How did you learn your partner has ADHD? That was one of 64 questions in the ADHD Partner Survey.
Put another way: What was your “lightbulb moment”? These findings from the ADHD Partner Survey detail how respondents (the partners of adults with ADHD) did finally see the light. I’d love to learn your path to discovery—please leave a comment below.
But First, One Reason We Don’t “See ADHD”
Before we get to the survey results, I want to highlight an all-too-common phenomenon. We think we know ADHD because we’ve known one person with ADHD. That narrow understanding means we risk missing the bigger picture.
As I repeat to participants of online training (Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle):
People with ADHD are not clones. They are individuals experiencing various aspects of this highly variable syndrome. Then there is the rest of personality to consider.
We see it happen in families, where one child’s “obviously ADHD” becomes the standard by which their siblings are considered. Yet, if their ADHD-related challenges manifest differently—or to a milder but still significant degree? ADHD might be on no one’s radar.
We see similar in adult relationships. Consider Carrie’s experience:
In 2008-09 I did major reading on ADHD. I even contacted Gina because I was dating someone who met so many of the criteria. When I gently told him what I suspected, of course he felt offended and angry at me for awhile. I broke up with him because his life was chaotic. A few years later he comes to me and says I believe you were right about ADHD. I have had it all my life.
Then in 2012 I met my husband who I did not suspect had ADHD. But right after our marriage, life became chaotic, he’d lose things, was easily distracted and talked constantly. He often made plans without me, changed those plans unilaterally, had to have all control, and the list goes on. I followed the typical partner role, just totally confused about the chaos, trying to keep the peace. But he had a quick temper and a loose tongue that would quickly cut me to pieces emotionally. I divorced him after 6 years of lingering, chronic pain and depression. As soon as he was out of the house I was back to my own self in a month. It was like waking from a nightmare.
After my divorce, one of his family members told me they suspected he had adult ADHD. Suddenly I remembered the list of behaviors of ADHD and he was so classic. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Undiagnosed ADHD had caused our divorce. Just blew me away that I could have so much knowledge about ADHD and be so unaware for 6 years. I just assumed he was verbally abusive and a control freak.
We have both suffered so much and it makes me sad I didn’t see it in the beginning. He has a daughter and grandson with ADHD. We still love each other and we are considering reconciling, but I don’t know how to tell him about ADHD.
How Did You Learn Your Partner has ADHD?
How did you learn that you or your loved one has ADHD? Was it by accident? You were reading an article and thought—wait a minute. That’s ADHD? Or did the professional your partner saw for depression or anxiety suggest the possibility? Or maybe it was your couple therapist?
There’s always the classic method: A child is diagnosed. Upon learning the symptoms, the parent says, “Wow, that sounds just like I used to be!” And the spouse says, “What do you mean, used to be?”
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But there are endless other predictable and oddball ways the discovery comes to light.
The public mostly fails to understand: We can live with someone who has ADHD for years and not know it. And guess what, neither do they!
Only 1 in 10 U.S. Adults With ADHD Are Diagnosed
Only 1 in 10 U.S. adults thought to have ADHD are diagnosed. Wow, eh? That research is a few years old; the number could be greater now. Maybe as much as 3 or 4 adults out of 10 in the U.S.are diagnosed. For various statistics on prevalence in the U.S., visit the National Institute for Mental Health page on ADHD. But remember: prevalence doesn’t mean diagnosed. It’s just an estimate of how common ADHD really is.
Meanwhile, the ways in which adults today continue to stumble upon the idea that they might have ADHD are myriad and random. The Internet has helped, though—enormously. COVID fast-tracked the need for finally pursuing that evaluation.
Shen I conducted the survey, however, in 2004-06, there were no websites on Adult ADHD. That’s right. None! This ADHD Roller Coaster blog was among the first of four blogs on Adult ADHD, in 2008. Three others were personal accounts from newly diagnosed adults with ADHD, all no longer publishing.
How Did You Learn Your Partner Has Adult ADHD?
For most respondents, the media and/or their therapists connected their partner’s behavior to ADHD symptoms. And, therapists did this five times more often than the family doctor.
For a minority of respondents (partners of adults with ADHD), their ADHD partner told them of their childhood or adult diagnosis. Only about 13 percent reported that their ADHD partner is the one who made the potential discovery. This underscores the frequent importance of the partner or other loved one taking the lead in learning.
Contrary to widely held myth, advertisements for ADHD medications did not send adults flocking to psychiatrists for a prescription. But I believe they remain an important way to let the public know that ADHD exists. That’s how at least one survey respondent learned—and I know many others. Following are selected comments from ADHD Partner Survey respondents to this question: How did you learn your partner has ADHD?
Professionals Shed Light:
• Our (fourth) couples therapist suggested he be tested, since in her experience, every time a partner said, “My spouse acts just like a teenager” the “teenager” usually had ADHD. Bingo! It didn’t hurt that he was 40 minutes late to our first joint appointment.
• As a therapist, I work with schoolchildren, some with neurological problems. I always sensed something neurological was going on with my partner. Then her 20-year-old nephew received his diagnosis, with symptoms remarkably similar to hers.
• Seeing our doctor for stress once again, I told him that no, it wasn’t from dealing with my son, who has autism; it was from dealing with my husband. The doctor casually said, “It’s probably because he has ADHD.” I talked about it with my husband’s cousin, who works with special needs kids. She confirmed my husband has a “classic case”! Ha! I wish someone had let me in on this little secret a long time ago.
• After we’d been together for four years, my wife’s “refusal” to communicate plus her forgetfulness, disorganization, and poor judgment led me to think she should seek a professional evaluation. Fortunately, the psychologist recognized ADHD right away.
• I was looking into helping our younger daughter and noticed that my husband met many ADHD criteria. But this is what truly opened my eyes: My therapist said I wasn’t the one with the problem, and suggested I stop taking antidepressants and instead encourage my husband to be evaluated.
• My girlfriend was taking a calculus course for the third time, the only thing stopping her from completing her degree. When she failed the course again, the department head suggested an ADHD evaluation.
Professionals Remain in the Dark:
• We watched a TV show where a highly creative person described his life before and after medication. Joe said, “Hey, that’s me!” He received a diagnosis shortly afterward but never pursued treatment. The doc said it was Joe’s responsibility to follow up. I didn’t know back then that “poor follow up” is a common symptom in and of itself!
• My husband asked our doctor about it years ago. The doctor said, wrongly, “If you can read a book, you are not ADHD.” A therapist said my husband was passive-aggressive. I read an article with a behavior list resembling passive-aggression, but it was for ADHD.
Educational Perspectives on Late-diagnosis ADHD:
• I am an elementary school teacher. Many of my students have ADHD, and it is obvious many of their parents do as well. Gradually, I made the connection to my husband’s behavior.
• I was in graduate school studying psychology, and a fellow student told me my husband’s actions sounded like ADHD. I had just had a class that covered ADHD for children, but they never mentioned adults. The behaviors are often different, so it just didn’t connect in my mind.
• His professor suggested it, based on how many right answers my boyfriend had crossed out on a test and changed to the wrong ones.
Completely Random Discoveries:
• My boyfriend was smart but couldn’t read aloud without stammering. He also missed details and ”distorted the facts.” I thought, dyslexia. It took years of research to figure out he probably had ADHD.
• My husband’s friend was diagnosed. When he described to us the behaviors, we realized that my husband had them, too. Then, his father was diagnosed.
• I suggested that my wife’s son might have it. Her ex-husband seemed to have it, too, it was less clear if she did. After “crashing and burning” a few years later, though, she was diagnosed. Her high intelligence meant she had always coping • strategies but, by age 45, she’d hit the wall.
• We saw a TV commercial for medication. My boyfriend said, “That’s exactly how my brain works”. His nephew has ADHD. He was much like him as a kid. A screening quiz indicated he might have it. He scoffed: “They’re trying to sell medication!” My quiz score said I probably did not have ADHD. He made an appointment for an evaluation and was diagnosed.
• I’d read a book about Adult ADHD, to better understand some friends who have ADHD. Still, I didn’t notice symptoms in my partner for the first six months, because she was in “hyperfocus mode” all the way. It seems the novelty of the new relationship was so stimulating, it helped her brain function better. After living together full-time, though, it only took about three months to realize that she probably had ADHD. It took three years for her to agree to an evaluation, and sure enough, she has it.
• I knew something was wrong and desperately searched for answers on the web by “Googling” phrases like “Why do I hate my spouse?” Finally, I learned about ADHD. It fit.
What About You?
How did you and/or your partner make the connection to ADHD? And, has that made a difference in your lives? PlEASE SHARE IN A COMMENT BELOW.
An earlier version of this post appeared Apr 27, 2016