All couples fight. It’s part of love and marriage. But not all couples know how to move on after a dispute — and those who do have a serious edge, and a greater chance at lasting happiness.
The goal for all couples (particularly those with ADHD) is not to stop fighting — it’s going to happen — but to learn how to have “good fights.”
What Science Says
Relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and his associates have done a lot of research on healthy relationships. Their work suggests that it’s not how often you fight that determines the durability of your relationship. It’s the actions you take when you fight, and how you repair any damage afterward, that predict a relationship’s stability.
Unfortunately, ADHD relationships have the deck stacked against them. Why?
1. Couples affected by ADHD face more ups and downs than do other couples.
2. Recent research done with twins suggests that emotional regulation problems are a genetically linked, a core feature of attention deficit. ADHD partners regularly have disproportionate emotional responses at unexpected times. This can leave partners, whether ADHD or non-ADHD, feeling as if they have to walk on eggshells.
3. The non-ADHD partner often falls into a habit of critiquing the ADHD spouse, regularly judging, correcting, and ‘educating’ that partner to get organized, pay more attention, and the like. The complaining partner thinks she is putting the relationship on solid footing. She isn’t. Most of the time the ADHDer sees criticism and directions as verbal abuse. He feels belittled and attacked, as if he can’t do anything right. His response is defensiveness and anger.
Arguments versus “Good Fights”
I’ve heard this complaint from lots of ADHDers through the years: “I am doing my best to stay calm when my wife, who doesn’t have ADHD, nags me about the same things all the time. But I can’t help but get mad. She gets to me. We seem to fight all the time. Once we get started, she gets really angry, too…these fights are taking a toll on me.”
The husband likely needs better control of symptoms to be more reliable, and his wife needs to be more respectful and empathetic while he’s trying to achieve that. Even with those changes, the couple will still fight at times. Learning how to have a “good fight” — airing disagreements as equal partners rather than blowing up at each other — will help. Gottman suggests some ideas for taking the anger out of fights:
1. Start with a complaint, not a criticism. “I’m concerned that the garbage isn’t getting taken out regularly” is a complaint. “You never take out the garbage like you promise” is a criticism. Complaints work better; they are more respectful and don’t put the listener on the defensive so quickly.
2. Use a soft start — or ease into a topic. Soft starts show respect for the other person by not making assumptions. They usually include an observation, and they focus on feelings. Here’s an example of a soft start: “I really miss you. We aren’t spending enough time together these days.” The hard-start version of this is “You never pay attention to me!”
3. Be respectful. No matter how difficult the topic, or how upset you are, your partner always deserves respect. Don’t justify screaming or belittling. Treat your partner as you would like to be treated.
4. Use non-threatening words and don’t bully your partner. If you become flooded with emotions and feel you can’t help yourself, try to let your partner walk away from the argument.
5. Use clarifying phrases, such as, “If I understand correctly, we both think….”
6. Talk calmly. This is hard when things are emotional. Mindfulness training and deep breathing help.
7. Use verbal cues to de-escalate your interactions. In the Orlov household, if one of us gets too emotional — it happens to both of us — we may use the pre-agreed-on verbal cue “aardvark” to suggest we both need to take a break. We will return to the conversation later.
8. Look your partner in the eye. This serves the dual purpose of communicating effectively how you feel and ensuring that you have your partner’s attention.
9. Look for common ground. You are more likely to stay constructively engaged if you focus on similarities and shared concerns. Redirect an argument over bedtimes with “I know we are both trying to figure out the best balance between enough sleep and time with the kids…,” putting you both on the same problem-solving team.
10. Ask open-ended questions. The best fights are conversations in which you happen to disagree. Don’t lecture your partner. Instead, invite him or her in. “Do you see it that way?” or “What do you think?” can help. Listen to your partner’s response.
11. Use affirming statements. Even if you disagree with your partner, you can still make sure your partner’s opinion gets heard. “I understand that you feel I should be doing more chores, but I’m not sure I have enough time. We need to talk further” is more constructive than “I’m busy.” You may still not take on more chores, but you have shown that you hear your partner’s concern.
12. Accept the legitimacy of negative emotions. Rather than fighting against negative emotions, commiserate with your partner. This is important if your partner is feeling grief. You may be ready to “move on” but you will help your partner heal if you respond with “I’m so sorry we’ve been through all of this. It’s been hard.”
If these strategies seem obvious, ask yourself if you are using them consistently. Probably not. It takes thought and practice to use affirming statements and ask open-ended questions when you are angry. It’s not just the words, it is the emotions behind them that count.
There’s more to read… Hold Back the Flood
Melissa Orlov is a marriage consultant and one of the top experts in how ADHD affects relationships. She has been writing and speaking about the topic since 2007, researching it since 2005. She has worked with Edward Hallowell MD since 2004, writing ADHD articles and newsletters, and assisting with educational programs delivered by Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey MD. She teaches couples, therapists, counselors and coaches about how ADHD impacts relationships, blogs for Psychology Today and writes the Your Relationships column for ADDitude Magazine. She also consults privately with couples who wish to improve their ADHD-impacted relationships. She is the author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, which was awarded “Best Psychological Book of 2010” by ForeWord Reviews. Orlov’s website is www.adhdmarriage.com.