I was struck recently by something 4-star General Marty Dempsey (ret.) was quoted as saying:
“In solving complex problems and resolving contentious issues, the most effective leaders use their influence much more than their authority. The goal is to solve problems so that they stay solved. Solutions imposed rarely last.”
This is definitely true in ADHD-impacted relationships, and yet, it is not the direction most couples gravitate towards. Before they learn about managing ADHD in their relationship, they drift into a pattern in which the non-ADHD partner is ‘in control’ and the ADHD partner has little status. I call this version of an adult relationship ‘parent/child dynamics’ for its resemblance to actual adult/child interactions.
Non-ADHD partners often ask me how to move away from the controlling, parenting role they have gotten into (and that they hate!) while still getting their needs met. This is a real concern – particularly when ADHD has been under-treated or undiagnosed – non-ADHD partners find it quite difficult to get attention from their distracted partner. Their best results to date may well have come from being demanding and using attention-getting methods such as yelling; nagging and reminding. Their approach becomes a desperate “win the battle but lose the war” effort as they get what they want in the short-term, but both partners grow more and more dissatisfied with their growing parent/child, or ‘in control’/’not in control’ dynamic.
When trying to ‘get things under control’ it can seem expedient to be in charge and dictate how things should go, rather than to think of yourself as an influencer, which is the pattern in healthier relationships. I completely understand this controlling behavior – I was definitely guilty of trying to ‘manage’ my husband in order to move things along in our lives. My intentions were good, as I was desperate to get him to provide the help I so needed, but…
He hated it. Because my demands and directions communicated to him that he – and his opinions – didn’t have value. He felt belittled and talked down to, micro-managed, and generally disrespected.
And those are not feelings that will bring about lasting agreement when you are in conflict, which becomes more and more often, as partners’ frustrations grow. This is what Dempsey is referring to when he notes ‘solutions imposed rarely last.’ My husband might have resentfully responded to my request in the short-term to avoid further immediate conflict – providing an immediate solution – but he had no motivation to continue his effort. In fact, he was often motivated not to continue, as a way of demonstrating ‘you’re not the boss of me!’
Here are just a few of the many solutions I tried to impose upon my husband over the years…and our relationship was pretty ‘average’ for ADHD-impacted relationships, so this is typical:
- About a billion chores – how to do them; when to do them; whether to do them; and which were most important
- How his relationship with his mother should look (I wanted him to pay more attention to her as was my own family tradition)
- What he should/shouldn’t be doing with the children (he was less cautious than I was)
- How he should drive (more slowly; less tailgating…okay, I still do this one sometimes!)
- When he should/should not be working (less – to be more family oriented)
The lack of respect that imposing your way on your partner this way encompasses is why I suggest that non-ADHD partners step away from “being in charge” and dictating how things should/will go. Instead, they must think of themselves as influencers. While it may feel expedient, the ‘controlling’ approach is not healthy for either partner, nor for the relationship. Replace it, instead, with making requests (vs. telling or directing), asking questions, and reaching out to include your partner in decision making. This shows respect and communicates to your spouse that you wish to be partners. Over time it also strengthens your position in the relationship. Requests are easier to ‘hear’ and think about – and less likely to be responded to with defensiveness by your partner.
Which would you rather hear? “You need to drive the kids to practice today” or “Could you drive the kids to practice today?”; “You need call your parents about the car” or “I know you were thinking of calling your parents…how are they?” Non-ADHD partners need to remember that no matter how frustrated they are, they, too, would grow tired of being bossed around and told what to do on a daily basis. And, if non-ADHD partners are honest, it’s not just once a day that they are doing this. Over time, it becomes pervasive.
Here’s another way to think about it. Partners with ADHD can pay attention, and are much more likely to do so when they are ‘rewarded’ with inclusion and consideration by their partner. Because ‘reward’ is actually what lights up their ADHD brain and helps them stay motivated.
If you want a solution –or a relationship – to last, then step out of the control seat and start using your influence, instead. Though it may be hard at first, it will improve your partnership over time. If you find that your partner is not responding to your gentler approach, consider couples therapy to address underlying anger you may both feel that may be interfering with your ability to influence or be influenced.