The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: asking for help

How much should we help a spouse with ADHD?

Last week, I wrote about ADHD, failure, and resilience. The week before, I wrote about letting go of all my life’s could-have-beens.

But what about the person right beside us — our life’s co-pilot? What if we’re married to someone who has ADHD, too?

Living in a dual-ADHD marriage is complicated. Where does my success or failure stop, and my partner’s begin? Where do my responsibilities to myself stop, and my responsibilities to my family begin? How much of my self should I invest in lifting up another person?

A friend told me once, before I got married, that a marriage is like becoming 1.5 people. You never do anything truly alone. In many ways this is true: our fates are intertwined. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t) give up all of ourselves in service to another person, but neither can we afford to cut the rope and let them drown.

So how much should a partner’s ADHD feel like my problem? How much should I help, support, and rescue?

ADHD is different for everyone

Our family’s biggest blessing and biggest challenge is how different we are. My husband and I come from opposite ends of the ADHD spectrum. His Achilles’  heel is hyperfocus and time management. My focus is all over the place. On the bright side, I can’t stand being late. Rigid systems and lists repel him, whereas I’ve used them as a form of coping and self-soothing since my teens. I have no idea how to relax. He refuses to worry about anything until it’s critical. ADHD manifests differently for everyone. We’re a perfect illustration of this.

While differences allow us to support each other, we can’t let each other — or ourselves — off the hook. If adult responsibilities are divided too unevenly, a marriage can begin to feel like a parent-child relationship. I may be anxious and obsessively organized, but I shouldn’t do so much for my husband that he feels incompetent.

I also have to remember: my ADHD isn’t his ADHD. What feels right for me, may make little sense to him.

Life and marriage are different for everyone

I also have to think of my own sanity. ADHD expert Gina Pera often tells partners of people with ADHD, “put on your own oxygen mask first.” That often means finding a way to make peace with how things are right now. Regardless of how I’d like our team to operate, how can I make sure I write every day — right now? How can I practice yoga daily and go running three times per week? How can I keep others’ behavior from stressing me out? If I’m running myself ragged for someone, it’s not a healthy relationship. I help, I support, but I don’t sacrifice my self-care priorities.

Also, every marriage is unique. I’ve had many people, most of them pretty good friends, tell me things like “I don’t know how you do it” or “I could never put up with that.” What they mean is this: they couldn’t tolerate their spouse, in their marriage, rarely being around to help put their kids to bed. They wouldn’t want to be responsible for mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. For me, in my marriage, these things are tolerable. I enjoy mowing the lawn. Sometimes I ask my husband to take a few days off to stay with our son while I attend a writing conference or retreat. He supports me 100%. He’s never said no, and he’s never complained. As long as the equation balances for me, I try to ignore what may or may not work for anyone else.

ADHD symptoms, in priority order

If I’m asking myself how much I should help my ADHD partner, I have to consider if he even wants my help. How much of a problem is this for him? What are his priorities?

My own symptom-management priority has always been clear: to make sure I can comprehend and stick to a system for keeping myself organized. I can’t stand living in chaos.

On the other hand, I bet my husband would point to my temper. Also, my tendency to start new projects whenever I think of them, never mind the 10 projects I’ve already dragged him into. He’d probably say my ADHD can — when poorly managed — make me negative, inflexible, combative, and anxious.

Being an intolerable person is a problem, I get that. It’s just not as big a problem as failing to be productive.

It’s important to talk each other about what symptoms are bothering us most. Walking into an argument — or a well-intentioned attempt to help — assuming the other person ranks this problem the same way you do is a recipe for disaster.

Setting a spouse up for success

There’s also the issue of teaching a person with ADHD to fish, rather than giving them a free pass. My husband also has trouble coming up with productive ways to spend time with our preschooler on the weekends. He has things he wants to do, and he struggles with how to involve our son. I bought a few books with screen-free and science-y activities for young children. I bookmarked a handful of pages. Then I gave my husband a few pre-selected choices on a Saturday morning. He had no trouble picking one. He and R. went to the store for supplies, returned home, and made sensory “moon sand” in the kitchen.

I kept expectations reasonable. I didn’t berate him, nor did I hold his hand any more than I needed to. I set him up for success because success builds confidence and, in this case, relationships.

Go for what works

The bottom line: it’s a balancing act. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between the health of my family, our relationship(s), and my own sanity. I support and help — and, yes, pick up slack for — my husband. I also demand that certain conditions be met: our family relationships are strong, I’m taking good care of myself, and our home and finances are in order. When my kid feels hurt or disappointed, I’m not writing, and/or I feel like I have too much on my plate, I speak up and demand change. Otherwise, if it works, I do it — even if it’s not the way my friends are managing their home lives.

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How (and why) to tame your hyperfocus

People with ADHD can achieve almost superhuman levels of focus (referred to as hyperfocus) in some situations, yet none at all in others.  That’s because ADHD isn’t an attention deficit, but a broken attention regulation system.

bomb timer

Hyperfocus is our secret superpower. Often, it’s also our undoing. Capable of an amazing state of flow, we’re unstoppable, and it’s easy to get ‘sucked in.’ That’s why it’s so important to reign in our hyperfocus: unstoppable even to ourselves, we become a runaway train…and we all know how that ends.

Unchecked, hyperfocusing ADHD’ers neglect all other responsibilities. Work, school, family, or romantic relationships may suffer. Health may decline due to frequent all-nighters and missed meals (have you ever gotten in the zone and forgotten to eat?).

The good news is, you can learn to let your hyperfocus run wild in a controlled environment. It’s not easy, but here are some tips to get you started.

Know your triggers and risky behaviors

Keep a log of activities that run away with you. What time of day was it? What else was going on?

Eventually, you’ll see a pattern. For example: I don’t particularly like sewing, but it’s one of the few projects that gets me out of control, always wanting to eliminate one more rough edge. When I’m tired or frustrated, I’m more likely to waste time on Facebook because my brain can’t get in gear.

Know yourself. Know when you’re more likely to lose control, even if you don’t necessarily feel like it’s a bad thing (“sure I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., but I got so much done!”)

Limit time spent on high-risk activities

In her habits book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tells us to “decide not to decide.”

In other words, set boundaries ahead of time and commit to sticking to them. For example:

  • Only one one-hour or two half-hour television shows per night
  • Never open Facebook after 9:30 p.m.
  • Don’t start a new computer programming task within one hour of bedtime

Don’t let your brain talk you out of it. It will tell you things like:

  • “If you just do this one little thing, you can get the program working”
  • “If you sew this side seam, you’ll just have the bottom hem to do tomorrow”
  • “It’s only 25 more minutes, and we need to watch the resolution of this cliffhanger.

There will always be one more thing, even after that one more thing.

Decide not to decide.

You also need breaks — ideally, before you think you need them. Read up on the Pomodoro Technique, which advocates a system of regularly spaced short and long breaks to keep your brain functioning at its peak.

Set a timer. Don’t trust yourself to watch the clock, or even to remember time exists.

If you share an office space, you may want to use a desktop app like Tomighty. At home, we love Suck UK’s adorable — and very loud — bomb timerThe Time Timer provides an excellent visual representation of time, and its ending bell is soft enough to use in a shared space.

Whatever you do, get up and stretch for a few minutes every half hour or so. It’ll break the spell and remind you of the real world — and the people in it who count on you.

Enlist help

Make agreements with family, colleagues, or helpful friends. Tell them to be persistent, even if you resist, make excuses, or tell them to go ahead to the meeting and you’ll be right behind them. Agree ahead of time that this is unacceptable behavior, and ask them to remind you whenever necessary.

Also, remember: you’ve asked this person for their help and support because you’re struggling with self-regulation. Try to listen, cooperate, and be gracious.

Use gentle reminders that involve the senses

If you’re trying to break the spell of someone else’s hyperfocus, avoid getting angry. The ADHD person isn’t fully present in this interaction. They may not remember a conversation that occurs during hyperfocus, and they may not even notice anything happening around them.

Because hyperfocus takes us so deep into the zone, we often need more than a simple, “time to leave for dinner — now.” Create a sensory event to bring consciousness back to the real world. Turn the lights off, provide a gentle touch on the arm or shoulder, or set a timer with a loud bell. If an electronic device is involved, turn it off — but only if you’ve agreed beforehand that this is okay!

You can do this for yourself, too, especially if you invest in something like a WeMo switch or, if you want to go simple, a lamp timer that will turn off the lights or computer at a predetermined time. Apps and browser extensions — like the Productivity Owl for Google Chrome — can help limit time on specific websites.

How about you? Do you struggle with hyperfocus? What tools and tricks have worked for you?

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