decision. And she didn’t watch him go through an endless stream of possibilities. 

Barbara takes a very creative approach. She makes travel plans with some favorite neighbors. That way, the kids have someone to play with and she has good friends to sit with around the campfire. 

Attitudes: Maintain Hope by Managing Expectations 

Bob said living with his wife’s ADHD sometimes makes him feel like Charlie Brown. Lucy is holding that football. He knows she’ll pull it away when he tries to kick it, but he does it anyway.  Maybe this time it will be different.  

Just as when you have a good day with your ADHD partner. Maybe this time, it’ll stick. Maybe this time, he’ll keep the promise. Or he’ll consider your feelings before making a decision. Or he’ll do what he has to to keep his job. 

Our partners are on a roller coaster and it isn’t fun. We say “I’ll do better” and we mean it, but six months later, we’re both looking back wondering “what happened?” How can we expect anyone to live with this? 

The best answer we’ve come up with is that it helps to accept that it IS a roller coaster. It helps knowing that the low points are only temporary. But when things are going well, you can’t expect it to last forever. 

It’s difficult. And sad. Some callers don’t let themselves enjoy the good days. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Others say it’s made them live more in the moment. They enjoy the positive when it comes, but they don’t expect a permanent change. 

The most helpful advice seemed to be this: accept highs and lows. Be realistic about what you can expect from your partner. 

Action: Don’t be Afraid to be Obvious 

This final bit of advice is short and sweet but has worked for several couples: Make Things Visible.  

Put Post-It notes on the bathroom mirror with a list of today’s tasks. Label drawers and cabinets with contents so he knows where to find/put things. Be explicit about who’s making dinner tonight. Get a shared calendar – online or paper. Repeat and revisit commitments and promises so you can build on past success. 

And communicate. Be honest and direct. Say “I need this from you…”, “I don’t know what you mean…” And, yes, say “I love you and I’m in this with you.” Both of you. 

That last piece is the most useful thing I’ve learned this year from all our amazing members. Communication is critical. Communication and commitment. No books or articles will help. No advice or counseling will help. Both of you must commit to making it work. It can be a long road and the results may not be what you expect. But wherever you end up, you’ll be there together. 


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    1. Reply

      WOW…this has been very informative to read how ADHD couples survive and keep on going! I’m very blessed as I am not on medication and due to my profession as a professional PR, Marketing and Fundraising Consultant (owning my own business)…I know how to handle time management issue and deadlines…I am the planner in our relationship! I’m 58 and my spouse is soon to be turning 60, we’ve been married for 19 years however, we’ve been in our relationship for 23 years. I think that our “issues” dealing with ADHD (via me) are more stress in both keeping very busy and viable jobs (for my wife she wants to retire in 5 years) and maintaining our lifestyle as we come into our “senior years.” Since I’ve turned 50 my ADHD symptoms have changed drastically and I don’t have the ‘angst issues” like I did the our early married years!!

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