ADHD and partnership best practices
April 22, 2020 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I am wondering how you as a person with ADHD navigate the intersection of your symptoms with your relationship. I am also wondering how you as the partner of someone with ADHD navigate this intersection. I am looking for what is normal in the dynamic, what is actionable, and who is responsible for what.

I am struggling with how to cope with signs of learned helplessness in my partner. My partner has ADHD and struggles in predictable ways, with the added difficulty of lack of support for it growing up which impacts one differently than having access to medication, mental health and occupational therapy to help one learn how to navigate the neurotypical world.

My partner has lately taken on 95% of domestic matters most days, from cooking and cleaning to childcare while I focus on work. This arrangement initially required some negotiation of expectations and standards but since then has been pretty great. He always finds a way to say yes if I needed extra time for self-care, has not complained about being the primary domestic person, and we actually have gotten along better during lockdown than we were previously. However.

There are certain projects and tasks that my partner needs gentle reminders for, and does not take it upon himself to track things because multiple systems for tracking things have been tried and failed over many years so he has given up. This means no morning calender checks, no written list of ongoing projects, no general habit of creating reminders for himself to pop into awareness at the moment in time when the information is needed, and so forth. You know, the stuff that is recommended for people with ADHD to organize their lives. I resent him for not doing these things, even though I have empathy for the multiple failures behind this resignation.

I take on these administrative burdens only for areas that I find personally impactful and meaningful, deciding that anything else that blows up in his face due to this lack of organizing is his to manage. This was a recommendation for my own support dealing with ADHD as the neurotypical partner.

He has recently started therapy. I have asked him to share with the therapist his current attitude about personal organization, that it is causing marital strain, and see what they say. I do not agree with him just being resigned and not attempting to manage information in a more organized manner. I feel dumped on. Communication about this issue has this far not been very successful. I am wondering if you deal with this dynamic in your relationship, or if you have ADHD and learned helplessness what do you think I should do here?

I am requesting that you please answer what is actually being asked. I have gotten plenty of the DTMF answers to previous asks. I really just need to know how to deal with learned helplessness in a partner whose lack of self management is causing problems for other people.
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Just need a bit of clarification here - is your partner appropriately medicated for not only ADHD, but whatever co-morbid diagnoses they may have?
posted by blerghamot at 12:18 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Partner is medicated. Doctors do not generally prescribe enough medication to cover work time and home time. Partner prioritizes being medicated during work time which leaves very little time outside that for meds to assist with self management of non work business. Partner's decisions around self management of medication is another source of tension as he sometimes forgets doses, takes it at different times, doesn't attend to the available information about diet and absorption of stimulant medication, and doesn't have a system in place to improve consistency in this area. I am unsure if the lack of systems to organize the medication is due to learned helplessness like the other issue, or due to some other reason.

Partner is medicated for depression and does not report any depression as an interfering factor for the context of this particular question.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

As the person in my marriage who is way worse at executive function, I wonder if you might both benefit from Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies. It’s more pop-psych, than anything clinically validated, but I’ve personally found the framework very useful.

From it, I’ve learned I’m definitely an obliger. If I was in your partner’s situation, I’d wouldn’t need you to DO the organizing, but I would want you to be present for it by either asking, or doing your own thing nearby while I’m doing it. Like, maybe breakfast is when you eat and your partner makes their to-do list. It’s your call to decide if that’s too much dumping, but hopefully there’s ideas this sparks to brainstorm with.

Another thing that helps me is to be self-aware and vulnerable about my Walls of Awful. Its a great start that you empathize with his resignation, but it seems that neither of you are able to find ways to “climb the wall of awful”. I can’t actually tell from your question whether your partner even agrees that the lack of a personal task-management system is a problem. If they do, then I find the “How to ADHD” YouTube series very helpful. But it starts with self-awareness—you can’t fix this for them, unfortunately.
posted by tinymegalo at 12:27 PM on April 22, 2020 [7 favorites]

Here's another follow-up question which might sound like a no-brainer but I know of a handful of ADHDers who aren't aware of these differences: has your partner explored extended-release stimulants? I know those aren't a cure-all for everyone, but I know of people who have only ever taken immediate-release stimulants and seem to have trouble connecting the dots as to why their efforts keep failing.
posted by blerghamot at 12:28 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Some further clarification—partner takes on 95% of domestic tasks and works? Does he work full-time? My answer would change significantly based on this.
posted by brook horse at 12:39 PM on April 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Partner works part-time. Has been working zero hours lately due to CV but still does not organize their schedule and has not taken their medication daily in the interim. They have an extended release med and a short acting med. They really need two doses of short acting med to have a full day of symptom coverage. The level of ADHD is very severe.

So, while partner has worked 0 hours and I have worked 55-60 hours, partner has done 95% of the DL. Partner has recently started working about 12 hours per week (my hours are still 55), at a time when there's little DL needed. I'd say now that this schedule is in place, partner does 80% of the domestic labor and I'm doing the rest. Part of the reason I'd like them to improve in self organizing is to help increase their work hours via a different job so I can decrease mine and we would rebalance the domestic responsibilities.

Partner is uninterested in seeking out information with solutions for these issues, due to the resignation borne of learned helplessness. So while I would find value in YouTube channels, podcasts, etc, my partner is not interested. They feel they have tried it all, nothing works (or nothing works for long) so why get their hopes up about a new solution. I feel at a certain point it is reasonable to expect them to try for the benefit of the relationship/family even if they are over making an effort for their own benefit.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:47 PM on April 22, 2020

As the person in my relationship who had better executive function, I'll say that this is what worked for us:

(1) It was both our individual responsibility to figure out what tracking systems worked for us on an individual level. What was important was getting to a point where we both recognized that it's okay under some circumstances to set standards for the outcomes of what the other partner does, but it's often an over-reach to dictate how they get it done. Some people's form of "organization" is to simply have a chock-full cognitive load all the time; it's not necessarily ideal, but if they can get everything done to your mutual satisfaction without a formal organization, it's best left well alone.

(2) This was moreso an issue for Partner rather than me, but Partner attempting to develop a sense of recognition that Partner can't simply blame whatever goes wrong on the failure of their tracking systems. Ultimately, the issue is that you have to take responsibility for the task not getting done and how it affects you as well as the people around you. Presumably, Partner's work holds them accountable in a similar way so this should not be a new concept to them in general, but they may not be accustomed to having this apply to their relationships with loved ones. Socialization (yes, including gender socialization) and co-morbities probably play into how easily someone can contend with those issues.

(3) Similarly, it was Partner's responsibility to recognize things that may impact another person's decision-making and communicate them to that person, regardless of how they're handling their personal organization (see my first point). This means that it's their responsibility to run their own decision tree when they do things, and figure out/commit to ways to mitigate the impacts of a decision they've made.

I will give you an example: Partner was very against us grocery shopping outside of specific intervals. While we typically split cooking duties, Partner would frequently cook large batches of things that would use up much of our groceries and pantry supplies, creating challenges in figuring out how to make the rest of our groceries work until our next shopping day. There was a lot of "oh crap, we're now stuck eating the same thing for two weeks in a row", which eventually became an annoyance for both of us. This pattern also involved cooking things that don't freeze or keep well in the fridge; I don't care how much we like egg salad, once it goes past the 10-day mark it starts getting nasty. This happened more than once or twice, sadly. If Partner was comfortable with us doing more ad-hoc shopping or collaborating on meal prep it would have been easier for us to navigate around the consequences of them having some sort of cooking-related hyperfocus incident.

The egg salad thing may sound like a petty example, but it's also a pretty good illustration of what happens when someone struggles with learned helplessness and a side helping of rigidity. But you said something I want to touch on:

I feel at a certain point it is reasonable to expect them to try for the benefit of the relationship/family even if they are over making an effort for their own benefit.

Well, sure, that looks like a reasonable statement to you or I, because we probably don't have significant theory-of-mind issues. Very severe ADHD as well as some of the things it's sometimes co-morbid with can impact theory-of-mind and cognitive flexibility in adults. IANAD, but if there's any sort of significant socio-emotional deficit at play, your partner may never be able to fully internalize why and how their not making an effort affects their family. Just something to consider best of luck.
posted by blerghamot at 1:07 PM on April 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm answering this as the ADHD person in my partnership. From what I see, both of you have done an incredible amount of reorganizing your schedules and work/life balance in the face of unprecedented and rapid upheaval. As someone whose ADHD is really exacerbated by a loss of structure and routine, being able to shift dramatically into taking on first almost 100% of the domestic labor and then ~80% + work...holy shit. For me, the 80%/20% balance would be the hardest, because it would involve shifting focus multiple times throughout the day, and not having a clear work/life boundary - so double kudos there. Plus, you're getting along well, your kids aren't on fire, and your partner recently started therapy? Damn. You guys sound amazing.

He has recently started therapy. I have asked him to share with the therapist his current attitude about personal organization, that it is causing marital strain, and see what they say. I do not agree with him just being resigned and not attempting to manage information in a more organized manner. I feel dumped on. Communication about this issue has this far not been very successful. I am wondering if you deal with this dynamic in your relationship, or if you have ADHD and learned helplessness what do you think I should do here?

With all due respect, it's not your job to decide what your partner talks about in therapy. If you are feeling marital strain around your partner's behavior, that's something for you to talk about with your therapist, or for you to talk about jointly, in couple's counseling. As you seem to understand, it's also not your job to decide how your partner manages his ADHD -- nor is such a thing possible. If your partner has had a lifetime of shame/trauma/ambivalence around some ADHD behaviors, a YouTube video that someone else prescribes, or an organizational system that someone else puts in place, isn't going to solve it. Surely, on some level you know that it's more deeply rooted than that.

Think of it this way. You talk about learned helplessness, but so much of the learned helplessness around ADHD is a result of people snatching our tasks out of our hands, because they're sure they can do a better job at managing our lives than we could. And they're usually right! You are probably right about everything your partner could and should do to improve his life and yours. You would be much better at managing your partner's ADHD than he is, but that's don't have ADHD. Just the fact that you can describe the way they're handling the situation as "not making an effort" makes me feel sad, because it sounds like they are making an enormous effort: just not quite in the way you wish they would. You say, "I don't agree with him being resigned and not trying to manage information in a more organized manner" but... those are literally his feelings surrounding the major symptom of his diagnosed disorder (being disorganized). It's not something for you to agree or disagree with. It just is.

That doesn't mean you don't have a right to be frustrated - of course you do. And it doesn't mean that your goal - of having your partner take on additional work hours and rebalancing the domestic labor allocation - is impossible. I see no reason why that would be the case, given how much you've both already accomplished. But what I really, really think you need to do is to stop trying to get to that goal via deciding how your partner manages his ADHD, or interpreting the way he's managing those symptoms as a lack of effort. I feel like there's some implication here that if your partner took your feelings, or the relationship, more seriously, he'd implement the ADHD management strategies you suggest, and I just can't get on board with that interpretation. It's not how it works.

To try and answer your question more straightforwardly, this is what I'd do. Lay out the new job + domestic labor situation you'd like to work towards. Your partner may say, "That doesn't feel doable to me right now." If so, maybe let it go for a little while? You guys have been through a lot. But maybe your partner will have ideas of their own about how to get there. it's also possible that some of the concerns you've laid out will come up in therapy...but your partner just has to bring them up in his own way, in his own time. Try to stay hopeful. My guess is that things will improve.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 1:44 PM on April 22, 2020 [29 favorites]

My partner’s executive dysfunction stems from a different diagnosis, but in case it’s helpful... I think your therapist is on the right track with the suggestion that you pick the areas where you are affected and accept that you may have to be more involved in those areas where a certain process or outcome is important to you, and work on genuinely letting go of the others.

If the wider issue is something you can have a good discussion about then maybe you can take a step back and agree that since you need to help him work through xyz, he can take a or b off your plate to help balance the mental load and let you each play to your strengths in your partnership.

That’s more or less how things work here. I do more exec function stuff because I can; my partner appreciates that and takes on more of the load than I do at the things he does well. He continues to work with his therapist and I believe they work on his systems and goals, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to insert myself into that relationship so I don’t know in detail what they are working on. And I would not try to tell him how I think he should handle his organization and responsibilities. I hope for his own sake that some of the things he struggles with get easier for him, but I need to make a life and partnership with the partner I have now and to trust him and give him the space to manage his own diagnosis. And so figuring out how to work best with our current strengths and difficulties is the most productive and healthy way for me to approach our partnership.
posted by Stacey at 1:51 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

How are assessing learned helplessness as separate and distinct from ADHD symptoms?

I think today's Captain Awkward column covers this much better than I could, from the paragraph "People often write..." through paragraph "But, also..."

TL;DR version: They're probably not going to be able to change to the extent you seem to want, regardless of their motivation or degree of discouragement. My life experience and work with couples both vote "ditto". I'm sorry, it's a major stressor, to be sure.
posted by dancing leaves at 2:19 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm a person with executive function problems who did go from "I hate and fear lists for the ways they have hurt me" to "I love calendars and to-do lists and couldn't live without them."

It took... like, ten years and counting? With times when I was making progress and times when I was backsliding?

Anyway, I don't know what you should do. But I do have thoughts on the thing you're calling learned helplessness, and on on what was behind it for me in particular — which was definitely more complicated than just "I've decided not to try" or "I failed before so it must be impossible."

One thing is that getting up to "normal" on this stuff required a lot of foundation skills. When I was on my way to being able to use a calendar, one of the foundation skills was "Have a phone that I charge every day, carry with me every day, and don't lose." That itself requires a whole scaffolding of supporting skills, like "Buy new things when the old things break," "Keep things in consistent places," and "Check for my phone whenever I'm leaving a room." That scaffolding still takes work to maintain. Recently, I discovered that I'd gotten out of the habit of charging my phone every night, because I could charge it in the car. When I started working from home this month, that habit stopped working, and I had to consciously retrain myself to plug my phone in every night. In the meantime, my consistency with my calendar suffered.

And like, if you were gauging my progress by how many days a week I was checking my calendar, the first several years of that process wouldn't have looked like progress at all. Because I wasn't even trying to use a calendar. I was pouring my energy into getting the hang of carrying a phone — or of writing things down as soon as possible, or of hammering out plans with people in as much detail as possible instead of leaving them vague, or of being honest with myself about what I intended to do, all of which were also necessary pre-calendar foundation skills. It was only after I had all that stuff that you'd have seen me get better on the calendar thing (and maybe asked, as my partner did, "What, now you're okay with using a calendar?")

The other thing is that for me, not doing things before I was ready was a form of self-preservation. If someone had somehow convinced me to keep a calendar before I was reliably carrying a phone, hammering out plans in detail, etc etc etc, it would have gone very badly. Keeping a calendar you don't have the skills to use is like having safety gear that you haven't actually learned to operate. It gives you and the people around you a false sense of security and then everyone gets hurt. "I know Leah is a flake and might not show up" is one level of anger. "I trusted Leah this time, we even wrote it down in our calendars, and then she flaked anyway because she had a competing commitment she swore was more important even thought she hadn't even bothered to write it down" is another, more powerful level of anger.

These aren't the whole picture. I did also have some genuine learned helplessness, and a lot of fear and anger and self-loathing, and unrealistic beliefs about what I should be able to do, and grieving I had to do about the idea that I'd ever be 100% "normal," and etc etc etc. Just, I dunno. Some things to keep in mind. Hope they help. It sounds like you're approaching this with love and a level head.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:19 PM on April 22, 2020 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: I can't tell if I'm supposed to answer dancing leaves or not. If this is considered threadsitting just delete. My partner struggles with executive functioning like taking initiative/starting tasks but I am calling it learned helplessness when they consciously choose not to exert effort for reasons that they feel nothing will really work for them, so they do not want to try. That sounds like learned helplessness, a side effect of internalized negative messaging. I recognize that as the outsider I might not understand what is going on like I think I do. I suppose, as well, that they may sometimes interpret a brain based problem as an example of their resigned thinking when it is really more about the engine not firing properly. I am going by what they said is going on.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:41 PM on April 22, 2020

I actually signed up just to answer this question as I've always been a lurker! While I completely agree that your partner should not shirk responsibility or fail to consider how his behaviour might impact on relationships, especially the most intimate and central ones, I wonder if it might help you to recognise and accept that organisation itself is probably his major challenge and thus as such a weak spot, might not be the best focus for your expectations around performance (although empathy is surely needed on his part). For myself, I have had to accept that as an ADD person, organisation (systems, prioritising, checklists, keeping track, due dates, processes) is tremendously, enormously and embarrassingly hard for me. My loved ones have learned over time not to take these deficits and apparent carelessness or lack of effort as a sign of my lacking interest or investment in them or as a reflection of a lack of empathy. For these reasons, I'd encourage you to be more flexible and perhaps, if you can stand it, to carry more of the load when it comes to planning, tracking and reminding. I have found it enormously beneficial and powerful to have those small regular reminders from those around me, because I am absolutely always willing to do the task/work/follow through but I simply can't, most of the time, get above a 'below average' to 'terrible' performance in organisation, no matter how desperately I try to protect others from feeling the negative affects of my own behaviours. Maybe he could then take on more responsibility for another area in exchange? For people who are naturally organised, or at least not suffering this frustrating diagnosis, it can seem as if organisation is simple and straightforward if the ADD person would only do x, y and z but I think it might relieve your frustration to know that remembering, planning, scheduling, mapping and completing tasks *is* for many of us, akin to climbing Everest. Don't get me wrong, we still have to be adults in the world, and even if we're limping and crawling, we must actually learn to climb that mountain, because the modern world demands it and it is so central to all that we do in daily life, but that does mean it's not (usually or always) a matter of disinterest, indifference or laziness that we fail organisationally so frequently. I know I've had friends who have had enormous trouble believing how much I struggle in this realm, especially prior to diagnosis, because I can be so competent, even excellent, in many areas they found a thousand times more complex and intimidating and challenging. That's not to say your partner should not be held accountable or should be permitted to sit back and allow the work to accrue until you tackle it. But I wonder if reframing a bit here, whereby you accept you mind have to remind more often and take on more of the planning in exchange for his actually getting done what needs to be done, might help?
posted by The Rehearsal at 4:07 PM on April 22, 2020 [17 favorites]

So, a few things.

1) Your partner needs to be taking their medication daily or no amount of lists and reminders are going to help. The thing is, taking your ADHD medication regularly requires executive functioning and attention. And you have to do that while you're NOT on the meds! It's REALLY REALLY HARD to stay on top of attention meds. I take two short-acting doses of meds, and it's so, so, so hard to remember to take them. It doesn't matter how many reminders I set. If I don't have them in front of me exactly when the reminder goes off, I will get up to get my meds, and get distracted by some trash I need to pick up on the way, and then completely forget for the next three hours. Then it's time for lunch, and if I take my meds I won't be hungry, so I need to wait until after lunch, except I don't remember then either, and then oh fuck, it's 6pm and if I take them now I won't sleep.

Something that may seem super simple and easy to use is actually incredibly hard for someone with ADHD or other executive functioning problems. There is no "system" when you're unmedicated. The only thing that ever worked for me was a pill bottle cap that beeped loudly until I physically opened the bottle, but I had to give that up because my work/school schedule meant it intruded on meetings. Given quarantine, it might be a solution. It is also just incredibly helpful to have someone who repeatedly checks in to make sure you've taken your meds. My partner and I do this for each other.

2) You have a preschooler, right? Taking care of the house and a preschooler is a full time job. You seem resentful that they refuse to do anything to organize themselves, but if they are able to do 95% of the domestic labor including childcare, then consider instead that they are putting a TON of effort into that. That shit doesn't happen if you don't plan and organize it. I would ask, gently, to consider whether you're appreciating how supremely difficult it is for someone with ADHD to take care of a house and child. Consider that they are trying, very hard, and succeeding in a way lots of people with ADHD fail. My partner has ADHD and can't do nearly 95% of the housework, and no way could take care of a child on top of that.

3) First, I hope you have not described partner's problems as "learned helplessness" to your partner's face, because that's very condescending coming from anyone but a therapist, and often even then. Second, please consider that "learned helplessness" may actually be "I have tried all of these things and learned that none of them work for me." Lists and schedules work really well for some people with ADHD, and they don't work AT ALL for others. For many people, they only work while they're on their meds. Lists only work if you remember to check them, or to put things on them. Reminders only work if you're psychic and can predict the exact moment when the reminder will be useful, otherwise you set it for 2pm tomorrow but oops! You're in the middle of cooking lunch (because you forgot to start until too late)! You don't have any hands so you don't set it to snooze, and then it's gone. This happens with everything, constantly, all the time.

Lists have never, ever, ever worked for my partner (who has ADHD), for the above reasons, and because having everything written out paralyzes them with anxiety. Using schedules also paralyzes them, because all they can focus on is time running out. On the other hand, I love lists and calendars! They're my favorite thing! I use them all the time and they really help my executive functioning! Except... I only ever remember to use them when I'm in tip-top shape. If I'm not completely on top of my meds? They're gone from my awareness. Same thing if there's a significant stressor (like a pandemic) in my life. I just completely lose the ability to use those tools, even though I have a system and I love it.

Consider that perhaps your partner has learned that these things do not work for them, and that they are not worth the significant effort they take to set up and maintain when they are not going to be able to use them anyway. Instead of suggesting the same things that don't work, you might want to try and work with your partner on what does work for them. I would bet there are some things that work, if your partner is able to be organized enough to do 95% of the housework and childcare. For my partner, the only way anything gets done is if they walk into the room and see that it needs to get done. Visible cues like dirty dishes in the sink, a dirty bathtub, repair supplies left on their desk, etc. Out of sight is literally out of mind, and things written down similarly count as "out of mind." They can sometimes chain things together--doing the dishes is the cue to check under the sink to see if the recycling needs to get taken out. But having regular reminders to do these things never works, because those reminders always come when they're in the middle of something and can't pull their focus away.

4) What are they actually not getting done, and how important is it? It sounds like they're getting 95% of things done, which is actually incredible for someone with ADHD. Can you let go of that last 5%? Try to remember your partner is disabled, and that everything they do is fighting an uphill battle. This doesn't mean they should give up and shouldn't try, but that you should remember they are probably fighting every day to get things done. Giving them some grace may go a long way.

5) You asked about being the partner of someone ADHD and how you handle it. It sounds like you don't want to do this, but the arrangement my partner and I have is that I do all the planning and reminders (because despite my own struggles, I'm much better at it than them), and they do the majority of the housework and anything requiring physical labor. It sounds like you don't find that fair. But it works fine for my partner and I, even though I work and they don't. It might be worth it to decide what you would find fair. If you don't want to be your partner's frontal lobe, you don't have to be, but it might make your lives easier if you were willing to do that while they pick up extra labor elsewhere that you do. It's worked better for us then getting frustrated when my partner doesn't remember to do things, at least.
posted by brook horse at 7:20 PM on April 22, 2020 [13 favorites]

Yeah, if my partner demanded that I make lists and use calendars to stay organized when I was already successfully doing 95% of the work, I would be so exhausted and overwhelmed I would shut down and lose all productivity.

Consider that the remaining 5% may be something he's unable to do. Consider that performing at 95% during a collectively traumatic and stressful time is really, really good, and the last 5% should be filled with forgiveness. Not demands or judgments on his character. Isn't that what love should be--forgiving each other for your faults, faults you cannot change?

You seem to view shortcomings caused by his disease as character flaws he could correct if he weren't so lazy. That's not the case. Those are the demons we fight everyday. Sometimes you need to accept your partner for who they are, to see that they're doing what they can and say thank you, instead of trying to mold them into something they are not and will never be. Trying to change someone is exhausting. Having someone try to change you is even worse.

Forgive him. 95% is really, really good, especially when times are hard. I would not be able to tolerate someone viewing my behaviors from a neurological condition I cannot change as a lack of effort or learned helplessness. He is an adult and he knows himself more than you do. Sometimes you need to take people at their word and let it go.
posted by Amy93 at 7:56 PM on April 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

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