The Signs of Adult ADHD are Obvious, Right? Wrong!

signs of adult ADHD
If you or your partner has ADHD, the signs would be obvious, yes? The signs of Adult ADHD would show themselves at the very beginning of the relationship, yes? Well…, not exactly. It might be true if you know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, most people do not.

If you or your partner is about 30 or younger, chances improve that ADHD symptoms will be obvious. That’s because awareness and diagnosis has improved in the last 20 years.

Better childhood screening means more of today’s young adults with ADHD were diagnosed long ago. Let’s assume they received proper education and treatment. That would mean they enter relationships fully aware of their strengths and challenges and have embraced good compensatory strategies. That’s a big assumption.

Many others with a childhood diagnosis believe they “outgrew” ADHD. Maybe they never tried medication—or abandoned it once they left their parents’ house.

For most ADHD Partner Survey respondents, however, their ADHD partners were 30 and older when they took the survey in 2004 or 2006. For them, ADHD long flew far under the radar screen—sometimes for decades.

Misconceptions about what ADHD is—and is not—can prove a huge obstacle to recognizing the signs of Adult ADHD. You’ll find a list of such misconceptions below.

In large part, that’s why these stalwart survey takers persevered through an exhaustive 54-section survey: They wanted to share the knowledge they learned the hard way, to help others on the learning curve. Endless thanks to them.

Respondents Emphasize Three Key Points

1. They knew their partner for a long time before ever suspecting ADHD. That is mainly because they knew very little about ADHD and most of what they did know was wrong.

2. They discovered the possibility by randomly coming across a website, article, or book. More recently, a therapist made the discovery. Family doctors seldom recognized it. (If they did, they didn’t mention it.)

3. They wish they’d known earlier. Ignorance cost them and their families a great deal of money, pain, and anguish.

Respondents’ Frame of Reference:

  • Most survey respondents reported that their ADHD partners had not been diagnosed before they met.
  • Half said that their partner’s problematic ADHD symptoms surfaced after only weeks, months, or one year into the relationship.
  • For 72 percent, the ADHD partner received a professional evaluation for ADHD during the relationship. Of those, 90 percent were indeed diagnosed. In most cases, the partner of the adult with ADHD initiated the discussion after seeing a TV show or reading a book, website, or article. (In only four percent of cases did the family physician suggest the possibility.)
  • Half reported that difficulties took even longer to unfold, precipitated by increased responsibilities (children, employment, a mortgage, etc.). Life simply started demanding more than their brain function could handle. (Yes, this happens to many of us at some point. But for people with ADHD, it tends to happen sooner or more severely.)
  • The survey provided many opportunities to provide details with text responses.

Below are representative responses to the question: “What did you know about Adult ADHD before your partner’s diagnosis?”

As you can see, there was nothing obvious about the signs of Adult ADHD.

ADHD Meant Hyperactivity—In Kids!

• ADHD meant hyperactivity in kids made worse through poor diet. Most people in the UK still don’t know it affects adults.

• My college roommate had ADHD and was on Ritalin for her hyperactivity. Until my husband’s diagnosis, I never knew you could have ADHD and show symptoms of lethargy.

• ADHD seemed a yuppie disease, an excuse for everything. Now I accept it’s a valid diagnosis, but my wife (who has it) doesn’t!

• Growing up, my cousin had very hyperactive ADHD. He took Ritalin and struggled in school. I never thought it manifested itself in adults because everyone said kids grow out of it.

• All I knew was that my husband had been called “hyperactive” as a child. The “solution” was to restrict sugar. Um, yeah.

• ADHD was for kids! Years ago, my husband read Driven to Distraction, but I ignored his saying it sounded just like him. For 25 years, he’d diagnosed himself with the disorder in every self-help book he read so I was numb to the diagnosis du jour. Turns out, he was right!

• I’m a psychotherapist, so my training made me aware of it in children, but I had no idea how it affected adult relationships.

• I was suspicious about this diagnosis, viewing it as a “catch-all” label for children with learning disabilities.

Denial Obscures Clarity

• I knew about my wife’s ADHD diagnosis but for years we didn’t realize how it affected our relationship. The forgetting and “absent-mindedness” I could deal with. Only later did I realize the depression, agitation, and blaming that was destroying our marriage were common ADHD traits, too. I believed her that her unhappiness was my fault.

• My husband’s psychiatrist-father knew of his son’s challenges starting early in life. Yet, he believes his genes are too superior for such a diagnosis. He blamed all his son’s problems on someone or something else. For years, I believed him. After all, he was the expert, right? Boy, that was helpful. Thanks, Dad! Fortunately, we figured it out ourselves and now with treatment my husband’s doing great.

To learn more about the key issues people with ADHD face at various ages, check this simple infographic on ADHD through the lifespan at the National Resource Center on ADHD website.

Also from the ADHD Partner Survey

“I Wish I’d Known Earlier About Adult ADHD”

How About You? Were the signs of Adult ADHD Obvious?

Did you have misconceptions about Adult ADHD before you learned the facts?

Feel free to share them in a comment. It’s easy, and you don’t have to register. Just write it in the box below.

—Gina Pera


33 thoughts on “The Signs of Adult ADHD are Obvious, Right? Wrong!”

  1. Hi my name is Nick I was diagnosed with Adhd at age 14 I was impossible in school. I really didn’t know if I had it I thought I was just going through puberty and was more into girls and being with friends than school. I did graduate barely thanks to meds. Now I’m 36 I’ve started stopped meds because I don’t want to be medicated but it’s the only time life comes together. I like many thought adHD was all about hyperactivity which I wasn’t physically but severely mentally. For example I drive my girlfriend nuts trying to watch a movie. I will be looking right at the t.v. and I pick up nothing and have to start the movie over. The best way to describe it is there’s a movie constantly playing in my mind and nothing else gets through. The biggest thing I found out recently is the impulsiveness and compulsive behavior.associated with adhd. IT ALL MADE SENCE my whole life I have been pretty much been doing things on instinct because of the lack of being able to stop and think it out. Also starting many projets and not finishing any. But now I’m staying on meds and it’s working out. It’s all about knowledge of all the symptoms of adhd are. Once you know it’s much easier to work through it. Hope this helps.

    1. Hey Nick,

      I love your short but vivid description — that your experience of ADHD is “there’s a movie constantly playing in my mind and nothing else gets through.”

      I’m really glad you’ve made peace with medication, and that it’s helping you.


  2. I had no idea about ADHD. As I’ve said in another post, my nearly adult daughter’s life was falling apart and, looking back, I knew she had always been ‘unusual’ (often in positive ways) and, being bright, no one was worried. I actually wondered if she might have mild Aspergers. Then she was diagnosed with ADD, which amazed me. But in my research, I realised that I had the same condition. And I was diagnosed a month after her. However, when my husband suggested he might have ADD too, I just laughed and said ‘don’t be silly!’ He’d been in very senior positions at various schools, including principal, for years, is highly educated, self-taught musician, handy at DIY… But the more I thought about it, the easier it was to understand. It explained so many things, and has actually made it easier for me to cope with the things that used to upset me – especially how he did so little when he came home as he was always tired … unless he was going out to play music, when he ‘miraculously’ seemed to have unlimited energy. We are waiting for an appointment now for him to be assessed.
    We are in NZ and there is very little offered either to children or adults in terms of assessing for the condition. I had to really fight for my daughter and, even when she had been diagnosed and my GP was certain I would be, I was only offered some counselling sessions (for what purpose, I have no idea) and had to go privately to be assessed.

    1. Hi Belinda,

      I really appreciate your sharing the details of your experience with ADHD in NZ, though I’m sorry you and your family have had to live it.

      So often, people criticize the diagnosis rates of ADHD in the U.S. by comparing them to much lower rates in other countries. As if that’s proof that we’re all marching to Big Pharma’s orders, instead of it being the other way around — that national health systems in other countries are denying people treatment.

      How smart of you to figure it out — and write books and earn awards, despite not knowing you have ADHD. I know, it’s hard not to reframe one’s history through the lens of knowing about ADHD earlier. People deserve to know, to have the option of treatment.

      Good luck,

  3. I only discovered that my husband had ADHD after my son was diagnosed when he was around 7 years of age. The stresses of bringing up children and managing finances were the main game changers for us.

    I knew after about 3 years into our marriage that something was wrong with my husbands abilities to manage finance. Then I noticed there was something going on with the long term goal setting itself. It was like I was speaking another language when I brought up these issues with him. I went through years of thinking I was just a pain in the butt with inappropriately harsh expectations. I slowly began to fall apart with the stresses of my own work and holding everything up while he denied anything was amiss.

    When my son was diagnosed – my jaw fell – literally – as I sat with the doctor, the tears just fell. Suddenly I understood it all. I was not going mad – there really was something wrong and it all now made sense. I tried to get the right help after that, but it was not easy to find the right professionals in Australia. Medication for my ex-husband has not had a great effect and we couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between us. In the mean time our marriage disintegrated and it is still impossible to reason and negotiate with my ex-husband as we try to co-parent in separate houses.

    Now after so many challenges and so much sadness, my focus is on helping my son to develop and get the right treatments early in life. I hope that he can blossom and be a functional husband one day.

    1. Hi Penny,

      Thank you for sharing your experience.

      It’s crazy, isn’t it? That adults could have such a potentially debilitating condition, in this 21st Century, and not only don’t they know it, but they also are poorly supported by physicians and therapists.

      I’m constantly aware of this. I cannot imagine any other health condition being so ignored and even stigmatized.

      My friends raising children with ADHD say it’s totally different, to raise a child knowing that he or she has ADHD. The “emotional baggage” for one — of not knowing why they have the challenges they do — is diminished. The issues are talked about, strategies employed, medication taken to improve brain function. It makes a huge difference, they say, compared to their late-diagnosis partners.


  4. Before I was diagnost I didn’t know anything about ADHD wasn’t until I was married for a short time and devorcd and blaming myself for why my marriage didn’t work out and doing a lot of research then in 2013 a Doctor helped me to relize that I have ADHD but to late now that my marriage is over oh well

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that the news came too late.

      I’ve known many people who’ve gone on to have happy relationships once they were diagnosed. It seems it’s never too late. 🙂


  5. Pingback: Adult ADHD Myth #1: "ADHD is for Kids!" - ADHD Roller Coaster

    1. Hi Lynn,

      You know, I really should have a “partner test,” shouldn’t I?

      But maybe you’re talking about the ADHD Partner Survey, on which this blog is based?

      I conducted that survey several years ago, and I use this blog to share the results. I have thought about re-opening the survey but haven’t made any plans to do that yet.

      If I do, I will let the readers of this blog know.

      thank you!

  6. All of my boyfriend’s friends and family that I have met keep saying, “That’s just how he is”. They don’t “believe” in ADHD, of course.

    Each of them has described a “quirk” to me, but nobody figured out
    that those quirks added up to this ADHD problem.

    These are some of the things they have said to me:

    “You can’t tell him too much, just say exactlywhat you want, or what you mean, or he won’t be able to respond.”

    “I don’t know why he’s 49 and single, he seems like a nice guy, just hasn’t found the right girl.”

    “He has all these brilliant ideas, I don’t know why he doesn’t make any money.”

    “My sister said he seems to drink a lot, but she doesn’t drink, so maybe it just seems like a lot to her.” (self-medicating?)

    “I’m worried about his hearing, sometimes when we talk to him he just doesn’t hear me.”

    “We told him the dates and times, but he just doesn’t remember, or he didn’t want you to know.”

    Because he travels, we weren’t together for a length of time so that I could
    observe all these behaviors and add them up. Individually these behaviors
    are “quirks”; added together I think it is a diagnosis. Mostly the not
    hearing/not remembering.

    I have to find out his job schedule from his brother’s girlfriend. I thought I was looking like an idiot because my BF didn’t tell me anything, or he was keeping it from me ( a major relationship violation). Aarrgghh!

  7. Thanks Diane and Linda for your comments. I’m sorry I’m late in responding. Last year was a whirlwind of traveling, speaking, blogging, and moderating various support groups. I’m still catching my breath!

    I’m glad you found the support you were seeking at a CHADD meeting, Diane. It’s a great organization, with all chapters run by local volunteers.

    Linda, I am shocked that the possibility of brain trauma after that car accident was never discussed with you and your parents. Dr. Amen has done us all a great service by always strongly emphasizing how common brain injuries are and how seldom psychiatrists will ask about them.

    I think I understand what you’re saying about attending a group. So much of the “tone” of the group depends on the regular attendees and the moderator. Maybe you could contact the leader of any group in your area and ask about the group first.

    Our local group in Palo Alto is a very friendly and welcoming group. In fact, it’s quite entertaining! No one is put on the spot, yet eventually everyone feels comfortable contributing and conversing. We all learn a tremendous amount, and there is often a great sense of relief among newcomers….finally, people who get it.

    Maybe by now you’ve gotten through more of the book and have a better sense of the treatment strategies available to people with ADHD.

    I suspect that part of the “overwhelm” you fear might be not knowing what to do after you start acknowledging the more troublesome aspects of ADHD symptoms (including driving your husband insane…that’s never good…lol!). It might feel like opening a Pandora’s box.

    In that case, it probably makes sense to find a group that is moderated by someone who is very knowledgeable in ADHD and its treatment — perhaps a therapist who specializes in it.

    My best to you both,

  8. Before I was diagnosed in 2002, I thought that ADHD was something that children had, but that they would grow out of it. After all, my sibling grew up with an learning disability and ADHD. Then I went to a psychiatrist for an evaluation to have weight loss surgery, and after the 2nd meeting he told me that he thought that I had ADD, too! I left that meeting thinking that this doctor surely had bumped his head, that he had NO clue about that. After all, I wasn’t hyper, and I certainly wasn’t learning disabled! So, I guess that I believed that the 2 diagnoses went hand in hand.

    Shortly thereafter, I stumbled onto a website hosted by Daniel G. Amen, MD and I decided to take his ADD quiz. Sure enough, I answered those questions and the quiz came back with the probable diagnosis of ADD. So, I started reading all that I could about the subject, and finally I agreed with the original diagnosis.

    However, my ADD did not originate in my childhood. My ADD came from a traumatic brain injury when I was 13. I was involved in a rear-end collision, and my forehead bubbled the windshield. Hence, the frontal lobes were damaged in that accident. I never understood why I did such a huge turnaround in the way that I was before the accident and the way that I was afterwards. It was literally 180 degrees of difference in the child before and after. I always attributed this change to my parent’s getting a divorce, and it wasn’t until I read Amen’s Healing the Hardware of the Soul that I realized where the ADD came from.

    I do embrace my ADD. I do not consider it to be a character flaw or a defect in who I am. I think it makes me “colorful”, creative, and interesting. I do drive my husband insane with the impulsivity aspect, however.

    I hope to find some sort of online support group if possible. I am not so sure that I am ready to face a group of folks with ADD. On one hand, it would be a relief to know that I am not alone, but on the other hand I think it would make the symptoms that I deal with every day so much more larger than life, which would overwhelm me to the point that I would fixate on what is wrong with me, if that makes any sense.

    I will continue reading this book and see what I can glean from it to make our lives less chaotic and far more pleasurable. Thanks so much for writing this book!

  9. A little over a year ago a profressional organizer friend I’d hired to help me clear clutter and implement a basic filing system asked if I’d ever considered that I had ADD. I was a bit stunned. Years ago when I realized my son had ADD I also thought I had this too. But no one was talking about it so I didn’t look at it again until the organizer suggested it. So, it was quite an eye opener at my first Chad meeting.
    When my husband came to a few meetings it was really huge because all these years he + I thought all these behaviors like lateness, absentmindedness, having multiple streams of thought , difficulties with money were all personality disorders that he would be upset wth me over.
    He became a lot more considerate and calmer. The meetings gave me hope and understanding.

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