Cope with moody spouse
April 5, 2022 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Partner and I both have ADHD which can cause moodiness. I have a hard time coping with his bad attitude and would like to hear how you deal with this in your own relationship, whether it is impacted by ADHD or there is moodiness from some other cause. (Side note: We suspect that we are both on the spectrum also.)

I can be moody also and try to understand that everyone might be from time to time. But, I also practice introspection and self awareness and try to use healthy coping strategies, vs someone that is less introspective where I know they have bad feelings before they realize it themselves, and they don't have much variety in their coping.

I feel that my spouse exhibits multiple barriers to a happy, peaceful life, and it's hard not to have resentment over a lack of effort to address those things. For example, he has type 1 diabetes and doesn't manage it very precisely. (High blood sugar and low blood sugar can both cause moodiness. He doesn't test his sugar before and after meals, and just estimates the insulin without reading any nutrition labels, so there can be significant swings.) He has chronic pain and won't exercise regularly, yet continues to have bad moods when the pain is bothering him. He complains of feeling terrible but doesn't question whether maybe he would feel better if he wasn't eating so much fast food. If he were trying to address all of those things and still struggling I'd feel more compassion but without any of that effort I often just don't.

I try to not catch his bad moods but it's difficult. I often end up frustrated and angry that he won't (or can't) create a happy space with me. We are in couples therapy and he's started individual therapy at my request, but I also want some new ideas for what to do on my end. Especially as the progress in therapy won't be as quick as I would like.

I have an especially hard time with this dynamic if it happens during a time that would usually generate positivity from him. I find myself feeling robbed of an expected positive experience and if there were not so many things on his end interfering with shared happiness then I probably wouldn't care and would chock it up to normal fluctuations. But there are already so many things getting in the way that I really struggle to respond with compassion when there's yet another barrier. Especially one he can't articulate so that he can address it.

If he would name his feelings and needs and just discuss the issue directly I could cope much better. He often doesn't know what it is. I struggle to be kind and patient when someone is acting out their feelings and not doing anything to help themselves. So I end up trying to be patient then getting fed up, sometimes blowing up in exasperation, or distancing myself. But I don't want to distance. I want him to learn to work with himself better, so that the space between us isn't so disrupted so frequently. I can't maintain a connection when he's so grouchy, brooding, sulking etc., because I get fed up with approaching issues this way vs more directly and proactively, and he doesn't do a very good job of maintaining a positive lifeline despite feeling bad so there is just a lot of disconnection happening.

I also don't want to fall into the dynamic of the wife having to manage the husband's feelings for them. I want him to learn this for himself. I don't want to walk on eggshells, or become angry, or abandon him, but if he's just grouchy and won't deal with whatever is behind it, I don't know what else to do. I'm a very empathetic person so it's very hard not to catch the mood of someone close to me.

I know that I'm not responsible for his feelings but I do also struggle with feeling inadequate as a partner, if my partner is so frequently unhappy. It's hard not to think I'm doing something wrong or I'm not enough or something. I don't believe I can make him happy or that I should even try to, but at the same time if he's so unhappy so often then it's hard not to think I'm performing my role poorly because a marriage ideally will generate positive feelings for both people and there is something wrong if that isn't happening, or so my beliefs go anyway. He has depression too but a person can have depression without disconnecting or pushing people away. There's a way to have these challenges without allowing them to cause so much friction. Help?
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I am moody and have a moody spouse. There are, on my side, multiple mental illness challenges including adhd.

One (not so weird) trick that helps at the micro-level is having a goofy signal that indicates when someone is in a low-stakes bad mood that the other spouse doesn't need to react to beyond acknowledging it. The two that I use the most in my own relationship are references to our friends' kids, just to emphasize that the moodiness is like (or literally the same as) a little kid being hangry. A friend's kid used to make little claws with their fingers and do a menacing dinosaur roar (as menacing as a three year old can manage) when they were in a bad mood. For me this helps prevent escalation / catching the other people's bad mood.

One strategy at a slightly more abstract level is trying to make sure there are more positive interactions or even mildly positive interactions than negative ones. The cats have been a huge boon during the pandemic. So have jigsaw puzzles. A couple we know does "team building" exercises like take fencing classes through the local parks and rec department. My spouse is not that kind of person and I have to take my tai chi classes on my own. But! Working together on a puzzle scratches a similar itch of being on a team together.

In a terrible sign of my gossipy tendencies, another thing we enjoy is reminiscing about other couples' (mostly observed strangers) ridiculous behavior. The story that sticks out for us was going on a low key kayaking tour, being mediocre at kayaking, but observing a couple who kept running into the bushes on the banks of the river because one of them didn't understand how to steer and didn't believe their partner's explanation. There was two hours of this. I am a terrible person because it still makes me giggle.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

I experienced something like this when my hubby was experiencing a health issue that made him absolutely miserable. It is no fun. Once he got on treatment and started to feel better his moods bounced back as well. With all of the health issues you mention I'm guessing it would be difficult to impossible to keep one's mood up in those conditions. So me being who I am, I set certain ground rules for myself: as an adult, he has to manage his own health, it's his body, his choice. Anything I can try to make easier for him I will do as long as he agrees to it. But that's the limit of what I can do. But there is also limits on how his health can effect me. If he was declining all treatment or was doing it in such a way as it was making both of us miserable in the process, and there was nothing I could do to help? Then I'd be re-evaluating if this was a relationship that I could continue to be a part of.
posted by bleep at 10:59 AM on April 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The best advice I have given that you're in joint therapy and he's in individual therapy is basically "less analysis, more fun." Do fun things yourself and then invite him along. Have theme dinners, movie night, get outdoors, do new things. Science says when couples do a mutually new thing together, it fires the same neurons as falling in love all over again.

My husband and I have a goofball "okay this is getting cranky" phrase which is unique to use but is super ridiculous - think breaking into a theme song. Something like that would be fun.

Because even if there are further things to work on health-wise, the therapy is a health activity and so he is taking action.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

My best advice is to work on better understanding chronic pain and how to support someone who lives with it. The thing that stood out to me from your post were your comment about his lack of exercise. He almost definitely should not be exercising if he has chronic pain. For many (most?) people with chronic pain, exercise is going to increase pain/inflammation, as well as risk of injury. Even a "mental health walk" may have to be a trade-off between the mood-boosting effects of sunshine and fresh air, and increased pain later.

My spouse has chronic pain that impacts his mood. I empathize with your desire for your husband to do everything he can to help himself feel better physically. It sucks to watch your partner be in pain that doesn't make sense. It sucks to be on the receiving end of moody comments. It sucks to anticipate a positive, happy occasion and have it overshadowed by your partner's bad mood. It's very natural and very human that once we realize we can do basically nothing to "fix" the situation (can't cheer them out of their pain, can't come up with a magic cure), and begin to understand that chronic pain isn't at all like an infection that will go away with antibiotics, we often start to pick apart how well the other person is "doing everything they can." Ask anyone with a chronic health condition how many times a worried loved one has encouraged them to go vegan or paleo, try yoga, etc. Those recommendations often boil down to, "I can't bear the thought that this is just something you have to live with, because I don't want you to be in pain, so I need to believe you just haven't found the cure yet" (sometimes they're a bit more selfish, along the lines of "I need to believe if I drink enough green juice this won't happen to me").

Although it's understandable you want your husband to manage his diabetes more carefully, I'd treat all of the health stuff--at least for now--as a big box of things you don't get a say in. You don't have enough emotional distance or professional expertise (I'm assuming, since you don't mention being a medical professional) to accurately assess the real time impact of fast food on his well-being, or any of the other "obvious" things you're attending to. What this will do, counterintuitively, is allow you to be less attached to "fixing" or managing his moods. If you see him eating fast food and your first thought is, "You'd feel better if you ate a salad," then when he's down or irritable, you're going to think, "It's because you had McDonald's for lunch." You're going to be annoyed with his bad mood because you think it was avoidable. If, on the other hand, you see him eating fast food and you catch yourself--"I'm feeling judgmental of his lunch choice, but that's because I wish there were a simple explanation and treatment for his pain"--then when he's down or irritable, it'll be easier to think, "I wish you didn't have to go through this pain, and I feel upset you're taking your irritability out on me," or, "I wish you didn't have to go through this pain, and I'm sad it leaves you in such a depressed mood." Then you get to decide, do I have the bandwidth to offer support and nurturing (listening without giving advice, giving a back rub, drawing a bath, watching a movie together) or do I need to take some space and focus on myself?
posted by theotherdurassister at 11:22 AM on April 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I have chronic pain issues of my own. Exercise was recommended to help treat my situation and when I finally listened to my doctor, and got past the initial struggle, it actually did help. And generally speaking exercise is often part of treatment recommendations. It definitely can cause worse pain temporarily but then greater conditioning and strength will reduce the pain overall for many people. It really depends on what kind of pain they have so we can't make accurate global statements one way or the other. I also have training as a health coach and a chronic pain management coach, and have done both professionally. I don't try to coach my spouse, but I do have relevant knowledge.

When he is aware that pain is a factor to his mood, he says so, and I accept that okay. I have more trouble when he's brooding, sulking, etc. and doesn't know why. And even though I have relevant knowledge I understand that I still have no say in how he manages his health. I just then also have no sympathy for the consequences of poor choices which makes it harder to respond to his bad moods in a positive way.

Playful signaling could be helpful. Thanks, and please keep the suggestions coming.
posted by crunchy potato at 11:47 AM on April 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

I feel ya, potato. While the causes are different, my partner and I have very similar dynamics. I struggle with being supportive vs co-dependent. Things that have helped me: recognizing partner's cues that indicate he'd rather wallow than fix; walking away/not trying to fix anyway; reading books (+sites, blogs, whatever) on codependence; connecting with folks who experience same (like Codependents Anonymous:; reminding myself that just because it's like this now doesn't mean it will always be like this (because my imagination spins out and I worry that it will be like this FOREVER if I don't fix it); do what makes me happy, because grumpy-cooties are for real contagious.
posted by BekahVee at 12:05 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My partner and I have both been on both sides of this equation and honestly, at this point we both pretty much just accept that the other person sometimes has moody days, driven by mental and/or physical health issues, and there's no particular need to push through them or try hard to generate a positive mood or put a cheerful face on things. For us, it's fine to just say "hey, this is a crappy mood day, I'm going to do the minimum that I have to do, take it easy otherwise, maybe be a bit of a cranky hermit, and try again tomorrow." Or on the other end, "I love you a lot, it's clear that you're having a bad brainweasel day, please let me know if I can do anything to help but otherwise I'm gonna take myself off to the other room for a while / go for a walk / whatever because I'm doing that mood-sponge thing again and it's not helpful for us both to feel crappy."

It definitely does help that through therapy my partner has gotten much better at identifying and sharing his feelings and needs, so I'm glad your partner is already doing the most important part of this work. Hopefully you just need some short-term solutions while the therapy makes progress, and folks in this thread can help with that!
posted by Stacey at 12:21 PM on April 5, 2022 [10 favorites]

Your stated question is "how to cope with a moody spouse" but I'm reading all of this winding emotional labor as asking: "how to convince spouse to be less of an unhappy grumpy ass."

Those are two entirely different questions. And as you know, you can only answer the first one.

I hear that you absorb this as your fault or your responsibility to change or to compensate for, and feel like a failure that you can't hold up both sides of a dance. It makes you unhappy, along with getting grumped at, and you'd rather have a happy coupledom. But you can't make that choice for both of you.

If your spouse fundamentally feels that he is entitled to be a grumpy ass to other humans, including you, and still get caretaking, sympathy, and emotional labor from you then ... that's his approach, and that's what you've jointly determined is acceptable in your marriage. It sounds like that is the case, despite many options for alternatives that you have brainstormed and have on offer for him. This is who he chooses to be. This is the way he treats people. This is ok in his world.

My suggestion for coping is to focus entirely on your own self, and what you can do on your own to carry on a happy life that doesn't require input or cooperation from him. Because focusing on him and what he can or should do ... can't be your coping strategy.
posted by Dashy at 12:35 PM on April 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

He has a lot of health challenges, both mental and physical, that leave him unwell, in pain, and grumpy.

He presumably has doctors, plus he has a couples therapist and an individual therapist. That's a medical onslaught. If his therapy is anything like mine, he's working through his medical overwhelm and feelings of futility and exhaustion.

If you can't be in his corner, give him some space. The worst thing you can do is "encourage" this or that thing you think will solve him.

It SUCKS to be the sick, grumpy, out-of-spoons person who Isn't Being Sick Right, and Isn't Being Good Enough at Being Sick for their partner, who fusses and micromanages.

He's an autonomous adult.

Work on yourself, and why you're so tied up in what he should or shouldn't do.
posted by champers at 12:54 PM on April 5, 2022 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: That last bit is easy champers. I see the writing on the wall, and how he will develop worse health problems and become sicker than he would otherwise be if he continues this path, demanding the need for a caregiver early in his senior years when I want to travel with him and enjoy my retirement instead. I want him to be able to keep up with me. I think it's irresponsible at best, selfish at worst, to not take care of ourselves, because we push those future consequences into our partner's lap (unless they leave over it, which is a terrible thing to do to a person). If his consequences would not potentially affect me to such an extreme extent, then each to their own, but I believe we all have a responsibility to our partners for areas that will negatively impact them if we don't manage those things well.

My partner should only have to clean up the messes I've made that I have done all I can to prevent or clean up myself, and should not be on the hook to manage a mess that I made myself through my own negligence, because a relationship should be between two adults taking responsibility for themselves, and negligence (often, not always) means that person isn't doing that.

Maybe I sound cruel and vain, but I also have intense fear of these things, and based on current choices those fears are rational and realistic. I don't want to be forced to mother my partner and if he neglects himself long enough that's what will happen. I love him and if those circumstances come about through no fault of his own then I'm here for it, but happening in his 50s because he didn't care for his body, that doesn't mean it happens through no fault of his own. I think it's unfair to dump stuff on our partners like that unless it truly can't be helped. And on that note I'll stop responding because I know this is meant as one way communication. Thanks.
posted by crunchy potato at 1:11 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

There is just so much joy in not having to parent an uncaring, grumpy, irresponsible grown-up in addition to your actual child--both now and in retirement.
posted by knucklebones at 1:21 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

(unless they leave over it, which is a terrible thing to do to a person) isn't though? It's a thing that is sometimes necessary to do, and it isn't done to a person, it is done to a partnership.

Your husband cannot, will not, ever be the partner you want. In four thousand ways over the course of your Ask history he has shown this, again, and again, and again. You must either find a way to accept this, and the possible future it portends, or you really, truly, must leave. Those are literally the only two options. NO OTHER OPTIONS EXIST. There is no world in which you do magic contortions and spells and somehow turn him into a healthy partner who gives a fuck about your needs.

Best case scenario: you come to acceptance that this is who your husband is, and this is what your lives together look like, and then, gradually, over many many years, he starts to make some progress in therapy at identifying his emotions and working through the blocks he has around taking charge of his mental health and physical health. And you get a few years of mutual fun, and travel, and good mood days. But that part isn't up to you and never will be.

I know I sound unsympathetic, but frankly, your post is dripping with contempt just short of hatred for your spouse, and I suspect you'd say "deservedly so" which is that's a fuckin nightmare way to live your whole entire one sole precious and wild life just because you think breakups are mean?
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:24 PM on April 5, 2022 [39 favorites]

Best answer: I just want to add something else. I posted an anonymous question about my hubby a few years ago very similar to this one (although it was about the health crisis BEFORE this current crisis..) and all the responses were like "Leave, girl, leave leave leave leave leave. There will always be another crisis and it will never get better". I was like.. "ok.. I hear where they're coming from.. and I would tell myself the same thing...but he can do better than this, I just know it, deep down." I happened to be right. Do you have that feeling? What's it telling you?
posted by bleep at 1:33 PM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I know we’re supposed to be dealing with the content of the question at hand and not your posting history, but I knew this was your question even before seeing the user name. Is there maybe an element of “I am a helping professional who works with people who are struggling, therefore I should be able to use my professional skills to help my partner” going on in your thought process? In case you need to hear it, you’re allowed to have interactions in your life that aren’t just work.

Also in agreement with blast hardcheese about the tone of contempt I’m seeing here. When I feel that level of contempt for anyone in my life, in professional or social settings, it’s often a warning sign that I am feeling unsupported in my interactions with the other party and channeling my frustration at feeling so lonely and helpless to act onto them. Where are your other supports right now? If you read this question to them, what would they tell you to do?
posted by ActionPopulated at 1:38 PM on April 5, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I want to address this from a neurodivergent perspective because none of the other replies have done so yet. I am autistic, not ADHD, though my understanding is that there is some overlap between the two (particularly in the executive functioning and hyperfocus domains).

a lack of effort to address those things
Executive function is hard for ADHD people. Is he on medication for his ADHD? (Are you?) I have heard from ADHD people that this can make a world of difference to their ability to do executive function. If not, this is something that he should discuss with his doctor. If he doesn't have the spoons to make an appointment, you can help by offering to make the appointment and attend it with him.
In the mean time, you could provide him direct help by (1) providing access to nutritious food that does not require a lot of executive function to consume (this may mean that you do more of the cooking); (2) building an exercise routine that the two of you do together ("parallel play"-style); and (3) having a discussion (at a time when he has the spoons) about how you could support him in developing a system to better control his insulin/blood sugar.

If he would name his feelings and needs and just discuss the issue directly I could cope much better. He often doesn't know what it is.
This sounds to me like alexithymia and/or poor interoception (they are often linked). Demanding that he describe feelings that he can't identify is just going to build up more of a guilt/defensiveness complex around this issue. It sounds like you have already identified some of the things that lead to his "bad times" (the blood sugar swings and pain); can you have a discussion around developing a sort of checklist of possible causes to run down when he's feeling bad so that he can mentally "try them on for size", see if one or more jumps out, and/or take steps to address that particular bodily need?

grouchy, brooding, sulking etc.
Does he give you the silent treatment? I was accused for a long time of giving people the silent treatment when I was "upset" or "in a bad mood". It turns out that I just (partially or totally) lose the ability to speak when I'm overwhelmed. Now that I am aware of this and that it is a very common autistic thing, I've developed signals to indicate when it's happening, so that others know that I'm not upset, I'm not doing it on purpose, and I just need time to recover.

Finally, if these "episodes" have gotten worse in the past few months, it could be due to autistic burnout, which I encourage you to read up on. (I don't know if there's a similar "ADHD burnout".)
posted by heatherlogan at 1:38 PM on April 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

He has depression too but a person can have depression without disconnecting or pushing people away. There's a way to have these challenges without allowing them to cause so much friction.

There's a way to have cancer without dying, and yet, some people still have the audacity to do so.

"A person" can have depression without disconnecting, sure. Can your husband? Potentially not! Everyone with depression is not the same. Every type of depression is not the same. Heck not even every depressive episode is the same within a single human.

It seems like you identify very strongly with how well and thoroughly you, personally, conquered and managed all of your challenges. And that's fine! You should feel proud of that. But that's YOU. That was YOUR path. It's not anyone else. If you are going to insist upon staying in this marriage, your very first task needs to be learning to see your husband as absolutely his own person, who isn't you, even a little bit.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:55 PM on April 5, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: In case it's useful to you I will note that my reply was also coming from a neurodivergent perspective - both my partner and I are ND, in slightly different ways, and it definitely plays in to how we address this and what we expect of each other.

Fundamentally, thinking and acting as if we are on the same team goes a long way. If I felt the way you've described here - that my partner is somehow neglecting himself at me, or taking away from our future together his current level of coping/functioning - it would be really hard to stay on Team Us, I think. If you can find any way to frame this in a less antagonistic and contemptuous way, I really encourage you to work on that. I don't know how you get to where you say you want to be, without feeling like part of a team, even on a bad day.
posted by Stacey at 2:07 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

You do not sound "cruel and vain."

You sound like you are pressuring your partner into managing their health to your specifications, which is actively making things worse. You are parenting your partner, and it is building up resentment on both sides.

You are not obligated to fix another person or tolerate mistreatment.

You are simply obligated to ask if this relationship is right for you, and if not, go.
posted by champers at 2:27 PM on April 5, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: (I apologize for my erasure of the other ND people on here. I should have read more carefully and also hit preview before posting.)

Before I found out that I'm autistic (~2 years ago) and gradually came to realize that another person in my life is also ND, I used to feel a lot of resentment towards that person around clutter, time-blindness, and just not doing things that they had said they would do. (Reading the emotional labour thread may have contributed to this resentment, and some of these things did intersect in a particularly painful way with my own autistic need for structure and order.) But I think that a lot of my anger was in fact due to psychological projection on my part: I saw the "personality flaws" that I had struggled and fought against in myself for my entire life manifested (albeit in different ways) in another person and demonized them. Classic shadow projection.

Now that I know, and have been forced by severe burnout to admit to myself that I am not in fact superhumanly capable if I just try hard enough, I'm finding myself having a lot more compassion towards these particular imperfections in others. It's hard, and humbling.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:28 PM on April 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

My partner should only have to clean up the messes I've made that I have done all I can to prevent or clean up myself

This thinking is damaging to the cleaner as well as the mess maker. Every time you think “he wouldn’t be in this much pain if he’d done X”—even if it’s true—you’re imagining a fantasy version of reality that can only aggravate you. You're imagining "how things should be" (HTSB) and comparing it against how things actually are. The fantasy of HTSB hinges on the false notion that your husband had a choice between X (leading to HTSB) and Y (preventing HTSB), and chose Y. This framing strips out all nuance and puts the spotlight on one act or set of actions by your husband as the moment he split the timeline away from HTSB and toward the current, painful reality. Life is rarely so simple. This approach will not lead to you feeling better, more at peace, or closer in your relationship, and it certainly won't help you to feel less caught up in his moods--this way of thinking implies that his choices have caused you to lose something, which makes it way harder to disengage from his moodiness.

You don't have to ignore your worries about the impacts of his behavior on his future health. But you will greatly reduce your own suffering if you acknowledge that 1) to you, the obvious, urgent places to start are, e.g., diet and exercise, and to him, those same things feel... out of reach? too emotionally loaded? less urgent than some other thing? impossible to achieve while depressed? and 2) empathy doesn't require approval of all the choices that led to his present situation.
posted by theotherdurassister at 3:52 PM on April 5, 2022 [13 favorites]

A few observations:
"He complains of feeling terrible but doesn't question whether maybe he would feel better if he wasn't eating so much fast food." What if you told him you didn't want to hear this particular type of complaint anymore? Might be a thing to raise in couples therapy, to help you articulate it, but it's just fine to ask someone to NOT voice a particular type of complaint, especially when it's a complaint of their own making. It might be helpful to explore the line between informing you how he feels and complaining about it.

Do you have a feelings wheel? Print one out and hang it on the fridge. I need to look at one all the time to help me understand my emotions and I'm 40 and have done therapy on and off since I was 25.

"I think it's irresponsible at best, selfish at worst, to not take care of ourselves..." I invite you to consider a) what if this really, truly, is the best he can do to take care of himself and b) how this belief might be limiting or impacting your worldview.
posted by purple_bird at 2:24 PM on April 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

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