I sound like my mother... yikes!
November 2, 2010 7:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I help someone be productive without being patronizing?

My husband is a graduate student with a lot of obligations. He posts here occasionally (see recent example here) to seek guidance for how to avoid procrastination or stop the spiral of whittling away hours on the internet. As he's mentioned in his questions, he's struggling with anxiety, ADHD, and depression. He's been working with his doctor to get his medications in line. He manages those problems better when he's not as busy and has time for regular sleep, exercise, and homemade meals. But at this point in the semester, he's over-committed and I agree with him that there's nothing to cut - he has to be more efficient with his time, and the anxiety-ADHD-depression trifecta has a nasty way of impeding that.

Some responses to his questions recommend that he turn to me for help and support. How can I be better at this? Whenever he asks me for help, I make myself available. Sometimes this involves working with him to prioritize his to do list. Sometimes it involves taking care of dinner and housekeeping. It's very easy for me to do such things when he wants me to do them. The trouble seems to be when he needs my help but doesn't want it (he concurs with this assessment). For example, when he needs gentle reminders ("how's it going?") he doesn't want them and reacts negatively toward me, which makes me disinclined to be helpful in this way. Do I just need to accept that some parts of this will be painful for me in terms of expressing tough love?

Of particular concern to me - how do I help him without acting like a parent or being patronizing? When he acknowledges that he's not acting rationally, I feel compelled to do things that he won't do (like contact our mutual friends to ask for their support) so that he won't go down self-destructive paths he's been down before. Although I feel compelled to do those things, I usually don't because I know that crosses a line. (I've crossed that line in a few really difficult situations.) So how can I encourage him to do things that are good for him without pulling the "I know better than you because I'm thinking rationally and you're not" card?
posted by Terriniski to Human Relations (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You guys are a family. Ask him to be rational for both of your sakes.
posted by Brent Parker at 8:15 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Setting aside how strange it is to me that you're both here talking about essentially the same issues, most of what I'm hearing in your post is "How can I be better at helping to solve his problems?" and you seem naturally perplexed by the question, because you're doing all you can to help solve his problems. You're already addressing the irrationality with every rational response. But the part I'm not hearing is how you meet these issues, perpendicularly, with steady warmth, acceptance, and affection. I mean, maybe his meds won't sort this out, and maybe he'll never shake this entirely, so while addressing the issues head-on is still important--when he's feeling up to it--I suspect someone dealing with anxiety and procrastination generally benefits more from non-rational reassurance that he's still deeply loved and that you have faith he'll do well at things overall, even if there are a few bumps in the road that stem from moments like last night. In short, helping to solve problems is often the opposite of giving emotional support.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:19 PM on November 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ask him.

"So, you get snippy when I ask 'how's it going?' but you've asked me to remind you abou X. Let's find a better way for me to do this. What would you rather I do?"

The second thing is to agree on something like a safe word or phrase to let him know that he needs to chill the f out and take a few minutes. Maybe you can just say that. Again, ask him.
"I need you to help me find a way to reach you when you're spiraling into an awful freakout."

so maybe he goes for a walk for five minutes, or takes a hot shower, or something and then come back to re-tackle the work?

And if he can't find workable answers for these? A couple's therapist specializing in ADHD might be helpful to help you both.
posted by canine epigram at 8:39 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would say showering him with compliments and pointing out his strengths whenever you can may help a lot, especially when he does something good on his own. I personally went through a period of extreme anxiety and depression, the kind where I couldn't even go out of the house, so I really identify with your husband. It's easy to lose your self-esteem during such trials, and the only thing that helped me feel like I could start to do things on my own was my awesome girlfriend who just kept encouraging me and listening to me. I know everybody is different with these sorts of things, but that is what worked for me.
posted by dargerpartridge at 8:44 PM on November 2, 2010

When I am having these kinds of panics and procrastination, the logical and rational 'adult' voice of my partner who is kindly trying to help me or argue out my irrational despair, doesn't soothe. [Sorry, partners of procrastinators and panic-merchants. I know you mean well.] It's like I am back being a three year old, and like you say, he is the parent who's interfering, bothering, annoyingly adult to my tantrum or huff about 'everything is shit' 'I'm NEVER gonna finish this' 'there's no POINT'... etc. When he tries to argue that 'everything is fine/you're just tired' or 'you're good at this stuff so keep up the effort' or whatever, it doesn't seem to get to the heart of the anxiety and we just end up arguing in an irrational manner [me=irrational].

This is probably counter-intuitive, but when he looks at the work I have to do, ponders it and starts from a position of agreement such as 'man, this does look pretty big' or 'wow, they want all that by Thursday?' I feel like he's entering my mental space more congruently. Then I don't feel so stupid or irrational. He doesn't just ask if I want help, he says things like 'I could draw that up in Rhino for you?' or 'let's see how you go for the next hour in getting this bit of the project out of the way, because that looks like the most time consuming bit' or 'I could nip over to [big box hardware] store for some product samples?' or he might google some stuff related to what I am doing. This doesn't always work, but it works best at the start of the 'tantrum' than midway through or after attempts to minimise my distress.
posted by honey-barbara at 9:07 PM on November 2, 2010 [10 favorites]

I'm still too close 4 years after finishing my doctorate to answer this question well, but I want to acknowledge that being the supportive partner of a graduate student is a very hard, largely unrecognized, usually unrewarding, full-time-plus job. I often wish we could give families and spouses degrees, too.
posted by gingerest at 9:44 PM on November 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

how can I encourage him to do things that are good for him without pulling the "I know better than you because I'm thinking rationally and you're not" card?

There is nothing inherently wrong with that card. In any partnership, there are going to be times when one partner is rational and the other one isn't. But you need to get buy-in.

So get his permission, at some time when he is rational, to pull the "I know better than you right now because I'm thinking rationally right now and you, right now, are not" card. Preferably encapsulate the card in a code word, so that he gets a chance to remember his permission before reacting to the contents of the card. Naturally, you'd give him the same permission for those times when it's you going nuts.

So, you'd both agree ahead of time on a code word that means "I can see that you're getting all hoppita moppita and you need to stop what you are doing right now and do $thing_that_I_deem_appropriate for $time_that_I_deem_appropriate instead." And when you are sure it's the right thing to use, use it without fear.
posted by flabdablet at 10:34 PM on November 2, 2010

Best answer: The best example I have of this is when I was having a late-night panic attack like your husband was last night, and MY husband had the following dialogue with me:

"What do you need to do?"
"Everything! I have to write a paper, and finish reading this book, and mark sixty essays, and... and... and..."
"Okay. What is the most important thing out of those?"
"I guess... the paper."
"And how much have you done so far?"
"I wrote an outline, and dumped some notes in. But nothing's written."
"When is it due?"
"What's the next thing you would do on it if you sat down to it now?"
"Um... I'd write my notes in section two into a coherent paragraph or three."
"What is hard about doing that?"
"I feel stuck! I don't really understand the framework. And I'm citing this book that I didn't read properly."
"Explain the framework to me."
[... I explain, he asks questions, I explain more...]
"It sounds to me like you understand it. If you write down what you just told me, and add in relevant stuff from your notes, how long would that take you?"
"Maybe an hour?"
"So do it. I'll come back in an hour, we'll have a cup of tea, and we'll go to bed."

This questioning/clarification/gentle prodding works really well on me. Other times I havebeen crying with frustration and anxiety about work, and he has reminded me of how much better I'll feel even if I just write two sentences. And he's always right!

Sometimes in really desperate circumstances he has offered to do something to get me started: open up the relevant files, for example, and then hand me the laptop. Or dictate a really silly paragraph on the basis of his understanding of the topic (which sucks so bad that it makes me laugh and then it is immediately obvious that I can do better, which I start by correcting his dumb paragraph). Or he has offered to format my references while I work on the body of the text.
posted by lollusc at 10:34 PM on November 2, 2010 [42 favorites]

If he's having problems this big (and what both of you are describing is larger than the usual grad school ickiness), you can best help him by not taking it all on yourself, and instead by helping him access serious, professional help.

Whether that's therapy, medication, counseling, stress reduction, exercise and diet, or whatever, the solution to this is bigger than just you. You taking it all on is a recipe for unhappiness, tears, and divorce.
posted by Forktine at 2:13 AM on November 3, 2010

when he needs gentle reminders ("how's it going?") he doesn't want them and reacts negatively toward me, which makes me disinclined to be helpful in this way. Do I just need to accept that some parts of this will be painful for me in terms of expressing tough love?

If you go this route, I think it would be appropriate for part of the tough love to be a refusal to take any lip when you're doing something (prompting him) he's explicitly asked you to do. If he hasn't asked you to prompt him in such situations, or if he's unwilling to treat you with respect when you're doing it, I'd back off and let him flounder. Staying away from the partner/parent boundary means that you let his problems be his problems. Supporting him should not mean taking over the executive responsibilities inherent in managing his life.

I feel compelled to do things that he won't do (like contact our mutual friends to ask for their support) so that he won't go down self-destructive paths he's been down before. Although I feel compelled to do those things, I usually don't because I know that crosses a line. (I've crossed that line in a few really difficult situations.)

The fact that you feel "compelled" to help him in this way suggests that you're not just trying to help him reach his stated goals, but are also coping with your own anxieties (which is totally understandable). I think it's important to address these as separate issues. I think some therapy / counseling is in order for both of you, because his problems are straining the relationship itself.
posted by jon1270 at 4:05 AM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the suggestions thus far. Some comments or responses to what's been said and may prompt additional suggestions...

Monsieur Caution - regarding the emotional support, I asked my husband about this after seeing your response, and he agrees that we're still on the same page (that my level of such emotional support is appropriate). One thing I've actively tried to avoid is resorting to "I love you" as my only response to his troubles. As his best friend before we ever started dating, I watched him go through a 4 year relationship where his girlfriend at the time couldn't do anything but say "I love you," which while supportive was not addressing his immediate concerns during those times. That said, there usually is some expression of love and affirmation of how much better he makes my life - I make it very clear that I'm with him through this, for better or worse. I knew this would be a struggle when I married him, and I'll stay with him through it all. But my guess is that there have to be other couples out there who might have successful tips for improving the situation. Our relationship will endure whether this changes or not, but no harm in seeing if there are some ideas we haven't thought of to make it better.

canine epigram - I like the idea of a safe word! I think that would help address jon1270's comment as well. If I see my husband's on facebook while he's supposed to be working, if he's on a legitimate break he can say the safe word so I'll back off, if he's procrastinating he has to respond to my nudging. Usually when he does respond negatively to such nudging I respond as jon suggested - by making it clear that if he doesn't want my help, I can easily go do something else.

lollusc - the better of the bad nights turn out along the lines of your sample dialogue. The bad nights usually start out with that dialogue and get worse when I check back in an hour and he says "I haven't done anything this hour, I'm worthless, I can't do anything tonight, but I have to do something, and I won't go to sleep." I often go your partner's route of explaining how much better some start (two sentences or whatever) will be than nothing - which in the light of day he agrees with. Because of that, I know when I say it I'm right, but sometimes he just won't buy it in the heat of panic. This is part of my difficulty - I know I'm right, and I'm having trouble conveying that without being patronizing. Is there anything that your partner says to help you step outside of the moment to accept what you know to be true outside of the immediate panic/frustration?
posted by Terriniski at 4:59 AM on November 3, 2010

Gee. Are you my girlfriend? Or possibly me? I'm a grad student with ADHD and depression; she's a writer with depression and anxiety; all this is very very familiar.

So I'm not trying to dismiss your question when I say this, but really, it sounds like you need to recognize the limits of what you can do. Yes, absolutely, you're in a position to see it clearly when your husband is procrastinating or giving in to depressive thoughts or whatever. But that clarity doesn't necessarily put you in a position to fix it — and it certainly doesn't obligate you to fix it.

This is especially true, I think, with depression, which is the side of the coin that other answerers haven't addressed as much. Sure, there's a sense in which depression is a cognitive problem. Depressed people are irrational in insidious ways (and hyper-rational in other ways that are just as insidious) and from the outside it is very clear that they are thinking about it wrong, that if they just shifted their point of view and focused on a different set of facts, they'd be happier and more productive. But this is not ordinary garden-variety irrationality that you can correct by politely exposing it to the facts. Correcting depressive ideation is less like pointing out a math error, and more like helping someone escape from a cult.

You probably knew most of that already. But it sounds like it hasn't quite sunk in, since you feel like you ought to be able to steer him gently towards the path of reason and happiness. So: no. False. Forget that ought. Some of the time, he won't be steerable at all. Some of the time, it will take more time and effort for both of you than just riding out the sulk would. Some of the time, it will require skills that you couldn't possibly be expected to have, or emotional distance that as his partner you can't have. (There's a reason we use expensive, highly trained total strangers as therapists.)

The upshot is, yeah, like you say, you need to express some tough love. Which can be "Dude, get off the damn Facebook," but it can also be "Okay, you're in a snit. I love you, but I'm going to bed now; I'm sure you'll figure it out." And then really go to bed, and really trust him to figure it out, and really accept that you couldn't do that figuring-out for him even if you wanted to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:40 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Just noticed this:
I feel compelled to do things that he won't do (like contact our mutual friends to ask for their support) so that he won't go down self-destructive paths he's been down before. Although I feel compelled to do those things, I usually don't because I know that crosses a line. (I've crossed that line in a few really difficult situations.)
So.... first off, do you know that that's crossing a line? (Does your husband consider it to be crossing a line? If he doesn't, why do you?)

But also, if it is crossing a line, can you find less line-crossy ways to do it? Can you ask your friends to support you when you're dealing with the worst of the second-hand ick? Can you make dinner plans with Husband and Mutual Friend Couple without explicitly saying COME HAVE DINNER BECAUSE MY HUSBAND IS DEPRESSED AND NEEDS TO TALK TO OTHER HUMANS? Can you be all "Hey, you should bring Fred around more often, I really like him"?

Because this sort of support — giving him a community to lean on; taking care of yourself so you can be there for him; providing listening ears and companionship rather than Helpful Reminders and the Blinding Light Of Reason — is precisely the right thing to do for a busy depressed person as far as I'm concerned. Obviously you've considered this stuff, and marked it as "off limits" for some reason, but it would be helpful to know why it's off limits, since all else equal it really is the best option and maybe we can find a way to help you do it that isn't totally beyond the pale.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:50 AM on November 3, 2010

I think one thing that could encourage him to actually sit down and get started is if you were working with him on your own project of some sort.

I'm in school and my boyfriend is not. It's hard for me to concentrate on school work when he's doing something fun. I want to look at metafilter, too. I want to play video games, too. Whatever it is. So sometimes while I'm working, he'll be reading, too. Or he might be doing something productive as well.

So maybe setting aside some productive time for the two of you together would help his problem of not being able to get things done.
posted by too bad you're not me at 8:15 AM on November 3, 2010

I could probably be that person. I get panicky when I feel like I am out of control of the workload. This almost always stems from me forgetting to step back and see the whole picture.

Ironically, this was slightly worsened by getting treatment for ADHD. I was simply not comfortable with the sensation of actually focusing 100% on something. It requires me to do more stepping back and list making.

To put it into a visual analogy, think of a battlefield. With ADHD you are on flat ground and can see the whole picture and engage whichever enemy is closest. Getting treatment, however, is like digging trenches. You can get in the trench and fight a single front, but you can't see the enemy/tasks approaching from the sides, and this creates anxiety.
posted by gjc at 8:38 AM on November 3, 2010

Maybe this is advice for him and not you...

Is he ALWAYS working. Or rather trying to work? He may just need to insert time for NOT working. Or schedule a limited time to work (2 hours in the evening). He may get as much done in 1 or 2 hours as he does in 5 hours of worrying. Maybe he gets one night a week to work as much as he feels he needs to, but outside of that he has guaranteed work time and guaranteed NO WORK time.

As for you... I wonder if you can just find something else to do. Pop in to express your support, ask him if he could use a quick favor, distraction or someone to bounce ideas off of, and then go do your own thing.
posted by jander03 at 8:50 AM on November 3, 2010

Are you really trying to help, or are you exercising the Help of Least Effort? The HoLE is easily recognized and typically rebuffed because you tend to offer non-specific forms of help, ("Do you need anything?") or the most superficial kinds of help, ("Here's a 25-second back massage. All better?") This annoys me to no end as well. Because you're trying to be helpful instead of trying to be helpful.

People know when you're really trying to help and when you're just trying to patronize. For instance…

he's struggling with anxiety, ADHD, and depression. He's been working with his doctor to get his medications in line. He manages those problems better when he's not as busy and has time for regular sleep, exercise, and homemade meals.

So, good help might be, just for example, offering to pick up his prescriptions for him. Calling the doctor's office to make an appointment if he needs one but "doesn't have time" to make one. Cooking meals is a nice gesture, but I assume when you cook dinner you're actually cooking dinner for yourself as well, right? So that's not entirely altruistic. Cleaning dishes? Again, not very altruistic since you presumably helped in making those dishes dirty in the first place, and only want them clean so you can use them yourself.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:06 AM on November 3, 2010

What you really, REALLY want to avoid doing is falling into the "mommy/Big Kid" dynamic that men with ADHD and their female partners can fall into. It's not inevitable, but it's really the kiss of death when it does happen. He mustn't feel controlled or mothered, and you don't want to take on the task of being the big grown-up one in the relationship. I have seen this erode relationships - he resents her, she doesn't respect him, and down the tubes it goes.

I suggest couples therapy with an ADHD-experienced therapist for both of you, and cognitive-behavioral therapy or life coaching (with a credentialed coach - there are great life coaches and really dodgy ones out there) for him. It will ultimately cause less resentment if a professional does the job of "managing" your DH.

As for what you do right now, sometimes all someone wants is a listening ear. "Yeah, honey, that stinks." And if he complains about something or bungles it due to disorganization or whatever, "Yes, that sucks, and too bad. What are you going to do about it for next time? What have you learned?" Be sympathetic, but the onus is on HIM to fix his problems.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: I think Rosie hits on the heart of the issue... How do I avoid that mommy/big kid dynamic? He has previously turned down suggestions for therapy, although he just now said he's willing to do it with me (as opposed to individually) if necessary. He and I will discuss that as an option. Are there new things to try in the mean time? I know this issue is getting more attention - do books have practical tips, or are they limited to showing couples that they're not alone in these challenges?
posted by Terriniski at 11:49 AM on November 3, 2010

There are a couple of points that are touched on above that I want to draw out some specifics on.

The first has to do with issues of feeling in control:
One of the things about dealing with with issues like ADHD is that they are things you don't have control over, in the sense that they are neurological disorders not life choices.One of the psychological side effects is having to deal with the effects of feeling part of your life is out of control in this way. It is often something you feel most acutely when you ar also having to deal with the worst effects of the condition itself. I find this makes me very sensitive to feeling even more out of control if my partner tries to help me in ways that exacerbate this. This is often a fairly irrational reaction but one I don't necessarily have much control over. It's why it's so important avoid the "mommy/Big Kid" dynamic that Rosie M. Banks mentions. It is also what is good about lollusc's partners response: it's a response that allows the other person to feel involved and set direction.

The other point has to do with responses like Civil Disobedient's Help of Least Effort. It might seem to be putting the other person in control, but if I'm already feeling overwhelmed it is very difficult not to feel like "can't you see I'm already completely overwhelmed, why are you dumping this on me?" . That's why lollusc's partner's question "Okay. What is the most important thing out of those?" was helpful -- it was a single, very specific question that helped narrow the range of focus to some thing manageable and graspable rather than expanding. If you do want to intervene that is what you need to aim for.

Sometimes, though you need to recognize that if a person is caught already caught up in these negative behaviour cycles we can get caught up in, it might already be too late. The best you can hope for is to offer a sympathetic ear in the hope it will enable them to release some tension and if not back off until it blows over. Generally what I have found most helpful ids talking about it before or after it when I have the headspace to be able to process it.
posted by tallus at 12:16 PM on November 3, 2010

do books have practical tips, or are they limited to showing couples that they're not alone in these challenges?

I've just finished Driven to Distraction and it does contain examples of things some couples have come up with. It also makes the point that ADHD is amenable to specific tricks for handling stuff in the way other, more psychological conditions aren't.
posted by tallus at 12:19 PM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful suggestions. I'll try to model conversations after lollusc's example. I also like the suggestion of a safe word or set of code words to convey messages that we agree upon through discussion outside of a spiraling situation. I will also check out Driven to Distraction (and the companion - Married to Distraction). My husband and I have agreed to do our best to work together to get through the end of his semester, and then we'll recap the semester and make a plan for the next one. Based on that discussion, we'll see if therapy would be a good option for next semester (and the future in general).
posted by Terriniski at 7:59 PM on November 3, 2010

One thing to think about is whether this semester's workload is actually anomalous. Some grad school programs have one year or two that are the really awful years, where you're taking 5 classes, teaching 3 with labs, etc, and then subsequent years aren't as bad.

But some programs have pretty consistent workloads, so every semester will be like this. And is he going to be an academic when this is all over? It will just keep up.

In my own experience (and I'm in his role in the situation, and my long-suffering partner is in yours) this is a problem to attack ASAP with every tool you have. These habits are not going to change themselves, and you can be the most helpful partner in the world and it won't change until he's used up every ounce of your helpfulness, even against his own wishes (which will make him feel guilty and act worse). Outside help, and a commitment to actually follow through with it over a substantial period of time like a year or more, is the way.

The academic life is very hard on these kinds of habits, because it gives you juuust enough latitude (and pressure) to make a huge mess of your schedule, and it encourages you to make up the difference out of your "personal"/"non-work" time. You can manage this in grad school by just giving up your whole life to it (sucks!), but when the workload increases later, you have nowhere else to get "extra" time from. As you advance in your career, you get increasing workload with increasing freedom about how to schedule it, giving you more rope to hang yourself if you don't have good scheduling/work habits built up. And of course, you can see how the psychological pressures will escalate. The weekly or multiple-times-a-week panics, the self-imposed misery, the snapping at you partly out of guilt, the putting off fun events that you both want to do so he can work, etc will get worse -- and not only does this reduce the quality of life outside school, it also leads to slipping of the quality of work. These bad habits are a real and bigtime problem, a common one among grad students, but one that he needs to face now -- and I think the way to do it is to get help with from a pro.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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