Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2005

The Silent Enemy - Challenges of the ADHD Marriage

Don: "I can't find my electric drill anywhere. Did you move it?" Peggy: "No, you left it in the guest bathroom last year when you were installing the towels racks which by the way are still not up and your mother is coming to visit."

Often, the first time couples consider the possibility that one or both of them has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is when their child is diagnosed with the disorder. While only 2-3% of the adult population meets the criteria for a diagnosis, many couples struggle with ADHD tendencies that are responsible for frequent marital fights over messiness, lateness, and unfinished projects. Isn't it time to stop blaming your partner for your frustrations and team up together to fight this silent enemy of marriage?

What is ADHD?

Don't be confused by the term. ADHD is a neurological disorder characterized by symptoms of distractibility, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity, but not all sufferers are hyperactive.

Researchers think that deficits in key neurotransmitters in the brain are related to deficits in functioning in areas of the brain especially the frontal lobes. Those areas are responsible for executive function activities such as time management, organization, and planning.

Troubled Marriage Cycle

ADHD couples can get into destructive patterns in response to the frustration and chaos that seems to follow the ADHD partner through life. While non-ADHD spouses are continually disappointed by the inconsistent behavior of their spouses, ADHDers are also disappointed by their inability to deliver consistent results. Further nagging, anger, and marital burnout or withdrawal on the part of the non-ADHD spouse can result in depression, shame, and low self-esteem in the ADHD spouse.

Breaking the Cycle

If you recognize ADHD symptoms as frustrating you or your partner, consider a consult with a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. You might also benefit from consultation with a therapist or coach knowledgeable about the disorder to teach you compensatory skills that will decrease lateness, procrastination, disorganization, and clutter.

In some marriages, the non-ADHD spouse can learn how to coach the spouse on designing systems to counteract the disorganization. In other marriages, this sets up a bad dynamic. The ADHD spouse feels controlled and the non-ADHD spouse feels forced into "babysitting." Here are some suggestions that couples can use to deal with common ADHD tendencies.

  1. Distractibility or hyperfocus.

    In many ways this disorder would more accurately be called Attention Inconsistency Disorder. Some ADHDers flip-flop between distractibility and hyperfocus. A typical day might include brilliant insights at work mixed with losing the car keys three times and forgetting to pick up the children at day care.


    • Consult a physician specializing in ADHD about possible treatment with medication.

    • Schedule aerobic exercise immediately prior to important tasks to increase mental alertness.

    • Try meditation to quiet the racing thoughts.

  2. Impulsiveness or inhibition.

    You may be familiar with the old joke about the nervous new soldier: "load, fire, aim." The ADHD variation is: "act, think, react, go back and clean up the act." Impulsiveness gets ADHDers into trouble when they say and do things that they later regret. However, other ADHDers become socially inhibited in an effort to avoid the troubles experienced in their impulsive childhood.


    ADHDers can learn to focus on planning and consequences.

    • Ask, "What will happen if I do this? Then what will happen? Do I want those consequences?"

    • Ask, "What are the pros and cons of this action? What are the risks?"

  3. Disorganization or compulsiveness.

    Imagine the "before" picture for one of those fancy closet organizer system. Clutter, chaos, and packrat tendencies make ADHD environments scary places. A vicious cycle gets started. Recognizing their symptoms, ADHDers leave things out as an organizational technique to remind them to take care of tasks. They save stuff because they "might need it someday." However, as more clutter accumulates, less gets done and more stuff gets lost.


    • Create structure - places to put things, schedules with reminders, hand-held management systems. While the spouse can help design systems, it is up to the ADHDer to use them.

    • Finish fully. Return tools to their proper place when the task is complete.

    • Schedule clean ups monthly or quarterly followed by rewards such as a family outing or a couple date.

    • Consider a consultation with a professional organizer to structure the space and establish an easy-to-use category system.

    • Designate ADHD space to have acceptable clutter and chaos separate from the common living space.

  4. Procrastination.

    Difficulty with executive functioning leads to ADHDers to have difficulty with planning, anticipation, prioritizing, and meeting deadlines. They often fail to do routine maintenance saying, "That doesn't need to be done right now," until a crisis is created and the task becomes urgent. One exasperated spouse waited two years for her husband to complete the remodeling of an unusable bathroom while he insisted that she not call a contractor to finish the job.


    • Develop a list of joint goals, project priorities and deadlines.

    • Set up accountability systems - a marriage log (electronic or paper) to track deadlines.
    • Review project goals weekly to set priorities for the weekend.

    • Set deadlines for the completion of a project. If the deadline is not met, the spouse can hire someone for the task.

    • Celebrate the completion of projects.

  5. Mood fluctuations.

    Problems in brain neurotransmitters create glitches in emotional regulation leading to:

    • Emotional outbursts.

    • Inability to learn from experience especially emotional experiences.


    • Seek counseling to learn emotional regulation methods

    • Clarify roles and procedures in the home.

    • Use the marital log to review agreements made and lessons learned.

    • Schedule positive experiences and couple dates to offset the frustration.

    • Experiment with decreasing or increasing variety and stimulation to help with mood - especially related to sex.

    • Learn to see the humor in the foibles.

    With compensatory systems in place, both partners can contribute to a satisfying marriage as they bond together to fight the "Silent Enemy."


Edward Holloway, Lynn Weiss, or Kathleen Nadeau.

Copyright 2005 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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