For ADDers Who Are Tired of Being Told It's All About the ADD

Are you tired of having your partner point to your ADHD as the source of your marital problems?  I heard this today from a frustrated ADHD client, and it's a common refrain.  Does the label actually matter?  Is the ADHD the source of the issues?  If you are working with a counselor (like me) who specializes in ADHD, does this put too much emphasis on ADHD? It's a legitimate concern that I would like to discuss here.

ADHD is a "label" for a certain set of symptoms (distractibility, difficulty organizing and the like) which then produce certain types of behaviors - losing track of conversations, or perhaps not organizing...leading to an office that isn't inhabitable, for example.  My book talks about the patterns that ADHD encourages in relationships - parent/child dynamics, chore wars, misunderstandings and poor communication being just a few.  But is it all about the ADHD?  Absolutely not.  It's the symptom/response/response cycle that's important - and that takes two.  To be clear - I don't care one whit about whether you call the behaviors of distraction, disorganization and the like "ADHD."  The label is only important for three reasons:  1.)  to obtain medications if you wish to use them (you have to have an official diagnosis to do this) 2.) to point you in a direction towards specific types of interventions that may help because they work for those specific symptoms and 3.) to help you know you aren't crazy - lots of folks are going through the same thing.

But really, you don't need the label for any of the reasons except the first.

And I would like to say something that may be contrary to how you think of me.  I don't care at all about "ADHD."  I care ONLY about behaviors.  That's where the rubber hits the road in relationships.  If your anger is out of control (could be either partner, right?) what are you going to do about it?  What's your plan?  What do you think is contributing to it?  When you measure your success against your (implemented) plan, is it working or do you need to modify it?

If your issue is that your relationship is marred by disrespectful behavior and you think your partner isn't respectful enough, the first questions I would ask you is "are YOU being respectful enough?  Are you leading by example?  Are you setting your own bar high enough, or simply saying 'since my partner is disrespectful then it's okay for me to express my frustration at that in a disrespectful way?'"  Forget about ADD.  It's pretty irrational to demand your partner do something that you yourself aren't doing.

If you have ADHD, it can be useful to use that label as a lens to prepare your plans for change.  Your logic might be something like this "since I know I have ADD I know that 'trying harder' isn't going to get me to be able to stop my impulses very easily.  Maybe I need to try something else in addition - perhaps some medication, or perhaps exercise or meditation ( would I schedule that to make it regular since I have trouble sticking with things?), or perhaps thinking more about my sleep patterns so that I'm less sleep deprived and therefore less irritable..."  You get the idea.  Other than the meds, there isn't one idea there that wouldn't help you whether or not you have ADHD.  But to make change, you have to be open to trying them...and able to implement your ideas.  If you're going to not think about "ADHD" as "ADHD" and you find that you continue to procrastinate and you make plans but never implement them then it's probably time to start thinking about ADHD again so you can make procrastination a target symptom.  Once you've got procrastination under control, you can go back to forgetting about ADHD because now you'll be able to implement the plans you make to target the behaviors you wish to change.

Non-ADHD spouses lose out when they pin everything on ADHD - it can make their partner defensive and deflect attention from their own (non-ADHD) contributions.  Any time focusing on your partner slows down your own ability to change it's bad for the relationship.  But ADHD partners also lose out when they insist it isn't ADHD.  Scratch below the surface and probably at least some of the issues are related directly to ADHD symptoms.  Targeting those symptoms will likely bring you significant success.

So what am I saying?  Labels don't matter.  Behavior does.  Do whatever each of you needs to do to improve your own behaviors.  If you can use your knowledge of ADHD to help you target underlying issues, great!  But it doesn't have to be the focus.  Effective change is what you're after.  Labels will provide a roadmap for some and a barrier for others.  If you're in the second camp then drop the label.  Just remember - doing so doesn't mean that you're off the hook for improving your relationship.

Which brings me to my final thought.  My observation is that those who become comfortable with the idea that their ADHD is an issue in the relationship seem to make the most progress.  This isn't because of the label, per se, but because they have the widest selection of tactics available from which they may choose to address their issues.  They have both the ADHD-friendly tactics and the non-ADHD type tactics.  That's a win for everyone.


I so agree with your

I so agree with your statement about the more comfortable a person is with having ADD the more progress they would make in their relationship.  I thought my spouse was more comfortable with it; but now I am not as sure.  We have been going to marriage counseling for over a year now and have almost completed your course.  My husband started taking Welbutrin and that has helped tremendously with focusing and with his angry outbursts and depression. Things had been going much better in our relationship (in most aspects)but I am noticing that there is a correlation between lack of sleep and alcohol consumption, as to when he has an angry outbursts and leaves.  He gets 2 hours of sleep on a bad night and 5 hours on a good one during the work week.  The only time he gets 8 hours is on the weekend.  This was talked about in our first leg of your course and I know he can't help but to work some long hours due to having his own business; but it is not working for us.  When he comes home on the weekends he has 4-6 drinks and that is when sometimes he gets mad at me for little things I have said or asked him to do and he has never communicated being upset with me until he is drunk and overly tired.  I feel like I am lost as to what to do now.  He has been gone for 3 nights now and I am so tired of being hurt over and over again.  Isn't it true that he needs to take care of his symptoms before things will get better??  Alcohol and lack of sleep are a deadly combination and when you add in Welbutrin isn't this worse?  I have been reading all of the books and initiating the course homework.  I want this to work as I have 2 kids and there are things that I do love about him!  Help!  I am so thankful for this website.  Thank you!

Lack of sleep

Sleep deprivation seems to be one of the most impactful issues when it comes to how ADHD symptoms are expressed.  The less sleep one gets, the more severe the symptoms.  Lots of people with ADHD have sleep problems - in fact, more people with ADHD have sleep apnea than you would expect, plus a series of other problems.  So this is clearly one of your/his problems.  Some can address sleep deprivation through "will" - that is deciding that it is important to put a sleep routine in place and then creating the reminders and motivators needed to keep at it.  Some things that can help those with ADHD (and others) sleep better include:

  • having a regular bedtime schedule
  • aiming for 8 hours of sleep a night
  • creating a calming sleep routine.  These typically include some sort of combination of any of the following:  listening to soft music, reading in bed, turning off screens and particularly computers at least an hour before bedtime, deep breathing before bed and, again, getting a regular schedule, putting out clothes the night before so they can arise later
  • some need to see a sleep specialist for assistance or diagnosis

The alcohol problem is also a biggie.  Alcohol can be used as self-medication, and this may be what he is doing - trying to calm his mind at night after being hyped up from extra long work hours.  You need to talk with him about this on a weekend when he's had more sleep, and voice your concerns and hurt.  You'll be most successful if you can do this in a way that doesn't put him on the defensive.  A professional may be able to help him - also, if he gets his meds right that often helps as well, as it can diminish the need for self-medicating.  Unfortunately, there is a higher than normal incidence of alcohol abuse with adults with ADHD, so if you think his problem is one of addiction, you may need to confront him with that, as well.  Your marriage counselor can help you discuss these issues with him.

Getting around problems like these is part of controlling ADHD issues as the anger and alcohol use are probably related to ADHD directly or peripherally.  Make sure you invite him to share his problems, too, so that getting drunk doesn't become the only way he feels can voice his pain.

carathrace's picture

Sleep & alcohol

My ADHD husband suffers terribly from sleep problems, and we were told by our counselor that alcohol actually disturbs restful sleep, so you think you're drinking to fall asleep and it's actually making it harder to get to sleep and to stay asleep.  Also he said that alcohol shouldn't be used with Adderall, Lexapro & Wellbutrin (what my hubby's on).  It might be good to google "sleep hygiene".

very true

Alcohol is sugar so you can usually get to sleep but staying asleep is a common problem. Also a depressant isn't the best coping mechanism to begin with when stimulants are what calms the mind. The ADHD blogger Kelly Babcock says he has a cup of coffee before bed so that he can sleep. My husband has a very hard time getting to sleep cuz his head is too busy and I've begun to wonder if the adderall wearing off throws him into hyperdrive at the really wrong time. He is wo much more effective when rested...

Thanks, ShelleyNW

For mentioning Kelly Babcock. I looked up his blog and he made me laugh. I needed that.

I'm So Exhausted's picture

Oh, the untangling. . . ..

I get frustrated at myself.  As a non-adhd who spouse lived in the victim mode for decades, went to counselors, and self-help groups, and self-help programs, and just couldn't figure out what was the matter " with ME" - and the ADHD spouse went along and just sat there with his arms crossed in the attitude of , "What can you do with my poor wife?"  I am literally losing my mind.

I set in motion being controlled by his anger - for decades. 

I already  just want to live as a normal everyday person.  I am 53.  I am so tired of paying counselors.  That is not a personal attack at you.  After a while I feel like a cash-cow.

You can believe I don't know how to separate anything.  You can believe I am overwhelmed, overloaded, and in the position of " I will not cry." "I will not cry."  "I will not cry."  

How can a person find peace when they think they found the answer, and find out it wasn't really the answer, then they thing they found the answer, and find out that really wasn't the answer.  Each day is a new beginning, and I feel like a fool.

My behaviors surely add to the tangle.  Who'd have thought I'd get to the place where I like myself, and like my life, and like my relationships with my family and children and friends, and have no relationship with my spouse.   Not what I wanted. . . .at all.  

I got it, I can only control me.  I can only do my part.  I can't believe what I have done with my marriage.  I read all the books - and see the pattern that I have fallen into.  They are like scripts of my life.  I just want to stop the spinning - and get off the merry-go-round.  Enough already.


The lady in the mirror

Omg!  I relate to that! I have gone to extreme behaviors myself in an unsuccessful effor to make him see what he is doing to me. And I don't like who I have become sometimes! So how do we ignore the impulses and deal with it effectively.  There are so many suggestions on this forum, but it seems like too much to remember in the moment that I need them.  

I'm So Exhausted's picture

There are no rules, but I keep hoping to find some!


Hang in there.  I agree with the "too much to remember."

I started each day with a nicely arranged deck of cards in my hand.  In numerical order, fanned out so I can see each one.

Then in comes an ADHD fueled gust, all the cards fly all over the room, and I scramble to pick them up so I can get direction in dealing with the crisis.  

LOL!  I can laugh. . .  now.  I am learning how to eliminate the things that do not work for me.  I am holding on to the one card I know well - the one with my picture on it.

There are so many helpful posters here.  Some challenge me harder than I want - - but in the end it is good!



Flying cards!!!!

Great analogy!!! It's like all my planning goes out the window when my emotions get sparked.  All the "tools" and " resolution strategies" are suddenly nowhere to be found! I guess just keep practicing and someday I will be able to laugh, too! :) thanks...

You have described my life to a T

Hi Exhausted, 

I'm new to this site, just started tday... I just read this and wept..."I will not cry" is no longer an option for me...I cry at the drop of a hat...thank you for putting into words so eloquently and on point, what I've been enduring for the last 21 years... Times I thought I was going crazy, conversations never finished, barely started is more exact, leaving so many unresolved issues that I'm beginning to understand, our contact is short and I call our communication, or lack of, the hamster wheel, not the Merry-go-round, because there is nothing "fun" about it.   I am the non AD spouse... Just reading and poking around tday on this blog has taught me a lot! So much more to learn and decisions to be made...

Anyway Thank you! And here's to hoping you truly become your own best "old" friend! 


What if the person insists there are no problems with ADD?

I appreciate this blog.  You are right - this is about behavior.  I do understand that.  My question is what do I do if he absolutely will not admit this is about ADD at all?  Last night he told me it is about our personalities - not ADD.  He is right, our personalities do come into play and I definitely have many behaviors to improve on.  (I am so relieved that someone else describes what I am feeling so accurately - thank you!)   I don't know if I can hang in there if there is not some acknowledgement that these symptoms do exist and do effect our relationship.   I do love him.  I am just not up for taking care of another adult anymore.  These last 9 years we have been married, I have struggled with so much.  I am ready to have a life partner that is really in partnership with me!  

Hang in There, LindaLou!

Denial is definitely a BIG problem - if your husband says everything is fine and it's not...hard to change.  However, in this situation the advice that I give is to "ignore" your partner's opinion for the time being and work on your own issues.  If your slate is clean(er) then it's easier to go back to him and say "I've worked on my stuff - now it's time for you to step up to the plate."  Key to doing this successfully is to learn a few "tricks."  Specifically:

  • Understand, NOTHING you can say will force him to change.  He has to do it from the inside (this is why I suggest you work on you - working on him is a total waste of your time)
  • Don't hide your needs - just make sure to express them respectfully and constructively
  • If you have anger and frustration issues, or if you nag, target them FIRST.  I can't TELL you how many ADHD men I've heard say "it's not me - she's just angry and mean all the time!"  Until anger is managed he can make excuses for why he doesn't need to look at himself
  • Start to focus on what will make your life happier.  Typically this includes some sort of exercise (which works as an anti-depressant), connecting with friends, and generally putting the focus on YOU rather than on him or the two of you
  • Encourage him to take on responsibilities without labeling it ADHD - if he is triggered by your giving it a label, then don't label it.  Just make reasonable requests, in a constructive way.  He's "heard" the idea of ADHD - it's in there.  You don't have to bludgeon him with it
  • Stay focused on the positives as best you can - for example, "I love it when you help with the yard - is there any chance you might help me again today?" is more effective than "you never help me with the yard...I need your help today!"
  • Stop ALL nagging - find other ways to get your needs met

Hope this helps.


Denial is a nice place to live, Ignorance is bliss

I appreciate your comments and suggestions.  I seriously think my ADD husband is at a point where he thinks I am the problem and I'm the only thing standing between him and a carefree exsistence. He gives the impression that he thinks he's  a perfect, easygoing, down to earth kinda guy, and I'd have to be crazy to fault him for anything.  I suffer from depression in part because of my frustration and feelings of hopelessness over our issues.  So everytime I get frustrated or lose my patience for his ADD antics, he blames me saying nothing can make me happy, no matter how hard he "tries."     

I will try some of your suggestions.  But things have reached such a state that he has asked for a separation.  He said that I make him feel bad about himself, and he deserves to be happy....Ignorance is bliss I guess.  It's a real slap in the face because he wont even consider marriage counselling. 

Is it her ADHD or is she just simply not who I thought she was?

I am in my mid 40's and have been in a 2+ year committed relationship with my live-in girlfriend. I am really, really struggling with our relationship, especially in respect to the kinds of behaviors I am both experiencing at home and am reading about on this website. I would guess that I may have not seen these at first, or maybe they were masked during her hyper-focusing stage of our relationship. Who knows? The main "bad" behaviors are: * CONSTANT INTERRUPTING: Though she says she is aware of this behavior after it happens, her interrupting has escalated at such an alarming rate that we cannot get through any meaningful conversation without it deteriorating. As an example, recently she actually covered my mouth with her hand in public, in front of her friends, after I had said no more than 10 words. Her excuse is that I am an excessive talker (and I will admit to that) but I come from a school of thought that this kind of behavior shows a lack of respect and/or love for the other person. I literally walked away (upset) and went back to our car. * LACK OF FOCUS ON ME / US I understand this may be me going through the loss of her hyperfocusing on me at the start of our relationship. Though she swears she thinks about me every day, she will make decisions without my input and spend unbelievable amounts of time and energy on drama with her tennis team (while our relationship is ripping apart at the seams). She will also procrastinate on certain projects especially regarding her work. Though she seems to always complete the tasks, mainly by pulling all night efforts (not kidding), these rob of of our time and to make things worse, I am often asked to stay up for part of the night to help assist and/or keep her company. (I do have a day job!) I simply do not recall in the beginning of our relationship, the lack of focus on me/us. Now this lack of focus, as well as the other behaviors, have accelerated over the past few months. * LACK OF EMPATHY, LACK OF EQUALITY: One thing that scares me to death is I am starting to see a pattern emerge that seems to mirror a past relationship in my life. A few years ago, I had an ex-wife who slowly drifted away from our relationship to the point where we were just roommates. I am a "giver" type and try to behave in a selfless manner without keeping score. In my past marriage, however, my ex began to take me for granted and, in a weird way, starting looking at me and treating me like a second class citizen. After we divorced, a few months later she tried to reconcile because she told me she missed the (nice) way I had treated her when we were married, but I had moved on. The post-divorce world of not having to walk on eggshells was a relief, as during our marriage it was simply exhausting to me. My current girlfriend knew about my past when we starting dating and I made it very clear I did not want a relationship of unequals. We use the term king and queen, as we did not want a (spoiled) princess kind of relationship. I am now scared to death. My only hope here is that unlike in my past, my ex-wife actually told me one day that though she loved me, she was not "in love" with me. My current girlfriend swears she loves me and is in love with me, but I watch her actions and at times they simply do not match with her emotions. * CRITICAL NEGATIVE COMMENTS: I guess I never noticed this when we were first together. She is a designer, so I understand she is prewired to have a critical eye. However, I am starting to hear comment after comment about the bad things about friends, events, etc. When we have a meal out, I rarely hear about how great things are. I do hear a lot about how slow the waiter is (and then am told I need to not give a good tip), how the vegetables are cold, how the table we are sitting in is too close to the kitchen, etc. I rarely hear positive comments in situations like these. The words "please" and "thank you" toward wait staff, retail associates, and even tennis partners are a rarity. I know we all think critically. I just do not understand the compulsion to say these thoughts out loud. I especially do not understand them when they are not part of any conversation. She will simply just blurt them out. It makes me either embarrassed (if directed toward another person) or deflated (if it is a general comment about how an event is transpiring.) * BUTTING IN ON MY PARENTING: I am a single dad of a teenage boy. Before she moved in, we had discussions where I made it very clear that it was my job to parent and she should think of her role as an aunt, not as a mom. She agreed (at least that is what she told me.) (Note: She has two grown children.) I cannot tell you the number of times we have had discussions and/or arguments over this, but she simply cannot help but to butt in and "give advice" when I do not ask. Even worse, she tends to make mental lists of things my son is not doing correctly, and feels compelled to tell me without me asking. We have tried everything (calmly) to work through this area, but she just does not stop. If she was a referee, there would be penalty flags and whistles all over our home when my son is with us. This behavior dovetails onto the "critical" comments one above. ============= Now, on to our "arguments". We are in a terrible, terrible cycle: 1. She will exhibit "bad behavior." 2. I will respond one of 3 ways: (a) calmly, (b) retreat/silence or (c) "blow up." When I reply calmly, most of the time she will acknowledge the behavior, but to me it appears that she blows it off and does not take it seriously. If I retreat/go silent, she either knows I am upset or does not realize her behavior has hurt me. When she knows I am hurt and retreats, she then asks if I do not love her anymore. When she does not know, she continues in bliss while I die the death of a thousand cuts. When I blow up, which lately has been a lot. At first she will actually defend her behavior, then she will attack me for blowing up, later she will come back and apologize, but the behavior is never corrected going forward, if anything it escalates. We are both aware of this cycle, but have been unsuccessful in breaking the loop. She does think she has ADHD and has done some cursory research. She has seen a therapist, but this person decided to teach her to come home from her sessions and ask me to change how I spoke to her, how I worked with her on tasks, etc. All suggested changes were directed toward me. The therapist (who claimed she was a CBT expert) did not give her a single exercise to do and only gave her the name of a psychiatrist to get her on meds. (Oh, by the way, 4 sessions and over a month later and my GF has still not made an appointment for the psychiatrist.) So though my GF does tell me she thinks she has ADHD, and she says she thinks she needs to work on it, she herself told me this week she has not made it a priority. So, here is where I am struggling and candidly am starting to lose hope: 1. Half of the time I think her behaviors are ADHD driven, and the other half of the time I just think she is a rude, self-centered heartless person. Of course I do not want to think the latter, but I do know that there are many narcissistic people in the world. I do not understand how she can exhibit these bad behaviors towards me and does not exhibit them with strangers. (Example: She would never physically cover a stranger's mouth in a conversation. So she must have the ability to curb the behavior. It is like she make a decision NOT to curb them around me.) 2. I am losing faith in her promises to seek help and treatment. We just had our 4th or 5th major blowup yesterday. Each time she ends up apologizing and saying she finally "gets it" and knows that this is destroying our relationship. She profoundly apologizes and starts to offer to do lots of things (as if she is apologizing by making coffee or baking cookies.) She swears she will put addressing her ADHD on the front burner, but I have heard the promises before and it rings hollow. 3. I am very scared I am being told what I want to hear. This shakes me to the core. She knows my biggest fears in a relationship especially given my past, and I now struggle she is just playing me for a fool. I am the current financial bread winner and she lives a relatively comfortable life. 4. I just want to be told the truth (and I have let her know this directly.) Either she really believes she has ADHD and she is interested in seeking treatment OR she does not think she really has a problem. There are times that she says things like "I have not changed one bit since we met" and "I will seek to get help because it is important to you." These comments scare me. I know I cannot change other people. She either believes she has an issue, or she does not (and some of the comments above make me wonder is she does.) I swear I can deal either her coming to grips that she does have ADHD or I can handle knowing she does not. What is killing me is I am starting to think she is playing me, by telling me what I want to hear (that she has ADHD which is a crutch for her bad behavior) when inside she believes that "she has not changed." I just want the truth, either way. I am tired of the false hope that this is ADHD, that it can be treated and it is simply not the case of me finding a semi-rude person who is filled with narcissism. Sorry for being so long-winded. I thank anyone who made it to the end of this rant! :-) I could really, really use some advice. How can I tell if she is being truthful? What would you do in my shoes? My relationship is slipping away and I do not know what to do. Help!

Critical Partners


           Thank you for this post.  I commend you for addressing the issues in your relationship at a (relatively) early stage.  My experience is limited but I was in a 9 year relationship with a person who was diagnosed with ADHD.  I left that relationship, was single/celibate for 8 years and met someone about a year ago.  He has also been diagnosed with ADHD and is on medication.  I have also been privileged (as so many have) to be the sounding board for friends and relatives regarding their complicated relationships with spouses and the frustrations involved.  Two of my best friends were married to each other and the male partner had bipolar disorder and was also on medication.  That was an interesting marriage (over for many years now). So, take my comments for what they are worth. 

          I believe that each person with ADHD is different and it also matters whether or not someone is getting the right medication/treatment for him/her.  Speaking specifically to your partner's seeming need to constantly criticize others, I have a belief that this may be more about personal coping mechanisms in dealing with the implications of ADHD for self-esteem than with anything essential to the condition itself.  For instance, my ex was constantly critical, not just of me, but of everyone around him.  He seemed to have this need to talk about what the next person should do.  Guess what?  He couldn't apply that advice to himself.  As things got worse in his life and the tension of having to face his fear of failure, he became more and more critical and more irrational in his criticisms and less discrete about how and when to vent them.  Yes, everyone else was at fault - this from someone who had drained a series of well-meaning associates with his constant demands for "accommodation".

          I also have a beloved family member who I am fairly certain does NOT have ADHD or any other legitimate diagnosis. This dear person exhibits a similar personality trait to my ex.  When he has to face up to the consequences of his personal failures, the first thing he does is criticize others.  In fact, I have noticed this tendency in many other people, both in my private life and in my professional life.  I recently left a company where they may as well have written this into the training manual. 

          In my current relationship, my friend seems to deal with his personal struggles/failures via a different strategy.  He acts like he doesn't care.  Sometimes, he even gets depressed, although he tends to keep that private.  I have come to believe that he does care, but that he deals with feelings of frustration and the criticisms of others by putting up a front of apathy.  At this juncture in the relationship, I can almost appreciate this coping strategy, since it seems like it hurts me less than being a whipping boy did.  I'll get back to you on how I feel about that after a few years, I hope! 

          My point is:  Two different men diagnosed with ADHD, two different destructive coping mechanisms for handling the frustration of personal difficulties related, in part, to the challenges of living with ADHD.  I don't know if your GF has ADHD or not and/or if she is using this as an excuse for bad behavior, but it sounds like you have a tough choice ahead of you.  I truly loved my ex and I tried so hard to keep us together.  In the end, however, my self-esteem was eroded and I lost my love for him (the respect was gone pretty early on).  It was worth it because I learned a lot that I hope has helped me in my personal journey and that I hope will help me to be more successful in my prospective relationship with guy who sweetly meets my emotional needs when I ask him directly and specifically for what I want and keep my own neediness in check.