Chapter 7: Mystifying ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster Twists and Turns


Confused woman illustrating the ADHD Relationship Roller coaster's Twists and Turns

If the core challenge of ADHD is self-regulation, then we must understand: There are a lot of things for we humans  to regulate.  They don’t all show up on DSM-V ADHD symptom lists, either. I call this collection the ADHD Relationship Roller Coasters Twists and Turns.

When I first started sleuthing answers to puzzling situations in my own marriage, in 1999, I found little to help. If you can believe it, Russell Barkley, PhD had not yet written a consumer book on Adult ADHD. (But I encouraged him to do so — and he did! Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, a must-read.) YouTube? Not a thing. The Internet? Just getting started.

Dumb-founded that there was so little information, support, and proper therapy for late-diagnosis adults with ADHD and their partners, I got to work.  Among other things, I founded the first and still the largest online discussion group for the partners of adults with ADHD.  The two-pronged goal?  Sharing support and putting our heads together, to figure out this confusing roller coaster.

Here in our Book Club Essay on Chapter 7 of Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?  This is where I detailed a collection of “quirky” behaviors that shed light on the range of issues beyond hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility.  Or at least explained how those abstract symptoms can play out in everyday life.  The little talked-about aspects of the ADHD roller coaster dips, turns, and loop-de-loops. Because sometimes it’s a very small and maybe even oddball insight that causes the penny to drop.

Welcome back to the You, Me, and ADHD Book Club. The door is always open! Here, guest-essayist Taylor J. shares her personal insights about Chapter 7.

Taylor was diagnosed with ADHD in her 30s, her husband shortly after. They have four children. Once she found my first book, she ran with it. Today, her family enjoys an entirely different life than where she started out. Well done, my dear friend.

—Gina Pera

A Favored Form of Poor Self-Regulation: Conflict

By Taylor J.

Chapter 7 hit me right between the eyes, because it called out my favorite form of poor self-regulation: conflict.

The chapter starts, however, with a seemingly innocuous list of behaviors—the kind that make us wonder, “Are these personality quirks, or ADHD?”

  • “Does your ADHD partner complain about clothing textures or labels?”
  • “Does stating your own opinion or preference constitute ‘starting an argument’ with your partner?”
  • “Is the TV volume always turned up extra loud?”
  • “Do you ever get time to yourself, or does your ADHD partner follow you around all the time?”
  • “Do you find that even your most trivial comments are countered?”

As Gina emphasizes throughout the book: Your mileage may vary; no ADHD trait is universal.

ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster Twists and Turns

The behavior patterns described in this chapter, however, are common enough among support group members (and in my household) to warrant discussion. Some are brain-based ADHD problems, and others stem from clumsy coping mechanisms (as covered in chapter 3). Some, no doubt, stem from co-existing conditions (e.g. anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, personality disorders).

The first section is hilarious—but not while you’re living it. It’s reads like a checklist of half of the fights we’ve ever had in our marriage, or struggles we’ve had with our kids. I’ll just quickly cover three that particularly apply to my family.

“You Have ADHD, Too!”

In some couples, this is a game of deflection, where the adult with ADHD throws the suggestion back to the partner.

In my case, my husband and I both actually do have ADHD. The first diagnosis was mine. It came after years of simply assuming every problem in the relationship was my fault. I was the one with divorced parents (so obviously I did not know how to have a relationship). The organizational problems were mine. I was the one who had trouble sleeping. If I were just “fixed,” we’d be on our way to marital bliss! Wheeee!

And then he was diagnosed.

ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster turning upside down

The “It’s All Your Fault!” Delusion

Ah, I was so happy to hear that this is typical. Though my husband could easily see my disorganization (Which was real! And was bad!), he couldn’t see that he was a hoarder. He kept so many mementos and trinkets and do-dads and doubles of everything “just in case,” that our home was impossible to clean.

(By the way, I’m so proud of him—he just got rid of his high school textbooks and college papers.)

The “Nobody Else Has Trouble With Me” Defense

I’m going to quote directly from the book here, because it’s so revealing:

Erin’s husband repeated this phrase whenever she voiced a problem with him, and she believed it until talking to his ex-wife. “He’s telling me the same things he’d told her when they were married,” she says. “Of course, it’s never him creating problems.”

I’d say both my husband and I did this, but in different ways.

Fear of Unstructured Time

So many people with ADHD have trouble in school or work because the daily routine clashes so harshly with their brain structure.

Well, my husband and I both thrived in school, partially because it gave us structure! We had deadlines, accountability, rewards, clear expectations—and none of that appears on a typical Saturday morning, or school holiday.

Now I Want to Hide

The second section is honestly just embarrassing. After reading it, I want to hide. I want to offer a thousand excuses and a million apologies for living this way for so long. How many people did I alienate? How many social gatherings did I leave with wincing and embarrassed-for-her glances in my wake? Too many.

The second section is about conflict as self-medication.

Apparently, getting angry or riled up about drama or a conflict is stimulating to the frontal lobes of the brain—the same area that stimulant medication affects. Anger, drama, and conflict can gives some people with ADHD a feeling of actual calm, and leaves the people around them going, “What just happened?”

The book describes different types of self-medication with conflict, but I’ll just throw my personal favorite against the wall and see if it sticks for you.

I Was Hooked on Drama and Justice

If there was a crisis with one of my friends, I was there in a heartbeat, listening and being that friend who was always available.

That gets so exhausting after a while, but it took years for me to realize that I never had actual fun with my friends. I had no idea how to do it! I would help them, I would serve them, and they would help and serve me, but a fun dinner with candles or cupcakes or a game of Jenga? It rarely happened.


If I had no crises among my friends, I could sure find one online. Political debates, religious discussion, someone being wronged, or something worth fighting for was only a click away. There’s a never-ending, 24-hour stream of something-much-more-stimulating than laundry or toddler diaper rash, and it’s a continual struggle to stay away from it.

The worst part: I had thought this was a virtue. I thought that constantly resolving conflict, or constantly listening to or helping other people, was a way to positively live out my religious faith. I couldn’t understand why other people didn’t do it, until I had kids. That’s when I realized that living this way left me no energy to engage with my family. I was too tired and emotionally spent to even hear about the games my daughter played with her friends at recess.

Gina Pera's advice to me: Take care of your own little red wagon

Gina once gently encouraged me to “Take care of your own little red wagon.”

Discussion Points:

So, for this chapter, let’s discuss:

  1. Which of the  mystifying ADHD Roller Coaster Twists and Turns in this chapter could you relate to?
  2. Were you surprised these can be stimulation-seeking ADHD symptoms in disguise?
  3. Can you see any of these behaviors (in yourself or your ADHD partner) that you or your partner tout as virtues but which are obviously stealing quality of life?

Please leave your comment below!

You, Me, ADHD Online Book ClubRead More in The You, Me, ADHD Book Club Series:

Now for the preview of the chapter-by-chapter lineup: the book’s table of contents.  Chapter titles appearing as hyperlinks correspond to an essay in the Book Club. Click to read.

We stopped at Chapter 20. Would you like to submit your own essay to the Book Club?  We welcome it!   “Finding Your Voice” is an essential part of slowing your ADHD Roller Coaster.

Part One

From the Tunnel of Love to the Roller Coaster: Could Your Partner Have ADHD?

Section Introduction

1    Who Has a Ticket to Ride? Spotting ADHD’s Surprising Signs

2    Laying the Track’s Foundation: What Is ADHD, Anyway?

3    Deconstructing Your Coaster: Why Each Is Unique

4    Financial Loop-the-Loops: “It’s Only Money, Honey!”

5    Driving While Distracted: The Roller Coaster Hits the Road

6    Peaks and Valleys: ADHD in the Bedroom

7    More Mystifying Twists and Turns (this post)

Part Two

Roller Coaster Whiplash and G-Force Confusion: How Many Plunges Before You Say, “Whoa!”

Section Introduction

8    First Plunge: Explaining the Inexplicable

9    Second Plunge: Managing the Unmanageable

10  Third Plunge: Breaking Down in Illness—Or Through to Truth

Part Three

Your Relationship and the Art of Roller Coaster Maintenance: Four Success Strategies

Section Introduction

Success Strategy #1: Taking Care of Yourself

Introduction: The Amusement Park’s Emergency Room

11  Strategies for Right Now

12  Solving ADHD’s Double Whammy

Success Strategy #2: Dealing With Denial

Introduction: Roller Coaster? What Roller Coaster?

13  Psychological Denial: The Fear Factor

14  Biological Denial: Not Unwilling to See—Just Unable

15  New Ways to Broach “The Conversation”

16  More Solutions and Strategies

Success Strategy #3: Finding Effective Therapy

Introduction: Calling in a Consultant to Help Retrofit Your Ride

17  Why the Wrong Therapy Is Worse Than No Therapy

18  Therapy That Works for ADHD

19  More Solutions and Strategies

Success Strategy #4: Understanding Medication’s Role

Introduction: Tightening the Brakes on the Roller Coaster

This post from Jaclyn at The ADHD Homestead touches on a range of issues within this section on medication

20  Making Connections Between Brain and Behavior

21  Rx: Treatment Results That Last

22  Maximizing Lifestyle Choices, Minimizing Rx Side Effects

23 Catch Your Breath and Take Five

Appendix A:

Adult ADHD Evaluation and Diagnosis

Appendix B:

“But I Heard That…”: More Background for the Unconvinced

Appendix C:

Three Views from Decades on the ADHD Roller Coaster




Your Comments Welcome.
The Book Club is Always Open!

—Gina Pera




19 thoughts on “Chapter 7: Mystifying ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster Twists and Turns”

  1. Taylor J, first of all, excellent job on the latest article, honest and very useful information!

    To answer your question:

    I have it all, not by choice or “just because I have ADHD”, but because, Yes I hate those stupid labels on all my clothes and I have been laughed at like forever, for wearing my t-shirts, inside out, since I’d otherwise go crazy insane from being forced to relate to its itching – all the time.

    I think that everyone around me, is just too noisy, that’s why I put on my Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones and drift away into the abyss of endless searches of data, facts and opinions.

    I do get into a lot of verbal disagreement, unwillingly, simply because I ask “why is it so” whenever someone believes something else than I do, not to dominate, but to investigate.

    But the thing that really drives me up the wall, is when I am being thought to by “self-inflicting my ADHD symptoms” because I hyper-concentrate (hyper focusing is Autism, not ADHD) on all things ADHD related and especially all things scientifically related.

    When I try to explain WHY I need to be “put on notice beforehand”, so that I don’t “explode” when I am asked to do something, I get all the “walking on eggshells” guilt, put right back in my face.

    Really? I am not walking on anyones eggshells or even trying to be annoyed, but if people do not understand that my initial reaction in due to my immature emotional self-regulation and malfunctioning “internal dialogue” going public, even when I bite my tongue, my body language sells me out, then I am at a loss, sorry!

    I am not trying to be difficult, I AM DIFFICULT, sorry, I don’t mean to be and certainly do not try to be, but it is a conditioning of behaviour and physical deficiency in my Inhibitory Motor System, combined with my 30% reduced ability, cognitive, in my Executive Functions, and 40 years of being blamed for all things gone or said wrong, that my Impulse & Self-Regulatory System, simply respond to, even when adequately medicated, and by no choice of my own.

    Now that really pi… me off, when people actually believe that I would live my life, like that, by choice.

    So I guess that it’s “You, Me & Misunderstood Adult ADHD” that is to be blamed here, right?


    1. Hi Peter,

      Well said!

      As for the alternative book title (You, Me & Misunderstood Adult ADHD, well, that was my point with, “Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?”

      Because I was targeting those people who didn’t know they were dealing with ADHD. Or if ADHD was already diagnosed, they didn’t know what it meant.

      And even if a person didn’t “intentionally” drive into someone with his car, it’s still going to hurt. 🙂

      I encourage you to keep working on the Rx and other coping strategies. My husband used to have a HORRID time with transitions. But now it’s so much easier for him.


    2. P.S. Peter….love this:

      I am not trying to be difficult, I AM DIFFICULT.

      You should make a “meme” of it. 🙂


  2. Hi Gina,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond!

    “1.Is she pursuing any treatment for her ADHD?”

    I can’t say, really. She’s been diagnosed, and she has a therapist she sees maybe once or twice a month. I think she goes when things in her life fall apart, or I blow up because her behavior becomes intolerable. And then, only long enough to trick herself into thinking she is on the path to recovery. From where I’m standing it looks like a merry-go-round. She just finds something new to get involved in.

    Her diet consists of fast food. She gets very little exercise, or does a yoga DVD once a week. She says that she doesn’t like to cook and does not understand how other people have time to go to the gym.

    She tells me that my nagging is demotivating to her.

    The only other person I’ve ever known who could make me this upset was a college girlfriend who was AHDH and defiant. It was her way or the highway. Ten years later, and I hear she can’t stay in a relationship for more than a couple of months.

    “2. Does she realize this is a drain on her time and her close relationships?”

    Not really, no. Her parents and siblings brush it off and say “this is how she is.” She says it’s my problem because no one else has complained. But, also, this is her first long-term relationship.

    “3. Does she realize that, however noble her intentions might be, these impulses might also represent “stimulating self-medication”?”

    Not at all. She makes up a new reason every time as to why she might be on the only person in the entire universe who can step in and help. For example, one of her customers needed a ride to the doctor’s office after work last week. She felt like she could not say “no” and felt this person was relying on her. Oddly, I’ve only heard her complain about this customer. It was all short notice and she had to cancel dinner plans with me.

    The week before, when she was too busy to spend time with me because of too much work at her office, one of her customers wanted her to help her pick out a wedding dress. So, she had time to do that, but she didn’t have time to see me that week.

    “4. Have you expressed your discomfort with her late-notice cancellations of plans you’d made together—in no uncertain terms?”

    Yes, I tell her all the time, and she says I’m disrespectful because it’s not my place to tell her how to spend her time.

    “5. Have you drawn clear boundaries, with consequences, around this behavior?”

    I’ve tried and it backfired. I feel cornered since she says she is working on her ADHD but that some things are off limits for me to bring up. This is one of them. It’s as if my only options are to walk away from her and write off the last five years, or accept her as she is.

    “The simple answer to your question, though, is this: Yes, there is hope, if the person with ADHD is actively engaged in managing ADHD-related challenges, and works with the partner on helpful joint strategies.”

    Thanks. Can you direct me to a resource to work on my part of “helpful joint strategies?” I’m not as hopeful as I once was, but I feel like I’m the one who spends his time researching the ADHD topic and trying to help her. When I present her with materials, she accepts them, and thanks me. But I don’t think she does any more than skim them and then…LOOK SQUIRREL! It’s like I’m an enabler.

    Seriously, though, if there are resources for me to learn how to work with her and how to get through to her, that would be brilliant.

    1. Hi Perry,

      From here, it sounds like she is fine with her life and doesn’t really much care about your concerns.

      She says she is “working on her ADHD” but she won’t explain how or what. Sounds like a dodge to me, one designed to shut down any discussion.

      As for a resource, please read my book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

      You say you have invested five years, but sometimes it’s better to cut your losses. If you don’t hear from her that she takes you seriously, then maybe it’s time to take yourself seriously. And think about your future happiness.


  3. My ADHD girlfriend if five years seems to get sidetracked often in her quest for helping others and for social justice. She seems to have no problem canceling time with me or her family when one of her acquaintances, customers, or whomever is having a personal crisis. IMO, she has imagined attachments to people who don’t care that much about her except to get free help.

    She will go out of her way to justify being flaky with me to help other people on no or short notice even if we have plans. She will just drop what she’s doing to help them. It seems like every week she has a novel new problem or crisis to solve for some acquaintance or customer.

    She already has too many commitments but doesn’t think of it as a problem that her canceling plans and going off to help people while she is drowning in her own ADHD mess of too may commitments, trying to hold down a job as an office clerk, debts, and a strained relationship with me.

    This behavior is only getting worse. Is there any hope?

    1. Hi Perry,

      So Taylor’s words resonated for you. I’m not surprised; this is a very common issue.

      You ask, “Is there any hope?”

      And I’ll answer your question with some questions:

      1. Is she pursuing any treatment for her ADHD?
      2. Does she realize this is a drain on her time and her close relationships?
      3. Does she realize that, however noble her intentions might be, these impulses might also represent “stimulating self-medication”?
      4. Have you expressed your discomfort with her late-notice cancellations of plans you’d made together—in no uncertain terms?
      5. Have you drawn clear boundaries, with consequences, around this behavior?

      So many questions, I know. But they are important ones.

      The simple answer to your question, though, is this: Yes, there is hope, if the person with ADHD is actively engaged in managing ADHD-related challenges, and works with the partner on helpful joint strategies.

      Otherwise, if you’re just waiting for this phenomenon to run its course and die out, I wouldn’t hold my breath. The “save the world” fixation might dim, but the symptoms behind the overall chaos might only grow worse.


  4. I can related to many of the “field notes form the front lines”–I’ve been told I have ADHD too, I’ve been told it’s my fault, and I’ve also been told that nobody else has trouble with him. (side note, I’m wondering if no one else has trouble because the only people he interacts with on a daily basis are co-workers and he’s medicated and hyperfocused at work). The “twist and turn” that jumped out at me was “Let’s Call It Even.” Nearly every single time I try to have a discussion with DH about an issue and share how I feel about something does, he turns it around and says “well you do it, too.”

    When I read that conflict can be self-medicating, it was like a wave of relief washed over me. DH exhibits so many of those patterns!!! Sometimes he acts just like our 12 yr old son and now I know why.

    So here’s the rub…..He’s starting conflict to self-medicate and I shouldn’t take the bait. I get that. But I’m left wondering when we will ever be able to have an adult conversation about ANYTHING?!?!? Because if he’s constantly starting fights, we’ll never get anywhere. We have just started couples counseling so I get one hour a week to hash things out, but it’s just not enough…..

    1. Hi Deb, and thanks for your comment.

      Here’s to hoping you have more adult conversations in your future.

      Perhaps having the medication be active when your husband is at home, interacting with you, is a start!


  5. This is my first time on this site. Ch. 7 validated so many of my experiences and feelings from living with my now ex-husband and oldest daughter. Your writing captures some of the most subtle, yet destructive behaviors of those with ADHD. I always knew that these behaviors made me feel horrible but I couldn’t articulate what they had done. The behaviors were so odd to me and because I couldn’t explain it to my ex-husband and daughter then I was demoralized and they called me the crazy one. Thank you for putting this into words and sharing it.

    1. Hi Leslie,

      I am so glad you found us. Validation is so important for healing.


  6. Hey Gina! Sorry, I should have clarified: a “discernment blogger” or “spiritual abuse blogger” is someone who highlights abuse, mistreatment, heresy, and nasty structures in the Christian church. I’ve been doing that type of blogging (on and off) for about two years now, but I regularly tweet about it from my parody account, @XianJaneway.

  7. Gina, I just tweeted that empathy article to every “discernment blogger” I have a relationship with. I hope that the church becomes more aware of this, especially as certain conferences and publishers push more authoritarian garbage in the church at large.

    1. Hi Taylor,

      I had to search for “discernment blogger.” Found a lot of discussions about it, but no real definition.


  8. Another Anonymous

    Wow – this chapter reflects not only me but the comments that I hear from my sister-in-law about my older brother! Actually, many of my siblings (and I) are in “helping” professions; when you put so much energy into being there for others, you don’t leave much space for yourself.

  9. This chapter is so close to home in so many ways.
    The “being there” for others whenever needed; the virtue in all the efforts put out; listening so hard to others, and forgetting about myself, and other things along the way.
    Making mistakes, immediate without thinking first response fibs, making matters worse.

    Holding back comments on “slights”, until the sum total reached some unknown limit, when I would let the fireworks fly.

    “Can’t you see what I’m feeling”? I would be screaming inside without ever coming close to saying it. Without regards to the words What really came through is “How can you be so inconsiderate a person and why can’t you read my mind. “. “Can’t you see how mad I am. Can’t you?”

    In my early years, and even later years we were surrounded by embedded ADHD (mostly good) coping strategies in everything. Structure…check. Routine…..check., procedures…check
    Breakdowns and blow ups…check.

    What we had made for some amazing and great times and adventures.
    But when things broke down even just a little, it seemed as if the world was going to end.
    If there were questions or if there was a problem, or a complication, (big or small) you were or felt like the lowest thing on earth, and that was known to anyone within ear shot.
    Looking back and reading this chapter it seems as if this may have provided time and means for our “leader” to gather enough brain energy and composure to figure it out. Which ultimately he did. However, that is also how I began living in fear and walking on eggshells.

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