Guidance for couples during the coronavirus outbreak: Here’s how to make the most of it if your relationship is affected by ADHD.
by Ari Tuckman, PsyD, CST
It’s been said that distance makes the heart grow fonder, so what do we do when the maximum distance is contained within four walls? This time of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic can be a mixed blessing for couples. We get a lot more time together (no more commuting, infinite soccer games, or social engagements), but we also get new and different demands (financial stress from an unclear economic future and figuring out how in the world to get our kids on track in this new online learning universe).
Couples with one partner who has ADHD already have some additional struggles compared to other couples. And the habits and patterns that worked well in normal life may need to shift in this strange time. The additional stress of this new situation can make all of us less resilient as we deal with the new demands of daily life during the current COVID-19 outbreak. And yet there are also new opportunities if romantic partners can work well together. So let’s talk about how to make the most of this time.
- Accept it.
Yes, this is a difficult time. It’s scary, uncertain, and inconvenient. And also just really annoying in a first-world problems kind of way (why does YouTube keep buffering?). It sucks and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. None of us are supposed to like it, but we do have some choice about how much we let it darken our mood. Those who are prone to anxiety and depression may feel more of a downward pull, whereas those who tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve may react with more anger that bleeds out onto those around them. It may take some real mental effort to make yourself accept it as something that you can’t change, so focus on the things that you can do something about rather than fretting over those that you can’t. Perhaps sit down as a family to briefly complain about the injustice of it all, then shift to the unplanned benefits of this bad situation (maybe you can all sleep in a little later).
- Make a plan. And then another.
For most of us, this is a first-of-its-kind experience. It’s a snow day times ten. Or twenty. A few days at home is a cozy treat. A few weeks is a whole different ballgame, so talk to your partner (and then your kids) about what the game plan is. Some of the old rules and routines still apply, but some of them need to flex. There is a natural tendency for the ADHD partner to resist setting too much in stone and for their partner to want to plan a lot out—you need to decide which items are most important to you and which you’re willing to let go. Good negotiation skills are important in every relationship, but especially so when the partners have greater differences. So take the time to get everyone on the same page without impulsively agreeing or anxiously ramming an edict through. Then talk again when that page needs to evolve—”Wait, what’s the math teacher doing now?” It may help to write up a schedule and tape it on the fridge so there is less forgetting, debate, or kids finagling the system. You may also want to talk about what is happening with ADHD meds these days—you may be able to skip some days, or you may find that the sudden lack of structure makes the meds that much more important.
- Manage your stress.
However you do it, make a point of managing your stress, whether this means vegging out in front of mindless TV or pounding out a few miles on the treadmill. If you tend to be the restless type, then definitely make a point of burning off some of that energy. The internet abounds with lots of new articles and videos on how to get a pretty good workout at home without much official equipment. Mix it up to prevent boredom, a common problem for folks with ADHD. We are all much more fun to be around when we’re in the right frame of mind. You owe it not only to yourself, but also to those around you, especially in close quarters. Stress can be contagious, when one person’s snapping sparks someone else’s foul mood, so resist the temptation to fight fire with fire. Try to let some of that roll by (which is easier when you’re not redlining). Accepting the current situation and being on the same page about how to deal with it will both reduce stress in the first place.
- Spend time together.
Take advantage of this extra time to hang out more together. Sometimes the non-ADHD partner feels like they get the back seat to too many other demands in the ADHD partner’s life, so this quieter time can be a golden opportunity to focus on each other. If you have a yard, have a cup of coffee together, even if you need to bundle up to do it. Sit around and actually talk—maybe about the mundane problems of daily life, but also about future hopes and dreams. Or play a game. Or make a drink and watch some stand-up. In my research on couples with one ADHD partner (published in ADHD After Dark), some of the biggest barriers to a better sex life were related to not having enough time or energy for sex, so all this extra time at home could be a blessing. Even if it feels like this quarantine is going on too long, this is a very short time in the span of your relationship, so use it well because we will miss it once we’re back to running all over the place.
- Spend time apart.
Some people have a higher need for alone time, but most of us benefit from at least some time to just do our own thing. This makes it more fun to then be together again. Whereas you probably used to feel like you didn’t get enough time together, now the challenge may be to get time apart. So talk about how much time you each need, when, and how. Romantic partners will always have differences, but one partner’s ADHD may also impact how they want to spend their solo time. Ask for what you need and definitely don’t take your partner’s requests personally. Once a relationship passes that initial infatuation period, happiness involves finding the right balance of time together and apart.
- Keep your appointments.
Many healthcare providers are doing video or phone sessions during this crisis, including those who never did it before. This includes therapists, psychiatrists, primary care physicians, etc. This may be an especially helpful time to squeeze in a session or two, especially if there are issues cropping up that are making it harder to enjoy this time together.