The Worst Kind of Parenting

In the beginning we simply enjoyed our time together and I reveled in the fact that I found a great partner – someone who was fun, accepting, spontaneous and truly loved me for myself.  And then it started to unravel.  We both had careers and returned home roughly the same time each evening, yet I was responsible for at least 90% of the chores. I was brought up in a home where that was the norm – my working mom still took care of most family stuff…but after I had had kids I just couldn’t take it.  I alternately felt a victim of my husband’s lack of interest in helping out, or like a martyr…neither of which helped our relationship at all.

I became a nag, becoming a version of myself I never thought I’d be.  Demanding, nagging, cajoling and with little patience for the repetitive broken promises and lack of attention to home and family I observed. Soon, I was ‘parenting‘ my husband.

You know this sort of ‘parenting’ – it’s when you remind and remind and remind your partner to get something done.  Or when it is done, you realize it wasn’t done the way you liked (it was late, done sloppily, partially completed…) and so you try to ‘educate’ your partner about how to do it better next time.  You take on too many tasks because you are tired of waiting for them to be done, but then resent that you ‘have’ to do so.  You may even feel like an unrecognized family martyr.

If you’re the partner being parented, you feel as if you can’t do anything right.  That no matter how hard you try, it’s never going to be good enough.  You fear trying things that might upset your partner and so become even more paralyzed or inconsistent.  You hate being nagged and pursued.  And you miss the light-hearted person your partner used to be.

I call this the Parent/Child Dynamic, and it tears apart any relationship you find it in.  Sadly, it’s almost ubiquitous in relationships impacted by unmanaged ADHD. It often begins with the “chore wars,” and usually well before couples know about the ADHD.

It starts out innocently enough, with one partner being inconsistent on follow-through due to undiagnosed or under-managed ADHD.  The non-ADHD partner helpfully adjust, taking on more and more responsibility.  But that helpfulness turns out to be a huge problem over time, leading to resentment, anger and stress.  If you’re feeling resentful that your partner isn’t holding up his or her fair share of responsibilities consider it a relationship red flag.   You’re adapting too much.  In fact, John Gottman’s research shows a strong link between healthy relationships and those in which women, in particular, DON’T adapt to problems early in the relationship. Instead, presumably, they bring them to light right away and negotiate solutions with their partners before the problems become unmanageable.

That’s right – I’m suggesting that you should NOT kindly take on the tasks that a disorganized partner can’t get done.  Don’t adjust to the issues that an ADHD partner brings to the relationship.  Don’t be mean about it.  Rather, be loving and kind and supportive.  To keep your marriage happy over the long haul you must first get the two of you to a place where ‘martyr’ is only a figment of your imagination.  Do this work BEFORE you become disillusioned and there is a lot of friction between you.

The vast majority of adults with ADHD don’t know they have it or, if they know about it, don’t understand how big a role it plays in their lives.  So as you start this process, your pleas for assistance will likely be met – at first – with good intentions and poor follow through.  This is a classic under-managed ADHD combination.  Three things need to be done in order to move away from that pattern:

  1. identify the issue (is it ADHD or something else, such as family of origin issues?)
  2. if, ADHD, then learn lots about ADHD and its impact on you both
  3. find the right treatments to help you both.  Note that treatment does NOT mean just meds.  See the free ebook at my website for an overview of good treatment for adult ADHD.

Both ADHD and non-ADHD partners must work together to end the harmful Parent/Child Dynamic because both create it.  Parent/Child Dynamics are marked by ‘over-functioning’ in the parent figure (usually the non-ADHD partner) and ‘under-functioning’ in the child figure (usually the ADHD partner.)

Over-functioning is taking on too many responsibilities.  Under-functioning means taking on not enough.

So this isn’t just about the ADHD partner. The ADHD partner must learn to stand on his/her own feet and learn to build structures that support improved reliability and functioning  It will take time, and possibly the help of a professional such as a coach or therapist.

Interestingly, the effort to move away from over-functioning on the part of the non-ADHD partner is equally as difficult.  Yes, you are capable of doing any one of the 85 tasks on the family’s ‘to do’ list…you just shouldn’t.  Waiting for the ADHD partner to learn how to manage symptoms in order to become more consistent can be frustrating…but is well worth the effort for the overall health of the relationship.

So don’t go down the path that so many couples inadvertently follow when confronted with ADHD symptoms.  Don’t compensate…negotiate, instead.  Yes, it will take time, compassion and effort.  But it’s well worth it.

Resources for more information:

  • pp. 175-178 and 181-183 in The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD
  • My blog posts “What’s the Difference Between Reminding and Nagging?”; “Pursuit-Retreat Patterns Will Destroy Your Marriage” and “Tips for Becoming Independent of Parent/Child Dynamics”

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