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"Our Son Has ADHD and it's Hurting Our Marriage"

Listen in as one real-life couple works through a major crisis in their relationship with the help of a marriage therapist.
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The Couple

Emily: 34, elementary school teacher
Kenny: 35, graphic designer
Married: 15 years
Kids: Jack, 8; Caitlin, 5

The Counselor

Robin Newman, Huntington, New York

The Background

Emily and Kenny are in a standoff. Their son was diagnosed with ADHD, and Emily wants to try medication. Kenny doesn't. The tension is spilling over into the rest of their relationship.

Emily: "Kenny and I are always fighting about our son, Jack. If it's not about his bedtime, it's about how much TV he's watching, the toys all over his room, or the fact that we have to tell him something 17 times before it sinks in. Now we can't agree on whether to give Jack medication to help with his ADHD symptoms."

Kenny: "I'm sick of the arguing, too. We start talking about Jack and that snowballs into fighting about everything else — laundry, cooking, whatever. We never relax and we have no 'us' time. By the time Jack is asleep, Emily is too exhausted to even think about sex. I wind up taking a backseat to my son. How do I get on her list?"

Emily: "Here's a thought: Give ADHD medication a try, like I've been saying we should! If it works, it would solve a lot of problems and give us our life back. The experts we've consulted have said it's worth exploring — but Kenny is resistant and I don't understand why. We've had Jack tested. He's not hyperactive, or bouncing off the walls, but he's definitely daydreamy and unfocused. We've tried all sorts of strategies at home and in school and we've talked to psychologists and his teachers. Nothing's helped. Most upsetting of all: He's miserable. Every day the poor kid says he hates school and hates his life. Second grade shouldn't be this hard."

Kenny: "This is so ironic. I had suspected that Jack had ADHD since he was 2, but Emily kept telling me I was wrong. She thinks she's the expert, but I was right then and I'm right now. I should know, I have ADHD myself and it runs in my family. School was tough for me and my parents didn't have a clue how to help. And Jack is just like me: Ask him to brush his teeth and he'll find 93 things to do on his way to the bathroom. But I made it through school and college without pills. Jack's too young to be on drugs that he could be taking for 70 years."

Emily: "Just because Kenny sucked it up when he was a kid doesn't mean Jack should. People then didn't know much about this problem or have medications to treat it. Besides, we didn't have anywhere near as much homework in second grade as Jack does. I know there's no guarantee that drugs will help, but I'm a teacher and I've seen kids whose lives turned around once they started the right medication. When you have tools to help, it's insane not to use them."

Kenny: "That's incredibly condescending. She's the expert so I don't count? I'm the one who actually has the same problem. The solution isn't meds, it's finding the right strategies. How about giving the kid a little structure — like sticking to the bedtime we agreed on so he gets more sleep? How about making sure he's finished his homework before watching TV? I've always been more focused on structure than Emily is — this is a fight we've had since the kids were born — but with Jack's problem it has become crucial. Meanwhile, Emily takes "laid-back" to a new level. When I get home from work she's half asleep on the couch, toys are strewn all over, and Jack and Caitlin are zoned out in front of the TV. I am definitely not okay with TV as a babysitter. But whenever I try to talk to her about this, she either ignores me or starts crying and storms out of the room."

Emily: "Now who's condescending? If I'm exhausted after work I don't think it's terrible to let them watch TV for a while. I don't park them there all night long. I'm all for structure and strategies but it's not as simple as Kenny makes it sounds. Being with Jack is exhausting and demands every ounce of my patience and attention. A math sheet can take over an hour. After that we finally get a minute to relax and Kenny walks in and starts yelling at Jack. Even my relatives have noticed that he's much harder on Jack than on Caitlin, who never causes any problems. Kenny has a short fuse, a booming voice, and he talks at you, issuing a string of commands until your brain goes numb. Jack's eyes glaze over but Kenny keeps talking. I get so upset I have to leave the room or I'll lose it."

Kenny: "Right, and when she walks away, I'm left having to make dinner for two starving kids. My day is long, too, plus I have an hour commute. I don't think it's too much to expect that dinner will at least be started by the time I get home. I do 90 percent of the chores around here."

Emily: "Seriously? He must think the underwear fairy folds his boxers and puts them in the dresser. He doesn't see half the things I do or have to think about just to keep this family going. But if it bothers him, he makes a big deal about it. If he decides the house is messy, he grabs a trash bag and races around throwing everything into it — toys, magazines, anything he thinks is out of place."

Kenny: "Keeping the house neat is one way to help Jack. He can't go from point A to point B without passing some toy that distracts him. I'm not pushing structure and neatness because I'm a hardass. I'm doing it because it's what our kid needs. She's so obsessed with her own agenda that she can't even imagine that maybe I, too, have some insight into what's best for our kids."

The Counselor: "Emily and Kenny called me because they were unable to make a decision about the best way to help Jack. But after listening to them for a few minutes, it was clear that, while Jack's issues may have been the trigger that set off the current fight, these two had been battling over a variety of things for a long time.

"Agreeing on the best parenting style is tough for most couples. It's especially hard for an 'opposites attract' pair like Emily and Kenny. Emily is laid-back when it comes to household issues and Kenny needs a lot of structure. Parenting a high-maintenance child like Jack made their job tougher and that stress ratcheted up the tension between them. Neither Emily nor Kenny had strong communication skills, and without the ability to really listen to what the other was saying or to speak without criticism, they couldn't resolve their disagreements. As each tried to prove the other wrong, they slipped into old patterns that made matters worse: Kenny ranted and rambled, whether he was talking to Jack about homework or Emily about housework. Emily, overwhelmed and anxious, became tearful and sarcastic. Conversations, instead of being productive, turned nasty.

"But these two loved their kids and insisted they wanted to figure out why they were never on the same page. To dial down the tension, I made a few obvious suggestions. To resolve the who-does-more argument, I suggested they keep a list of everything they did in a day, from laundry to arranging dental appointments. Kenny saw that Emily was doing a lot more than he'd given her credit for. 'Many men don't even think about the "shadow" work women do,' I said. 'Social tasks like arranging playdates, signing kids up for after-school activities, or remembering Grandma's birthday can be just as draining as other chores.' Kenny promised to focus on ways to make life easier at home. They decided to hire a college student to come in from 4 to 7 p.m. to help with homework, play with the kids, and straighten up. That gave Emily time to recharge at the end of a workday before tackling dinner. She also had more energy to stick to the structured strategies that were important to Kenny.

"Another easy step was to schedule a date night. 'Even if you just wander in the bookstore, spending time as a couple is mandatory,' I said. 'You check in with each other, remind yourselves why you fell in love — and why you've stayed together all these years.

"As Emily and Kenny began to feel more like allies, we worked on ways to communicate without triggering hostility. Turning to Emily, I said, 'Maybe you don't realize it, but you often respond to Kenny with an irritated voice or angry words. When you disparage his ideas, he feels marginalized.' It's not a question of right and wrong, I added. 'In a good marriage, partners respect that there can be a difference of opinion. Show that you respect Kenny's point of view by telling him you understand what he said before you offer your own take on the situation.'

"Meanwhile, Kenny's tendency to talk 'at' Emily and Jack wasn't helping, either. With me there to referee, Emily explained to Kenny that kids like Jack have trouble following a string of instructions. 'Ask him to do one or two things at a time and he'll succeed,' she said. After some discussion, we came up with a plan for Emily to signal a time-out whenever she sensed Kenny wasn't getting through to Jack or to her. A funny look or a good-natured 'Whoa! You lost us back there!' was his clue to slow down. Rather than storm off angrily, Emily could also say: 'Jack, what I think Dad is trying to say is…Is that right, honey?' This not only helps father and son, it sends a message to Kenny that she's on his side.

"In addition to helping them communicate better, I also suggested that they give themselves, and each other, permission to take a time-out whenever they feel they're losing it. At the same time, they could ease each other's stress by asking, 'How can I help?' If the answer is 'I need time alone' or 'I could use a hug,' they need to make that happen.

"Finally, we focused on the issue that had brought them into therapy: medication for Jack. 'When you talk about hot-button issues, it can help you stay cool if you pretend you're talking about them with a colleague instead of your spouse,' I advised them. Then I asked, 'Do you want your son to do better and feel better? Has what you've been doing worked? Then why not try another approach?' Now that they were working more as a team, Kenny felt more open to Emily's ideas and agreed that medication was worth a try. They made an appointment with a psycho-pharmacologist who agreed that Jack could benefit from medication."

Emily: "We noticed a change within a week. Jack's much happier and the teacher says he pays more attention to his work."

The Counselor: "Now that their son is managing his work better, he's no longer up late at night."

Kenny: "And that means more time for us — thank God!"

The Counselor: "As additional parenting issues crop up, this couple's new skills are continuously tested. Emily still feels overwhelmed and frustrated from time to time and if she's not careful, she picks a fight with Kenny. Instead of getting angry, though, Kenny calmly wraps his arms around her and asks what he can do. 'I'm honestly amazed how simply having him say that, and hold me, makes a huge difference,' Emily says. Evenings are more peaceful, too: Kenny realized he wasn't spending enough time just having fun with Jack, and they started a nightly father-son game of chess while Emily reads Harry Potter to Caitlin. I'm confident that Emily and Kenny now know how to resolve their parenting conflicts — and have the courage to pick up the phone and call me when they feel shaky."

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