How to Tell If Your Relationship Problems Are Actually Due to Undiagnosed ADHD


(Photo: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health)

On my birthday last year, my husband sweetly suggested we meet for lunch at a museum. “I only have an hour,” he said. “Please, be on time.” Of course, I assured him. I planned my whole day around it … and got there exactly 15 minutes late to an exasperated husband who thought I didn’t value our date. We were only able to spend 45 minutes together, and we spent half of that time bickering.

Stuff like this happens to us at least once a week. It’s exhausting. As much as I’d like to blame the train, my slow dog, demanding work emails, or mercury retrograde, the main culprit here is really my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I’m one of an estimated 10 million adults with ADHD. Many of the symptoms — distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, forgetfulness, inability to tolerate boredom — turn typical marital arguments into long, hard, hurtful wars.


The writer, Sabrina, with her husband, Allen; son, Nate; and dog, India. (Photo courtesy of Sabrina Rojas Weiss)

My husband and I were not yet married, but living together when I was first diagnosed (one too many dramatic, tearful reactions to being late to my therapist’s office was the big tip-off). Finding out I was wired differently was a huge “a-ha!” moment that explained a lot about my “space cadet” childhood and the way I beat myself up over losing small things. All these years later, though, I know that my symptoms can still disrupt life for my husband and cause a downward spiral of misunderstandings if we’re not careful.

“The presence of ADHD encourages very specific patterns in relationships, and some of the most damaging of those are misinterpretation of symptoms,” Melissa Orlov, a marriage consultant and the author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, tells Yahoo Health.

In couples where undiagnosed ADHD is present, these patterns can be painful, but they can also be helpful signs pointing to the disorder. If one of these sounds familiar, it might be time to take the first step toward better understanding each other, and yourselves.

Some Patterns To Watch For

One of the most common patterns in an ADHD relationship is that one partner does a disproportionate amount of work in the household, because it’s equally difficult for people with the disorder to initiate tasks and to complete them. One partner is always nagging; the other is always defensive.

Related: Can’t Focus? Maybe It’s Adult ADHD

“[Household chores and childcare] are typically unstructured, and creating a structure to do something in is typically not an ADHD strong point,” Orlov explains.

In addition, Orlov often spots what she calls the “parent-child” dynamic, where the non-ADHD partner is in a dominant role over the ADHD spouse. “That’s an unhealthy dynamic for the relationship,” she says. Adding to this problem is the easily distracted nature of the ADHD spouse, which can be misinterpreted as a lack of romantic interest.

Speaking of children, the disorder is inherited, so sometimes the biggest clue to adult ADHD is when his/her child is diagnosed.

Related: What I Wish I’d Known About Girls With ADHD

Another source of tension: The ADHD spouse doesn’t do his/her share, shows up late, or can’t seem to keep a job — but it’s not for lack of trying, or at least pledging to try. “It’s a mismatch between good intentions and actual follow-through,” Orlov says. I really want to get there in time, finish the three craft projects I left on the table, plan our vacation, pay the bills — something else is always getting in my way!

That Sounds Like Us — What Do We Do?

1. Get a professional diagnosis.

Checking out online resources is a great start, but it’s a good idea to get a full evaluation from a medical professional, especially because ADHD can sometime come with depression, learning disorders, and anxiety. The “a-ha!” moment of finding out the reason for a lifetime of struggle is the biggest leap you’ll ever take toward healing.

Related: 6 Surprising Signs You May Have ADHD

2. Get treatment.

In addition to medication — which I will attest, can work wonders — there are other therapeutic options. By the way, if you’re considering marriage counseling, make sure your therapist understands ADHD, otherwise he/she may do more harm than good, misinterpreting symptoms as lack of effort.

3. Work together, with empathy.

Once you’ve recognized that ADHD is the culprit, you can attempt to stop what Orlov calls “Symptom-Response-Response” behavior. When I was late, my husband assumed I didn’t value our date and reacted with anger, making me defensive and angry in turn. I need to learn what it feels like to sit there and wait for me time and again. He needs to know that time management for me is like trying to do complex mathematical equations with a broken calculator.

“If you open a nonjudgmental conversation about ADHD, then at some point your husband would realize that you’re not going to be able to control everything, because you have ADHD,” Orlov says. “Then the chore is for the two of you to sit down and discuss, ‘What is most important for us as a couple?’”

And remember this: ADHD doesn’t have to define your relationship, and it can even be part of why you make a great team.

"One of the things I most like about my own relationship is that we are so different,” Orlov says of being married to a man with ADHD. “Even now, we’ve been married 26 years and we still surprise each other sometimes, which is great. There’s a real energy that comes from the fact that we are so different.”

Visit Orlov’s site,, for resources and more information.

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