"I'm Distracted. I've Got ADHD. Get over it!"

I was speaking in New York recently and was asked an excellent question by a man who has ADHD.  The gist of it was this:

“My girlfriend sends me emails all the time when I’m at work and then gets angry with me when I don’t respond consistently.  My reaction is to simply tell her ‘I’m distracted – I’ve got ADHD.  I often forget to respond to you.  Get over it!’  What do you think about that response?”  Here’s my answer:

1.     We forget in this day of instant communication that just because we send it does not mean that the person on the other end is in a position to immediately respond (or thinks that it’s important to drop everything to answer you.)  Is it really more important that your partner give you feedback on which restaurant he prefers than that he finish the report upon which his job performance reviews depend?  That he text you back during a big meeting that needs his attention?  Differentiate between truly important messages (i.e. a response before the end of the day, or immediately, is genuinely critical) vs. “nice to have” (i.e. ‘I want your input, but it can wait‘ if it has to.)  One way to do this is with a numeric code at the beginning of a text or in a message header.  We’ve settled upon ‘911’ to indicate when a message is an emergency – but in all of the years we’ve had the code ready, have never actually needed to use it.  Once you start to think of differentiating between “emergency” and not, it’s amazing how much stuff can wait.

2.     Remember that getting back on task from an interuption takes much longer than you think it does – 4-15 minutes, depending upon who you listen to.  This is particularly true of people with ADHD, who often have great difficulty “engaging” in a task to begin with.  You do your partner a disservice when you interrupt them unnecessarily.

Get those two points out of the way, though, and I would like to address the underlying hostility in the words “I’ve got ADHD.  Get over it.”  After you strip away the issues of good communication etiquette, what I really think is going on here is a power struggle.  Who will be in charge of how this man organizes his day?  Will he get dinged when he makes choices other than those that exactly match his partner’s priorities?

Furthermore, if this couple fits the profile of many I work with, the reason the partner complains about this man’s lack of responsiveness may be that she is feeling that it is symbolic of a larger lack of attention.  While she may not have thought of it as such, she feels that he ignores her or “forgets” about her more than feels comfortable.

So looking at his question from that point of view, I would also offer the following advice to the ADHD man who asked the question:

1.     Sit down with your partner and have a conversation about the underlying issues – 1.) whether or not you pay enough attention to her and 2.) that you are an independent person capable of making your own decisions about priorities while at work.  Ask her questions until you feel you fully understand the feelings that drive her to feel unhappy.

2.     Assess whether or not your partner’s complaints are symbolic of a larger problem in your relationship.  Is she feeling unloved or unattended to?  Does it have to do with your ADHD symptoms?

3.     Make sure your partner understands that when you are at work, work is most often your top priority – but that when you are at home, you know that home (and your partner) are tops

4.     MAKE SURE that you have enough time focused on your partner to satisfy her – and you.

5.     Be empathetic to her requests and negotiate a solution that works for you both.  The “your needs don’t count” attitude of the statement “get used to it” will hurt your relationship more than help it.