This is the story of one of my ADHD couples that I have been coaching. Perhaps you can relate?
Philip and Tessa met in college in the 80s. They dated for a few years, got married, and soon had four children. Making education a top priority, Tessa homeschooled all of the kids. From a couple counseling standpoint, this means that the entire marriage became oriented around raising the children, and Tessa's whole adult life became defined by motherhood.
Now, the children are all in their 20s and early 30s, out working and building families of their own. Philip and Tessa are a family of two again, and they aren't enjoying the arrangement. You see, it has been decades since they gave each other so much attention. Even when there were rocky moments 10 or 15 years ago, the relationship always took second place to parenting. Without parenting to take priority, the relationship issues seem very glaring now.
I worked with Philip and Tessa on communication and triggers. One issue that had to be gotten over right from the start was Tessa's default response to conflict: "It's all because of Philip's ADHD." The fact is, that reaction is unproductive and unfair. Yes, Philip has ADHD, but that means that you know what to expect from him, so she shouldn't put him in situations where he is doomed to fail.
A classic issue was Tessa interrupting Philip in the middle of something to ask him for a favor, which he would later forget all about. Tessa would be waiting for him to trip up, and would pounce on him for it. Philip would get defensive, and started to find ways to get out of the house to go for a drink—a habit that had become destructive for him in his youth. This would only rile up Tessa more, leading to a vicious circle.
During our sessions, we often used an exercise in which Philip would explain a fight, then retell the story from Tessa's perspective, and vice versa. They stopped thinking in terms of "I'm right, you're wrong," and started walking in the other's shoes. They started to figure each other out again.
We identified the ADHD behaviors that Philip manifested, and instead of letting them become a scapegoat for Tessa's frustrations, both of them agreed to find strategies to work around the problems.
More importantly, we got to the real heart of Tessa's nagging: She was lonely and directionless without the children. She needed Philip to be a more attentive, loving partner, now that it was just the two of them again, and she simply couldn't find the words to tell him that. She had defaulted to passive-aggressive pestering, just to get some kind of attention. Now they know to put more effort into spending quality time together, such as taking walks every evening.
What I hope for them is they can continue to build on the communication work that we started. It's hard to change after 30 years of doing things the same way, but I hope they'll make it.
By the fall, they could handle a conflict with calm conversation, no more accusations or name calling. I was heartened by their healthy communication patterns and the fun they were having together. I believed they've developed a deeper understanding of how their personal behavior affects the relationship.
My work with Philip and Tessa ended before the holidays, letting them put our new strategies to use. Later in the spring, I'll be checking up on their progress. Stay tuned!
This article was originally published at Live ADHD Free. Reprinted with permission from the author.