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. I am 74 and I have just learned about ADHD to try and understand my Granddaughter more.

    I saw a video on all the symptoms. I completely forgot my purpose of watching the video as I am now thinking…why is this man talking about me?

    Now, after watching videos by Dr Barkley and others and reading a number of books, and taking tests, I am 100 % sure.

    School was a disaster for me for a start. My past now makes sense. Diagnosing is a big problem here…one part-time doctor and very expensive and I of course have other medical going on now too.

    I decided I am just going to get on with it and make adjustments in my ways to accommodate the problems. My marriage of 39 years fell apart many years prior and I am now with someone for 14 years who has already seen some changes in me.

    The big thing right now is the guilt I now feel that maybe it was me all along, that turned the first marriage upside down. He reacted and did stuff and then I reacted etc. My kids suffered, and the lists go on.

    I also have held onto every single bit of trauma that went wrong since I was a kid and carried forward. I need to learn and turn it off. The last thing at my age I wanted to do was destroy and rebuilt myself.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for writing.

      Isn’t that something? 74, and you’re just now learning. Multiply that by a few million.

      I hope that you find some comfort in having an “explanation” and that whatever feelings of guilt you might have about your previous marriage are tempered by, “But nobody knew.”

      The guilt, imho, should be within a medical and mental-health community that has for too long resisted overwhelming evidence of this syndrome we call ADHD.

      Your plan sounds reasonable to me. At this point — with limited local resources, amid a pandemic — trying to get an evaluation and/or treatment might just be an exercise in frustration.

      With the new ADHD framework, I hope you can target strategies that prove helpful. Environmental supports can be enormously helpful—once we know why and how they can be useful.

      best of luck,

  2. Two children and an unhappy 26 yr marriage to a forgetful and irresponsible husband, my married 28-yr old son (who had flunked out of 3 colleges, arrested for DUI, driving 90 mph 2x and another arrest which was drug related) came home to live after he had brain tumor surgery that affected his executive functioning (can you believe the irony…).

    As a child, son was highly involved in competitive swimming and lived in a highly structured environment at home. Once he left for college, his world fell apart.

    Recently while he was recovering from his surgery and living in my home, I observed closely his daily behaviors which did not appear to have improved over his early 20’s: he destroyed my personal property, wandered house at all hours of the night, multiple car accidents, video-gamed all day and talked in stream-of-consciousness style that unnerved me.

    I gathered the family together and said: “I think there is something wrong here”. They accused me of being a liar, said I was overreacting, that I was trying to find something wrong with him. I wasn’t, I swear I knew that there had to be an answer out there somewhere and I didn’t want to see my son “lose” another decade of his life to useless spinning his wheels in life.

    His behavior was a mirror image of his father’s irresponsible, odd and risky behavior when he was in his 20’s and 30’s. It had an uncanny resemblance.

    I began to research to find out how mental issues could be inherited. And I arrived in the land of Adult ADHD. Now comes the hardest part: to bring the family around to the possibility that just maybe there is a reason why our son has so many difficulties with daily activities and responsibilities.

    1. Dear Melanie,

      I wish you all the best in trying to bring the rest of your family in.

      Sometimes we have to ignore family “gaslighting” (trying to tell us what we see isn’t there) and seek support elsewhere.

      It’s important that you be validated in your perceptions because that will help to eventually convince him and get help for him.

      There is 10 years worth of posts on this blog. If you cannot find a local discussion group for the parents of adults with ADHD, reading some of the posts and the comments might help.

      You could check the chapter locator for the non-profit

      I am sorry that the epiphany came so late. This is what I work to change.

      good luck,

    2. Melanie,
      I am the irresponsible, lazy ADHDer in a 30 year, recently very unhappy marriage.

      I was not diagnosed until 5 years ago. My ADHD was undiscovered because I bright and lived in a very strict house until I went away to college where I almost flunked out, but managed to graduate after 5 1/2 years. Started work and did reasonably well, until I had a brain tumor removed in my late 20s.

      All my ADHD deficits which I had kept hidden could now be blamed on the tumor (except my wife says I was irresponsible, lazy, narcissistic etc were there before my brain tumor).

      Good luck bringing the family around. Even with the diagnosis, my wife still views my ADHD traits as character flaws.

      To the uneducated, ADHD really appears to be character flaws under the conscious choice of an individual.

  3. I’m posting again because I have many things on my mind
    and I need to express immediately before the thought leaves me
    Its no surprise that the average person won’t be able to understand
    Frustration I think is a big problem in dealing with people
    For example I just wanted to inform someone of a problem and
    what I plan to do as a start sort of a list of my agenda
    Now I’m having the feeling of why do I tell anybody anything
    I wasn’t looking for advice or approval of my idea just wanted to inform
    I don’t want to argue I have enough trouble dealing with things
    I dont want to hear things that are going to cause me to get sidetracked
    and deviate from my thoughts If I want to get another idea or opinion
    I will ask
    I think I have a more severe attention problem than realized
    I cant say for sure
    because no one knows what another person feels
    for example I broke my back a few years ago other people don’t see
    a wound like a bone sticking through the flesh or something
    so they can’t imagine the pain
    Then on the other side
    I don’t know what they go through either
    I not only feel overwhelemed with the daily routines
    extra problems but I go way out there thinking on a
    sort of artistic thought level
    How does someone explain this to a doctor
    when they have trouble imagining what I feel
    when they are thinking they dont want to get involved
    taking the chance of risk of prescribing mistakes
    not wanting to jeoperodize their career
    when they have plenty of easy to treat clear cut
    problems where the medicine is not subject to
    government approval
    They think what they hear about a dr charged
    at the illegitimate pain clinic
    or the rare case of a child who had a heart attack from
    adderall (btw adderall has ingredients i think in the past
    manufacturers have discarded to increase purity
    Appealing it is because try to take extra on a bad day
    that extra stuff some of what you can get over the counter
    as a nasal inhaler I think the reason it is so unpredictable and
    all of those things need filtered by kidney and liver
    I see this the drs dont know not most pharmacist
    one of the things it has that inital kick no real complaints
    on that amp sulfate
    D-amp sulfate is more mellow allows focus and
    you dont realize its there not to be confused with
    poor quality generics I mean no side effects
    it does last longer especially with a person new to stimulants
    most people I think dont feel much of anything
    it is an aquired taste its the pleasant euphoria
    that is so unique with it They don’t want you to know
    now that there is other crap.
    could you imagine a person with severe problems being allowed
    to experience euphoria
    Its a negative world people need to chill and be a little
    more optimistic
    Every body including the professionals
    I shouldnt need to feel Im on trial
    and they should shouldnt either
    whos the judge
    I seriously think the reason they question my validity
    is because they havent seen a real…severe add
    unable to have what others have accomplished
    No wife kids never a new car no house
    It seems like being a looser makes others
    lash out against me
    I try to stay happy
    Let whatever go and be happy everyone
    that is what the world needs
    to be happy.
    Did no email checking dont want to be sidetracked
    my last post might be too bizzarre
    it meaning many advocates go unheard
    sort of cheerleaders

  4. I thought I got lost for a minute.
    I dont know if these catagories are seperated I dont know if I
    am in the right place.
    well I cant believe I missed
    Gina I search for some adhd answers almost daily
    I like to learn
    Gina is that itallian ,
    I realize itallian is a proper place and should be capitalized
    I like to point out I am actually lazy not kidding i dont like to
    make an effort in the areas of punctuation .
    Does that dissprove adhd well I have more important I say
    I am lucky enough to be heard from I dont get into details or do I
    Well lets say I think I did hear something in the background at school
    could have been a teacher talking sometimes right at me see
    i did math like this in the store hersheys kisses 2.99 I want 3 bags full wait that reminds me of something back to how much it costs 3.00 x3 = 9 – 3 pennys ok 897 right
    if I know why do i need to show the work it wasnt any work.
    get it nobody gets anything they just dont get it.
    I admit they have a secret place i think where they talk about things they dont want me to know.
    mean i admit i think they have .
    I dont get it
    where was i
    Ok so now you know
    I think I can post like a gentleman they taught ettiqutte
    (no one got it ) because I photographed weddings
    I can talk with throwing in a cuss word every sentance
    some think its cute.
    I can hang with any or not
    I liked the hippies i wasnt allowed to be one when i would grow up
    to be that is bad
    we would have to go to vietnam or not
    russia might bomb us I never actually believed those things
    Seems I got off track
    started smoking sitting on the tracks with other 7th graders
    a girl named carole taught me to dutch inhale
    I didnt think about school much or that I had to be given more time and
    Does anybody remember the beatles paul was dead smoking shortens life
    they chain smoked on tv they dont tell what song is about
    ok its the coooh you know paul was a walrus ok …you know those days they delivered milk
    to houses and bread and eggs . had to have corn flakes… out of eggs …finally
    came and thanks the man well off to the park it was another sunny day
    raining in the park did he have a beard i remember a clean shaved group of guys
    sun in the face but after a good smoke in the shade all the kings men
    couldnt put him together again.
    Lady madonna was trying to make ends meet
    see how they run
    so any way here it is….the dr came in stinking of gin and proceeded to lie.

    Hi ;call me T for now thats short for… which is short for…
    PS .been a hard days night
    it shire was
    cast iron are you sure
    careful with glasses
    on and look see
    how do i look
    you wear it well
    everybody knows if it rains the umbrellas will sell
    And you thought they were talking to you and you only
    It don’t come easy we pay the dues we sing the blues special rules for us could apply to anyone

  5. Is there defind difference between short term memory and short term working memory to make the important distinction ?

    Would it be wrong to suggest that the short term memory is picking up too much information (not filtering, as you say) blocking out some information rather than what most people think of when they refer to short term memory loss or deficit.

    1. HI Paul,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. But I think you’re asking if distractibility can interfere with working memory. I’d imagine the answer is yes. 😉


    2. It hard for me to be short worded about anything.

      Distractability and capacity to me are different to me, and an important root of my problem. ( in regards to holding, consciously, quantities of information long enough to get stored appropriately, including sequentially, in long term memory, )

      To me a good short term memory is getting a small set of facts into long term memory and the ability to recall them as needed. Generally I do that fine with that. Even more so when they are meaningful or important to me.

      Short term working memory, to me, is the capacity to hold and arrange a set of related facts, or multiple facts, so that they can be used in the immediate setting and or used through long term memory pathways later.

      My difficulty is that I am juggling internal and external short term facts at the same time, and dealing with the emotions internally in much the same way. There is always plenty of information going in and out and being stored, so much so, that information “sets ” (or patterns) don’t have the time, or pathways in my short term memory to be arranged in a functioning manner or pattern.

      If I try to memorize words to a song, the meaning usually gets stored fairly well. The order and the exact words rarely are right.

      If I want to remember a song, it’s just like I study.
      Record the song, play 3-5 sometimes more words, write the words down, as they are played, repeat.

      Same is true with what I write, if I want to recall it in sequence for presentation.

      Practice practice practice, on everything all the time.

      I can recognize what I have written as mine, but if someone asked me to read it from memory to prove that, I would struggle and likely fail.

      The sequencing of inflow and outflow from long term storage through short term pathways is always, always, always jumbled, unless it can be patterned in short term bites which adds another layer of sequencing.

      I hide that difficulty through avoidance. But I went through much of life invisible to others and myself. Now I seem to communicate well at times, but annoy a lot of times, also. On off like everything else, not entirely in my immediate control.

      Slowing down is too slow to be helpful, more explaination is meaningless to others, speeding up leads to sequencing and pattern errors.

      Writing is better, but takes more time than most would allow.

      Enough said.

    3. Hi Paul,

      I’m not sure how to respond, or even if you desire a response as much as a place to air your thoughts and challenges.

      So I’ll assume the latter. 😉


  6. I’m going out on limb here. Or maybe I’ve been on it 100% of the time.

    If you’ve been abused, discriminated against in reasonble and unbelievable ways, for as long as you can remember, think 3 or 4 years old. Is that normal. Is that someone else’s opinion from what they observed or what I observed? Was, or is it, situation specific, group specific or individual specific? Who’s to say if that’s normal or not? Is it just whining?

    I can see it well from every angle after it has happened, even now. I can blame myself, blame others, forgive them, forgive me, put slightly different slants on it, tilting it to one direction or another. tell me another version and I might be able to see that also. The foundation is based on what’s right, what’s wrong, was the intent malicious, was someone hurt, who gained, who lost. Did both lose, did both gain, was there a lesson, was it all pointless, from whose angle? Your getting the picture.

    When, my whole life, I hope that what I have done and what I do matters, and often the results are well beyond my expectations, even when they go unnoticed. I don’t ever get that jolt of job well done. People also say I don’t feel valued. It’s actually both. And thanks to others in the ADHD field, it makes more sense, as to why it’s so hard to feel joy, or deal with pain yet so easy to feel it so strongly for others. I cry at movies, and happy ending news stories. I want to experience those feelings myself. I can when I’m just watching movies, no immediate tasks in sight. I used to feel those in early grade school to both extremes, but that got “worked” out first by others, and then me. “Must maintain control”, if you want to fit in. (all on all off). Always, in every situation wondering how to and how not to act, occaissionally messing up, making it worse. Still do.

    If I’m with others in real life, to be in control with ADHD, is to always be in control, until I feel safe. I’ve never felt safe. Though I have all that I need, and more. How do you explain that to others, much less yourself.

    But in my eyes, I really don’t, in the sense that I can’t ever feel safe with anyone. I can’t ever relax with others. I can see things as they see them, but I can’t really understand why they see the world in a way that I can’t.
    And they can’t see me.

    I have been ADD’d on my own, I have been ADD’d by family, both good and bad, I can do most anything, and do it well. But the process of getting there is extremely difficult for me. The process of staying there never seems in my control, and the process of leaving bad situations is even worse.

    The best way I can describe it comes from the Executive Function Model, and all on all off, “extreme Human”. I have a ridgid view of right and wrong. Even with the brain explanation, that’s my real view, which is a whole lot more flexible. and open to discussion than it sounds or appears. To me it has more to do with the intensity of and validity of the emotions involved.

    It’s not empathy, in the sense that placing myself in their shoes and sensing how I would feel if I were them, is defined differently. But I do that all the time.

    But that takes me in the opposite direction from empathy in that I can’t understand how others gage more right or more wrong, or what those variables or just individual arbitrary decisions or delusions as I might see them are. Are you theoretically hanging the phone up now? Welcome to my world.

    I have a limited short term working memory, and I have a very good long term memory and a quirky ability to manipulate my long term memory into operating as a working aide to make the short term memory more functional. But there are gaps.

    Essentially I have to overlearn everything to take out as many short term variable processing happenings out of being in a short term happening environment. I also, too often, have to take out “myself”, and the “not necessary to the task” long and short term variables including relationships.

    Otherwise “overwhelm” as they say, may occur.

    That’s when the external short term working variables and the short term working brain are extended too far, when there is also a lacking of immediate incentives or urgency necessary to activate, completely, the pathways connecting the entirety of the environment, the short term working memory and the long term available memory. The conscious brain or chemical brain incentive activation, isn’t totally within my regulatory control.

    I can make conscious, and unconscious decisions are made, to deal with what happens to currently attract my attention at that moment. Too often, people think of that as necessarily a ” limiting, or disqualifying factor”. Too me that is far from the real truth. It depends on “what matters”. Too often the limiting factors are how situations are “Formatted”. Are they truly real, or made to be artificial. But that’s another essay.

    If I try to communicate what I’m thinking and what I want to have happen, and what I’m feeling all at the same time, I’m truly communicating what is being communicated in my brain

    Few people have the time or patience to listen or understand, and usually keep their world to themselves and put me and my world into a….pandoras box, a trash bin or minimally, at a distance.

    If you have ever wanted to talk to a lawyer and want them to take their “lawyer hat” off for awhile and talk to you like a real life person with real life thoughts and opinions about what your thinking about, you might get a glimmering of what life is for me. Take that feeling and multiply that by a gazillion for the lawyer and maybe half of that for everyone else (you try to quantify feelings accurately) and that’s how I feel most all the time.

    If I do get closer than that it’s heaven. But too often it’s temporary and too often it was imaginary.

    If, say I am strongly attracted to someone, I can choose to focus on my job or I can focus on my attraction, I will end up sucking at both, no matter my choice. That’s a feeling, not a fact.

    I would like to be able to do a couple things I want to do at the same time, and not fall into a trap door. Will anyone, including myself, really see me.

    1. Dear Paul,

      Your writing makes it so very clear, the challenges you face on a minute-by-minute basis.


  7. I knew zero 26 years ago. When I first met her she had 3 kids who all acted really disrespectful, rude, non compliant, volatile, anxious, depressed and basically a war zone. Infatuation is blind and when I had to keep my eyes on everything in case I got eaten out of house and home, my phone calls listened in on, the dog accosted, I knew something was wrong.

    I thought it was the husband that made the kids unmanageable and when I finally forced the issue, the mother took the daughter for testing and was diagnosed with ADHD. I believe the oldest son has ADD…unmotivated, rude, klutzy, no social skills, never on time basically I am surprised he is still alive. But he lived with his father and would not do testing.

    At family assessment for custody time, I was told all was not good and I would have to commit to staying in the picture if the kids lived with Mom. I think eventually I would have been told she is the genetic link, but unless they went to court, the files of her testing would not come into play.

    It was only at 2 months ago when my life, now disgraced and in tatters, about to be foreclosed, I think she has ADHD. But the years of her blaming have taken its toll. I would give a million dollars to have known this information and run! This interaction has devastated every part of my being and when I suggest she get tested, take medication THE STUBBORN IS BEYOND STUBBORN! NO COMPLY! Basically you feel that their apathy, their desire to do nothing to make life better is the worse considering all you have sacrificed, tolerated and put up with. At least with a diagnosis I could say it as it is and get some relief. I think in cases like this, the government should help us get back on our feet, like a returning war veteran. Because every day is like living in a war zone with a ton of destruction.

    1. Hi Ainslie,

      ADHD can be quite severe, and then exacerbated by family chaos and confused contributors (e.g. is it the ex? is the effects of the divorce?, etc).

      It’s no surprise that the long-term members of my support group call themselves “veterans.” Every day can feel like a fight for survival. Until you have answers. And then, if the person resists, life can descend into another type of hell.

      I hope you find a path to re-claiming your life. It’s the only one you have.


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