ADHD and Marriage: Stop Resisting Learning About ADHD

To those struggling in a marriage that may be affected by ADHD, this may sound counterintuitive:  Determining whether or not a spouse has ADHD is a very good thing.  In fact, there is no negative side at all.  I broach this subject because a number of people have written comments suggesting that they believe that their spouse has ADHD, yet he is resisting getting a diagnosis (I use “he” here for simplicity – it could just as easily be “she”.)

There are at least two reasons your spouse might resist finding out about his ADHD.

First is the perception that there is something wrong with him if he has ADHD (since the word “disorder” is in the name) so he’d rather not know.  The second is the suspicion that once ADHD is confirmed this will mean that all the bad things in your relationship will be placed at his feet.  These are both logical assumptions, but are wrong.  In fact, reality is just the opposite.  ADHD is not a disorder (in spite of the name) but, rather, a way of being in the world.  It becomes a disorder only when the symptoms become so out of control that they get in the way of your life.  The more a person with ADHD understands about the characteristics of ADD, the better he understands himself (and controls the negative symptoms).  And, just as important in a marriage, the more the spouse of an ADHD person understands ADHD, the LESS all the bad things in his relationship will be placed at his feet.

A good example of how learning about ADHD can play out in a marriage comes from my own relationship.  My husband’s first response, when I suggested he might have ADHD was this:

“I might have ADHD since our daughter does, but I don’t want to take medications!  I like myself just fine the way that I am and so do all my friends.  I don’t need to change my personality somehow.  YOU’RE the one with the problem here, not me!” 

He was angry that we weren’t getting along and assumed (correctly) that I was blaming him for our problems.  But his response – his digging in and resisting – only added to my anger and frustration.  How could we move forward when he simply wouldn’t participate?  I just knew (read sarcasm here) that if he would look inside himself more we could straighten things out.  He just knew (read anger here) that he was being attacked and didn’t like it.  His refusal to delve deeper was in direct response to my approach to him.

To make a long story short, George did finally agree to at least learn about ADHD – agreeing that knowledge couldn’t hurt him.  He did this not because of me (our relationship was too difficult by that time for him to listen to my advice) but because he spent a short stint working for a person who also had ADD and was unaware of how his behavior affected those around him.  The behavior of this person was so exasperating that George started to believe me when I told him that even though he wasn’t aware of how his own ADD was affecting the rest of us, it really was.  (To those of you who will no longer listen to your spouse because you don’t trust their motives, listen to me.  Our relationship has been to the absolute pits of despair, anger and frustration – yet we’ve come through it.  Trust that learning about ADHD will help you both.)

George started reading.  This led to a formal evaluation as he wanted to know more and consider whether medications might help.  The other day I asked George to reflect upon that first conversation we had had – the one in which he was so resistant.  His response may be useful to those who are still struggling with how to approach the issue of adult diagnosis.

“Whether or not you want to get a formal evaluation, it’s really helpful to know if you have ADHD.  At a minimum, just find out about it.  There were three steps that made a real difference in my life:

Finding out what ADHD was and wasn’t.  Driven to Distraction gave me a lot of information about ADD that I didn’t have before in a clear, straightforward manner.
Figuring out what impact ADHD had on me over the course of my life.  As I read about ADD I began to see how it had affected me as a person and things I hadn’t even been thinking about started to fall into place for me.  There were lots of “aha” moments.
Most important of all, figuring out how my ADHD affected those around me – at work, but even more importantly with my family.  You don’t think about it affecting others, but it really does.  This was the biggest eye-opener of all, and was critical for having a better marriage and family life.”

If you, or your spouse, are afraid of getting a formal evaluation, start by reading.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Consider having both spouses read Driven to Distraction and/or Delivered from Distraction (or listen to them on tape if you don’t like to read) to find out what ADHD is and isn’t.  I recommend these two books because not only are they great overviews, but Dr. Hallowell is very positive in his approach to ADHD, which greatly helps to “de-toxify” the concept of ADHD.  The person who has the ADHD may gain real insight into his or her life.  The person who doesn’t have ADHD will start to learn how to separate the ADHD behavior from the person.  This should lead to more compassionate behavior and patience, and less anger, for both.  Can you imagine how great it would be if you both acted more thoughtfully towards each other?

For both spouses, learning about ADHD is an act of love.  It sets you on a path of understanding that can lessen the burden of the anger and frustration you are feeling.   Here are four suggestions to make that learning as helpful as possible for your relationship:

  • Agree ahead of time – a diagnosis of ADHD does not open the door for laying blame for problems solely at the feet of the person with the ADHD.  Rather, it creates an avenue for building mutual understanding and compassion.  He’s not just agreeing to learn – you are BOTH agreeing to learn – and to work together positively on whatever comes out of it.
  • Use the reading as an opportunity to discuss what is being learned.  Again, make sure that conversations you have on the topic are neutral in tone – no blaming or anger allowed.  Start in short spurts, rather than long, intense sessions.  The immediate goal is to learn and to provide an opportunity for introspection and “aha moments” to occur – for both of you - in an emotionally safe environment.
  • Don’t get discouraged if this reading and learning doesn’t happen all at once.  People with ADHD are notoriously disinterested in reading, and often don’t have the patience to read for long periods (again, a recording might help.  These are available at
  • Agree ahead of time that learning does not necessarily lead to medication.  The person with the ADHD is in control of his body – whether or not to medicate is a personal choice.  While it’s possible that he may decide to “treat” his ADHD in some way in order to make some changes (new behavior patterns, more exercise, fish oil, whatever) this is his decision.

ADHD is a “good news diagnosis”.  There are many positives associated with it, along with the negatives.  Neither of you have anything to lose by learning more about it – and a great deal to gain.  Like my husband George and I, you may find that learning about ADHD is the first step in overhauling your relationship and finding that elusive gift - a marriage in which both partners thrive.

Melissa Orlov