How to Broach the Subject of Suspected ADHD

“I think my partner has ADHD – he shows all the classic symptoms.  How do I approach him with this without making him angry?”  This is a great question and I applaud any spouse who is sensitive enough to be asking it.  Some specific ideas and hints follow.

Set the right tone.  There are two common reasons why a spouse is resentful when a partner approaches him or her with the idea that he/she might have ADHD.  First, for many there is still a stigma attached to the idea of “ADHD.”  It’s correlated in the minds of many adults (and some of the media) with “little kids who are out of control.”  Suggesting that an adult with this view has ADHD may be considered an insult.  Second, many spouses hear “you have ADHD” as “you are broken and the reason our marriage is in trouble.”  Their interpretation is often accurate – many times this is exactly what their partner is telling them, underneath.  Or, another way to think about it is that few comments in a marriage are given in isolation – so previous criticism or comments such as “you’re like a 4th child!” are the background for hearing the news that your partner now wants to diagnose you so that you can get treated.  So…

Do your research.  Learn about ADHD first, preferably from a strengths-based expert such as Dr. Hallowell (see my resources area for some ideas of good books, etc.)  This will help you understand that ADHD is not always a curse and can really be an asset when managed.  It’s also important to start thinking about how YOU also play a role in your marital dynamics by learning more about the impact that ADHD has on relationships.  This will help you resist suggesting him/her about your suspicions about ADHD at a “blaming” moment.

Let him/her discover it by him/herself.  If you have a child with ADHD, chances are good that one of the biological parents has it.  Many adults realize they have ADHD when reading up to help their child (the symptoms look so familiar!)  So make sure to involve your partner in the learning process that goes on after a child is diagnosed.  If you don’t have kids, you might be able to use another “self-discovery” method.  One man wrote in our forum that his wife had suggested he had an employee with ADHD, and provided him with one of Hallowell’s books so he could address his business problem.  As he wrote… “it was never about the employee…”  A third option is to ask your partner to listen to the audiobook of Delivered from Distraction with you (there is an abridged version available – about 3-4 hours) on a long car trip.  Just because you’ve heard it’s good.

Be supportive, not critical (even unintentionally so).  When/if your partner does bring up the topic of ADHD, just be supportive without taking it any further.  In other words “hmmm….that’s really an interesting idea.  Why do you think you might have ADHD?” is a better response than “I thought you have ADHD!  That explains why you’ve had all these problems over the years!  If you get treatment, I bet our marriage will get better, too!”  Both are enthusiastic responses, but the second one starts to burden the spouse with problems and subtle behavioral critiques before he/she even gets to a doctor.  You don’t want to add anything that might overwhelm your partner and slow down the evaluative process or give your partner something to dread.

If your partner does get angry if you plant the idea that ADHD may be at play, the best response is to do the following:

First, make sure that you aren’t implying in any way that your partner is solely to blame for your problems and you think ADHD is the reason.  This attitude, even communicated in a subtle way, can result in resistance.  If, upon reflection, you realize that you did communicate this, circle back and clarify that you both have contributed to your problems.  Second, back off the ADHD idea, and stick with what your needs are.  So, for example, you might say “I’m not telling you that you have ADHD.  I’m suggesting that research I’ve done suggests it’s just a possibility and it seems as if learning more about it can’t really hurt either of us.  I’m not asking you to commit to any specific type of action, like going to the doctor, really I’m not.  The bottom line is that I don’t really care if we have a label for what’s going on between us, I only care that we start to resolve our issues.  Right now, my main issue is XXX and what I’m doing to work on that is YYY.” 

And, finally...

Paint a picture of the positives.  As Ned Hallowell likes to say, “Finding out you have ADHD is a good news diagnosis.”  It opens up many wonderful options for adults who have previously been blocked by their ADHD symptoms.  Some of these positives include:

  • Better performance at work, and better job security
  • Being able to start and complete things you really want to do, with less distraction
  • Better integration into family life as others learn they can depend upon you
  • Being confident in what you are doing, rather than wondering when the other shoe will drop (again!)
  • Fewer car accidents
  • Ability to be a better conversationalist and enjoy the enhanced friendships and marriages that enables
  • Improvement in your marriage and romantic life

And these are just a few…