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Often I have ADHD individuals come in for counseling and one issue that frequently comes up is communication difficulties in relationships. This isn’t to say that people with ADHD are bad at relationships, it just means that their areas of difficulty can present slightly differently than others. Communication breakdowns are frequently the sore spot which is magnified in their relationships and very often, the key for their success is in their own mind. What do I mean by this? So often the partner affected by ADHD will assume a number of things about what their partner is thinking, would prefer, or would like them to do. The problem is they have these conversations silently and don’t connect to question these thoughts. You know the old saying, when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME. Below are some tips that can help remedy some of the common communication problems in ADHD relationships.
- Don’t assume – If you have a question about something your partner might be thinking, would prefer, or might like you to do, ask them.
- Turn towards your partner – Having ADHD means often means you are a person of many interests and you can easily get lost in them. When your partner comes in to talk with you, put down what you are doing and pay attention to what they are saying. If you need to continue with what you are doing, let them know that you can talk for a few minutes but have to return to your project. There is nothing worse than having a concern about something you need to do burn in the back of your mind and distract you from those you love.
- Practice redo’s – Let’s face it, no one is perfect, and we are all going to make mistakes. What if we process those mistakes with our partner for how we could have resolved the issue better? If we approach this with an open mind, it shows our partners that they are essential to us and we are willing to improve the relationship. In the book “Getting Past No“, they talk about the concept of coming to the balcony of the issue together, as if you were watching a play. Then let one person say their interpretation of what happened and the other person listens attentively. Then the other person does the same. The hope here is that we can gain insight and grow from the difficulty. (Warning, if you are angry in this process, it may not be the best time to do it. If angry, give it some space, but set a time to come back to it.)
- Accept differences – Very often we are drawn to our partner for their differences. Sometimes these differences can also be frustrating. I like to think of my partner’s differences and alternate perspectives as a blind spot detector. Think about how this functions in a car, a little radar alerts us to something we may not see that could potentially cause us difficulty. By attempting to visualize our partner’s feedback positively, it helps us to look for the truth in what they are saying, instead of the counter-argument. Focus on what you can learn from it.
- Pay attention to agitation – Since communication breakdowns happen, it helps to pay attention to the signs in our body when we might be working towards full-on meltdown. There are multiple ways to do this, but an easy one is to buy an oximeter and put it on your finger when you and your partner are having what you know will be a tricky discussion or maybe you replay a tricky discussion. Set the alarm to go off when your pulse gets over 100 beats per minute. This is typically when the limbic system of your brain (fight or flight) takes over and your prefrontal cortex shuts down. Pay attention to the signs in your body of the frustration rising. Did your hands sweat, back muscles or jaw clench, or did you furrow your brow? Knowing the signs and triggers are very important. This helps us to know when it might be best to take a break from the conversation and approach it when we are in a calmer state. Our breathing definitely affects our feelings. (More about what happens when we get angry.)
- Focus on feelings – I like the model that John Gottman presents, “Learn to make specific complaints & requests (when X happened, I felt Y, I want Z)” When you focus on the feelings, it helps you to get to the unarguable truth in conversations. The analogy I often make for the conversations is to practice “dropping your sword” and being undefended.
- Professional help isn’t a bad thing – I had a friend who once described feeling like his first marriage was like a boat and he was the captain. He acknowledged that at the time he felt like captains were supposed to keep the boat from sinking on their own and if it did start to sink, they were supposed to go down with it. I will go on to say that this friend decided to accept professional help on his second marriage so they can learn from each other and have strategies for overcoming problematic issues as they arise. I understand that accepting help isn’t easy but it can help couples learn, grow, and change.
I hope these tips are helpful. All relationships take work, so don’t get discouraged. If we can ever be of help for couples counseling, or you would like to learn more about ADHD counseling, let us know, and we can make a counseling appointment! You can also read Communicating Effectively with Asperger’s Partner and Communicating Strategies in ADHD Relationships if you have a partner with Asperger’s or ADHD.