When your Partner isn’t Supporting your ADHD Journey

Episode 125

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It’s really nice when a partner is supportive and understanding as you begin your own ADHD journey of discovery. But this is not always the case. This week Cam and Shelly discuss the not so uncommon scenario when we embark on our ADHD journey without the support of our primary relationship. Years of misinformation, fear and shame can build to where the non-ADHD partner throws up their hands and says “Enough!”. It’s hard to play a game when everyone is playing Texas Hold’em and we are dealt a hand of Uno but this is the case often when we are struggling to understand our own ADHD experience and when we try to translate our experience to our partners. Frustration abounds!

Once ADHD is identified as a primary factor in the challenges of a relationship it can sometimes be identified as the sole dilemma. This is never the case in any relationship, yet anger, frustration and resentment build to a point where the non-ADHD partner withdraws support and vulnerability often with an ultimatum of “fix your ADHD!”. Our partners are not immune from making their own meaning and years of undiagnosed ADHD behavior – the missed events, the forgotten tasks – can build to a convincing story of “They must not care about me”. 

The hosts introduce their BEANS acronym with a focus on safety, needs and agreements. A partner can’t support if their sense of safety has eroded too much. The invisibility and inconsistency of ADHD can create a sense of uncertainty and lack of safety in the relationship. Cam and Shelly discuss ways to proceed to start to dismantle the parent/child dynamic that so often happens. Shelly discusses how detaching from outcome and distinguishing ‘my stuff, their stuff, our stuff’ can be a place to start when the ADHD partner has to proceed by themselves. Ultimately through effective communication and setting independent expectations, the partners can reintroduce safety and start to rebuild trust, but there may be a moment when in fact we have to push ahead and go it alone for a spell.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: Hi, I’m Shelly. 

Cam: And I’m Cam. 

Shelly: And this is translating ADHD. A quick reminder applications are now open for our resilience group coaching class, which begins Wednesday, June 22nd at 8:30 PM Eastern. For more information on the class itself pricing and how to apply, visit the website, translatingadhd.com and click on the group coaching tab.

So Cam what is on your mind for us for today?

Cam: So Shelly it’s funny how we get to these topics. So what’s on my mind today is what’s been recently in our discord community. And a question has come up a conversation around this of when you’re trying to figure out this ADHD stuff. And you don’t necessarily have the support of your partner and how to proceed in that really difficult situation.

And so I thought that it would be a great topic for today, and I love your say of this larger topic around when people have kind of two sets of information. As you said, everybody’s playing Texas Hold’em. But the person with ADHD has been dealt a hand of UNO. I love that by the way.

Shelly: And I can’t take credit for that metaphor. I pilfered it from Reddit a long time ago, but it’s something I’ve been using in my talks to describe the ADHD experience as a whole meaning. We can see that we’re holding UNO cards, but no one else can see it. And so the people around us are frustrated that we can’t play the game.

We can’t follow the rules and we’re frustrated by that too, but for different reasons and adding the complicating factor of one down with ADHD. And not having language to be able to articulate our experience to others accurately, maybe even not having a good awareness of what that experience is. And it’s easy for us to look at a scenario like a challenging relationship and assume it’s all our fault. And be not know what to do to fix it. We’re acutely aware of the behaviors that are frustrating our partners, but again, we seek out prescriptive solutions for those behaviors and find that we can’t get any traction.

Cam: So the bigger theme here is how do you succeed at the game? If you’re not sure of the rules of the game that you’re playing. And today we’re going to look at a lot of different work scenarios today. We’re going to look at really, I think one of the most difiicult. Scenarios.

And that’s in your primary relationship, right? That when you’ve been with someone for a long time, you’ve discovered that the ADHD is in play. And yet at this moment, or sometime before your partner is pretty much given up and closed down is not offering any support. And in fact may be offering some real negatives in the sense of anger, resentment judgment, and thrusting you more into that one-down situation.

And so this was the discussion in our discourse community. And it’s often the discussion that comes up in my group coaching class that I teach for Melissa Orlov. And so it’s top of mind for me because tomorrow I start that class and I’m going to absolutely guarantee that more than a third of the participants are going to be in this dynamic where their partner has pretty much thrown up their hands.

And they’re not feeling the support and they have to kind of how to proceed when you’re really by yourself. And I love what you said, Shelly, and we’ll dig in. There is the elements there that are in play of why are we holding UNO cards is because of not having awareness, not having language to articulate our experience.

Because then we’re going to talk about this today with communication aspect is a huge part to start to relate to each other. Uh, Wait a second. I’ve got UNO cards and You’re all playing poker.

Shelly: I think it’s really important to call out before we dive into this episode. And we’ve talked about this before that urgency and coaching. And or urgency and doing the type of work we ask you to do here on the podcast, really don’t mix. And we’ve talked about that before in the context of work, when someone comes to coaching and they feel like their back is against the wall and they’re about to lose their job. I also see it in relationships, scenarios like this one. Now that doesn’t mean this work is impossible, but it does mean you have to be willing to step back and detach from outcome a little bit, which is really hard to do. When we’re talking about your livelihood or your primary relationship. But if you’re attaching to that outcome of it’s my job to fix this in my job alone, the work that we’re laying out in this episode and the work that we describe overall is not going to be real effective. And I just think that’s really important to say because it’s difficult position to be in. But one where the first thing you were I do with a client like that is really work to invite them into curiosity. And it’s really hard to be curious when your livelihood or your primary relationship or something that important to you on your hierarchy of needs is being threatened.

Cam: That’s a great point. so a term that I don’t really like because it’s not completely accurate but it works and we’ll use it here, is this parent-child dynamic that can occur in a primary relationship where you’ve got one person with ADHD and one person without ADHD. And so that parent-child dynamic, it seems like a parent child, but it’s actually not what it is is you have someone who has a glitchy, prefrontal cortex and executive function center.

And so what do they do? Right. I’ve been married for almost 30 years, but at that time, when I was struggling with my undiagnosed ADHD, I looked around and yeah, that was an attractive executive function. I think I may have been more attracted to my wife’s executive functioning than her looks good, but thank God she doesn’t listen to this podcast. That’s not true. She was quite a Looker and she still is. So what I did was hitched my wagon to her executive function, set of horses or locomotive, and it sets up this dynamic of, I’m reliant on her to set agenda and also I will then be responsive. She would say, hey, we want to do, it’d be like, yeah, whatever you want to do. Kind of react effective to her setting up structures because I didn’t know. I struggled with creating structure myself. So it was sort of this kind of reactive and reacting to the structure.

She was able to set up around me. Well, guess what happens after 15 years, which happened in my relationship was that person who’s setting up all the structures and setting up program gets tired that Melissa and I have a joke of this term of chronic prompt fatigue. The none 80 partner gets tired of that prompting and doing that and they get to a point of frustration.

And when they finally figure out it’s ADHD, there can be this moment where the non-ADHD partner is like, I’m done. You go figure this out. And when you figured out this ADHD, then come back, and that sets up a really tough dilemma for the ADHD person.

Shelly: Cam, I have to say that I empathize with those partners as somebody whose partner also has ADHD, which is a new experience for me. My ex-husband did not have ADHD, and our dynamic in a lot of ways when we got married was similar to yours and your wife’s. But one of the challenges that my partner and I had to work through is the fact that he also has ADHD. And while he is doing his own work, he hasn’t been at it nearly as long as I have. And because I do this for a living.

Cam: Yeah.

Shelly: Early in our relationship, he would often forget that this stuff is hard for me too, just because I’m being successful. Doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle for me. And certainly doesn’t mean that I can be your executive function too.

I can barely beat my own. And so, you know, it was just an interesting set of conversations we had to have early in our relationship to figure out what that was. And what was frustrating and thankfully is something we were able to do by virtue of the fact that we’ve each done our own work. And by virtue of the fact of what I do for a living.

But I can definitely see how that could go differently and just turn into years of resentment building. And then that’s so often what we see with our clients in this situation is a partner who is resentful.

Cam: Yes. So resentment is something that once it’s in place and firmly in place, it’s really hard to walk that back.. It’s like one of those sort of end-stage emotions in a relationship that has trust starts to go away and communication starts to go away and caring starts to go away. It’s replaced by anger, resentment. I love what you said earlier about doing your own work. And I think that’s something that happens here. So the, difficult thing is, When you have someone so close to you, removing that support and that caring and that resentment and anger and ultimatum address this or else actually creates a free.

In the prefrontal cortex, it makes it so much harder for that person with the ADHD to be successful. Now, is it untenable? No, I wouldn’t say so, but what we’ve done over the years is because we’ve been in this dynamic where we’ve had this structure around us, we orient to their measurements of success.

And this is a point where you may have to go it alone for a time. And to separate your own measurements of success and expectations and needs from your partners identification of that. So it’s sort of like taking your own UNO cards and starting to play a game of UNO So you can be successful.

Shelly: And again with that too comes detaching from your spouse’s outcome, detaching from what they’re looking for, detaching, from what it is you think you have to do. To quote unquote, safe this relationship because attaching to that makes this work almost impossible. It’s again, the same situation is a client when their back is against the wall at work. This idea of you can create curiosity there, but only if you can detach from outcome.

Cam: Right. So again, with those emotions in play, in your primary relationship, what I like to say is the goalposts or the game gets harder and harder. That it’s a natural phenomenon that when you have resentment and anger, it takes the goalposts and makes them narrower. And they start to be moved farther and farther back.

So it’s harder and harder to win the game and you don’t have the support of this individual. And so that separation can feel really scary, but it may be the necessary move. And the thing that happens though, is often we get tripped up in our sequencing and think, you know, I really need my partner’s support here. And I have to have that before I can proceed. So listeners, you can see that dilemma there. So starting to go ahead and say, okay, I’m going to go ahead and work on this. Okay. With communication. Of course, don’t just stop by the way, because practicing that communication helps to create safety, right?

Part of that resentment and anger is tethered to the pool and the deep end of the pool and fear your spouse doesn’t understand this. They know it in name and it’s like, you go address this. But remember when you forget their birthday, when you forget Valentine’s day, when you forget to pay the taxes or pay the bills or do something that they asked you to do three times, they don’t say, oh, yes, that’s their ADHD.

It goes to. The making of meaning, right? Every human has that meaning making factor. It’s like, oh, this really means they don’t care. They must not be invested in us. If they were invested in us, they would do. Right. And Shelly, as you said, it’s the dilemma here is around sensing and accessing right. To sense what is going on and then to do it, to actually get some touches on.

Shelly: So to put this another way, and man, this is going back to early podcast days. This is back to the universal ADHD question. Why do I not do what I know I ought to do? And that question with ADHD on board can be as much a mystery to us As it is for those around us, the differences for those around us, they see that behavior and they connect it to incorrect causes. They don’t care. They’re selfish, they’re lazy. They’re motivated. And somewhere deep inside, we know those things. Aren’t true. But again, we lack language so much of this podcast is about articulating different ADHD experiences to help you listener start to cultivate some language of your own. Cultivate that internal understanding.

First of what’s really happening for you when you don’t do what you know, you ought to do so that you can then translate that to someone else. And also, we talked about early in the podcast translation isn’t for everyone. Meaning translation is not for asshole boss that’s still going to be an asshole.

If you advocate for yourself, it’s not for that family member that doesn’t believe ADHD is real. And thanks for drugging up the kids with meth. You listen, was such a pet peeve for me. Yeah. Anyway, but it is for. Accessing support. Number one and number two, repairing where there’s an opportunity to repair by virtue of helping the other person better understand what’s going on for you and bridging that gap between Texas Hold’em and UNO.

Cam: So well said, you know, so we’ve shared a couple things already and I think the one that’s coming to mind is our beans acronym, beans. Right? So beans is B E A N S boundaries, expectations, agreements, needs and safety. And so starting with, if you’re in a place like, you’ve set up a defensive position and you cannot agree on what is going on, and the dilemma is to, first of all, agree to disagree. And then move up to from this sort of positional argument to aspirational coming back to why are we together? And this idea of that differences compliment, right. Are we trying to build to individuals that think exactly like? No, of course not. Shelly’s laughing at me people.

Shelly: I almost feel like we should leave that one and it was pretty good.

Cam: Oh yeah. Let’s leave it in.

Shelly: All right. Then you could leave with all this into editor. So here’s a little inside baseball as to how we talk to our editor of the side and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the funny stuff. Y’all miss the kids left on the cutting room floor.

Cam: Anyway. So coming up to this aspirational in the sense of what can we agree? That’s what my wife and I did was to really move away from these positions. We were defending, getting defensive, getting dismissive, rejecting to really what is aspirational? What do we care about? What do we value? Going back to last week’s episode.

Shelly: Cam, I just want to chime in and say my ex-husband and I also did this and I think that’s important to call out because my decision to divorce, number one was mine. It wasn’t my partner frustrated with my ADHD and throwing his hands up. But number two, and more importantly, was informed by a lot of awareness and a lot of translation between the two of us. And that’s what we’re looking for in doing this work. We’ve talked about my model of yours, mine, and ours in relationships before, and particularly in this type of situation. Oftentimes all the ADHD person has control of at first is what is strictly their’s. And then there might be some opportunity to do some co-creating in the realm of ours to try and do some translation work.

After they’ve laid a good foundation again, to try and start building a bridge from Texas Hold’em to UNO with their partner. However, Anything outside of what’s mine, whether it’s ours or whether it’s theirs, we don’t have full control over. We can invite the other person in, but we can’t make them walk through the door.

And so that’s what I mean when I say detaching from outcome cam and I had very different outcomes to a very similar dilemma, but the commonality there is. This was informed choice in both cases, this wasn’t, we’re just so frustrated we give up or in Cam’s case, this is frustrating, but we’re just going to grit our teeth and keep grinning and bearing it.

And so that’s why the notion of detaching from outcome is so important. I had a client ask me, were talking about difficulty in his relationship, he asked me without asking me. And it was interesting because that conversation started when he got really defensive when I was noticing his language and what he was sharing. And so I told him this I’m neither for or against your relationship. I’m for a life that fits for you. And that is my job as a coach, whatever that looks like.

There is no judgment here. I only know what you tell me. I don’t live in your house or in your relationship and B at the end of the day, my job is to help you get closer to a life that fits for you, whatever that looks like in the context of this relationship and the current difficulties.

Cam: That’s so well said, Shelly, so listeners, what can you do here? Couple of things that Shelly and I want to make really clear. And when you get into these situations often is again, you find ADHD is the culprit and all eyes are on the ADHD. And it’s that’s the thing. And we will say, that’s never the.

Back to what Shelly was talking about ours. There is an ours. There’s always, every partner has their own stuff. One of the toughest dynamics to work with is ADHD and anxiety, your partner’s anxiety. And so those have an interesting dynamic. And so your client has their own work. And if they’re not willing to own that or do that, but again, detaching from outcome and working on your own stuff. But back to that idea, Shelly, you were talking about back against the wall. You can’t create positive change when our backs are against the wall and the sense of impending urgency or ultimatums pressure.

And so that beans thing of safety of first getting to safety. To get to safety and addressing everyone’s needs, addressing your own needs. And this is why we start with self-care practices is to start to work on these things that matter only to you, my own stuff, and in doing so then you start to develop awareness around the ADHD, right?

The barriers to awareness, the barriers to action and practice the barriers to learning. And as you go and you start to develop agreements with your partner, you can then get to this place of,. Starting to discuss expectations, right? And when you can start to have a meaningful conversation of their expectations, and then you start to erect your own expectations for yourself, for the relationship that is separating from that parent child dynamic, We don’t want to separate from that and stand on our own two feet.

Shelly: That’s also putting yourself in the picture, ceasing being the blame sponge, taking all of the blame for what’s not working in this relationship, putting it all on ADHD and being in that picture. Being at choice about what you want and what matters to you too. So there truly is a yours, mine and ours, rather than just a yours and ours.

Cam: Well said. All right. So have we come to a nice natural stopping place Shelly.

Shelly: I think we have Cam.

Cam: Listeners? How about that pass off

Shelly: Oh boy, that didn’t sound completely contrived at all. You know, someday I am going to make you do the outro because the listeners need to hear how freaking terrible you are at it. So every once in a while, early in the podcast days, he’s he’s lungs since quit doing. 

Cam: in my contract. 

Shelly: Every once in a while, Cam would say, okay, I’m going to do the outro today. I got it. And folks he didn’t have it. He’s never had it. So. 

Cam: a train wreck, 

Shelly: All right. Inelegant landing here at the end of the episode, but here we are, we’ve landed. So speaking of the outro, let’s go there. But before I go there, if you haven’t listened to the outro in a while, I’m going to ask you to honor my hard work in doing that each week, by giving it a little listen and seeing how you can help us out.

So three big ways you can help us out if you like what we’re doing on the show, the first is leave a review wherever you listen, reviews, help other people find the show. Your language around why you like our show helps other people see and connect to what our show is about. And that’s really cool.

Number two, don’t keep us a secret. Share us on social. Share us at work. If you have an ADHD or neurodivergent support group, share us with the other neurodivergence in your life. And again, for the coaches, therapists, doctors. And other professionals that are sharing us as a resource with your ADHD clients and patients. Thank you so very much for that.

And finally, you can help financially support the show which gives Cam and I, the ability to retain our editor and our assistant and takes a lot of the workload of running this podcast off of us. And quite frankly, it brings you a better product for $5 a month. To do this, visit the website, translatingadhd.com, click on the Patreon link in the upper right-hand corner and not only are you helping us cover those administrative costs, you also gain access to our discord community, where our listeners are working together to do their own understand, own and translate work. So until next week, I’m Shelly

Cam: and I’m Cam

Shelly: and this was the translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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Episode 125