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.