The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: division of labor

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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Chores, gender norms, & ADHD

ADHD sabotages marriage relationships on (at least) two fronts: the emotional and the practical. One can precede or exacerbate the other. Sharing domestic responsibilities is far from mundane. When we feel unsupported — or worse, cut off at the knees — by a partner, our relationship can drift toward a parent-child dynamic. Not good news for emotional intimacy.

Partners of people with ADHD often complain about division of labor in the home, but it needn’t remain a sticking point. It’s easy to restrict ourselves to two options: continue to nag and get angry, or do it all on our own. Our ADHD household has taken the road less traveled. The house stays relatively clean, most urgent maintenance is addressed in a timely manner, and the bills get paid. Sometimes friends look at me funny, and one fellow at-home parent even told me, “I’d never put up with that [behavior].” But it’s not about “putting up” with anything. We’ve figured out what works for us, and we’re doing it.

If you’re struggling to maintain domestic peace and basic sanitation, you’re not doomed. You just need to figure out what works for your family. This often requires us to reject gender norms and other meaningless expectations. We need to experiment, be realistic, and find our ADHD superpowers.

Chores, gender norms,and #AdultADHD

What’s your ADHD superpower?

ADHD superpowers aren’t gifts. ADHD doesn’t make us special or superior. In his book, I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not, Dr. Wes Crenshaw describes superpowers as places we depart from the diagnostic criteria. For example, ADHD’ers are stereotypically terrible with money. I’m not. I could write a series of posts about finances, and maybe I will someday, but for now, know this: no matter how small my paychecks, I’ve never been broke. ADHD has crippled me in other areas, but not my bank account. ADHD superpowers are more like dodged bullets than gifts.

At home, this means my husband and I — both ADHD’ers, but very different people — break down responsibilities by strengths, not tradition. His perfectionism and hyperfocus — sometimes a terrible Achilles heel — makes him a great fit for jobs that require a fine touch. My ADHD makes me the bull in the china shop. That same hyperfocus makes my husband completely time-blind. If something needs to happen at a specific time, it’s my job: taking out the trash, verifying bills are paid on time, mowing the lawn. I rarely force myself to do nit-picky jobs, but if I get him started, my husband can’t put them down until they’re done. He won’t vacuum without moving all the furniture, and he’ll spend an entire day tracking down an error in our accounting ledger.

You may have noticed, I end up with many of the “man” jobs. I need physical activity to function, and my body type makes me the muscle of our small operation. My husband is the engineer. He’s the person reminding me to slow down and make sure the job is done right. Dividing tasks along gender lines feels arbitrary at best, intensely frustrating and counterproductive at worst. Why set each other up for failure? Why not let everyone have the job they want? Both failure and success have inertia, dragging us toward learned helplessness or self-efficacy. We choose the latter, even if people look askance at a woman mowing the lawn.

Experimentation is key.

Our household may be up and running now, but we learned most things the hard way. For example, we began with my husband managing our online bill-pay accounts. He insisted mailing payments was antiquated and silly, but since it worked for me, I told him, “you want a new system, you set it up.” He did. We stopped getting bills in the mail because he got them via email. Would you guess that someone with ADHD can both forget to log into his bank’s bill-pay system and get behind on his email inbox?

These snags are best dealt with calmly, without finger-pointing. If your ADHD partner lets the grass grow knee-high or forgets to pay the electric bill, he knows it’s a problem (even if he won’t admit it). She feels bad about it (even if she won’t admit it, or even blames you). When we hit a snag, I try to remember it’s a clue to a puzzle we need to solve. Yelling at your spouse, expressing disappointment and shame, or telling her she needs to act like a responsible adult only damages the relationship.

May all expectations be realistic…

Above all, an ADHD household needs realistic expectations. This doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to a lower standard of living. It means being realistic about which responsibilities our partners can take on and how they’ll get the job done. Forcing a square peg through a round hole is a recipe for argument, resentment, and less stuff getting done. What works for me rarely works for my husband, and vice versa. Rather than dwell on the downsides, we use our strengths to fill in for each other’s weaknesses. My husband may never take the trash or recycling out on the correct day, but it’s all good. When I encounter a problem in the house and think, “I can’t even imagine dealing with that,” he’s my man.

Do you or your partner have ADHD? How do you manage household chores? Do you feel like you’ve hit your stride, or are you still looking for a solution?

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