Managing the Unmanageable in ADHD Relationships

ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster's Second Plunge

Now it’s time to examine the second loop-de-loop on the ADHD Roller Coaster—Managing the Unmanageable. In the previous post, we examined the first loop-de-loop: Explaining the Inexplicable.

Over eight years of researching ADHD and relationships for my first book, I discovered that partners of adults with ADHD typically went through three stages.  To be sure, these stages mostly apply to relationships in which ADHD has long gone unrecognized or otherwise poorly managed.

In fact, on another level, the three stages apply to the adults with ADHD themselves as they attempt to cope with ADHD throughout their lives. I explain this Double-Triple ADHD Roller Coaster  in my course, Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle.

Recognizing that you aren’t alone, that there is a recognizable pattern and predictable solutions, can help to reduce anxiety and self-blame. Next step:  Focusing on solutions, however they might look for you.

Welcome back to the “You, Me, and ADHD” Virtual Discussion Group!  We’re sharing thoughts on my first book, chapter by chapter: Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? The door is always open (feel free to read the comments and leave one of your own) and the essays never go out of style. 

Here, Taylor J. shares her insights about Chapter 9, which further explores the potential affect of Adult ADHD on the partner. She was diagnosed with ADHD in her 30s, her husband was diagnosed shortly after. They have four children. 

—Gina Pera

It Dawned On Me: Our Marriage Went Beyond “Quirky”

Taylor J.

It’s eerie, re-reading Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? after both my husband and I were diagnosed. Clearly, our relational patterns fit the paradigm Gina presents here.

Chapter 9 is the second chapter in the second section of the book. This section brought to light a subject never previously written about: the effect of one spouse’s undiagnosed or poorly managed ADHD on the other spouse.

In each of this section’s three chapters, Gina details the three stages of stress responses—that is, the progressively intensifying efforts to cope. She calls them the Three Plunges of the ADHD Roller Coaster.

Following Chapter 8 (Explaining the Inexplicable), this chapter explores the second stage of stress responses: Managing the Unmanageable.

Not knowing what else to do, we might desperately attempt to “fix the unfixable.” Over time, these well-meaning attempts grind destructive patterns more deeply into our already wounded relationships and families.

Something Destructive Is Happening Here

I’m biting my lip as I read the prolonged effects of “Managing the Unmanageable”—this second plunge of the ADHD Roller Coaster. It’s like a laundry list of everything that drove us both to treatment. The quotes from partners in this chapter have all been said, again and again, within the four walls of my house.

ADHD is often painted as just a cute or “quirky” difference between spouses. We’re told we need to appreciate how creative and original and unique our partner is. That might be true for some; ADHD is a highly variable condition.

For many of us, however, this “second plunge of the ADHD roller coaster” is when we start realizing that things in our relationships aren’t quirky, or cute, or just a little bit different from everyone else. Instead, there’s something destructive going on here. We’ve coped and adjusted and worked and loved, and things still aren’t getting better.

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We may become completely caught up in a partner’s needs. It’s easy to understand: There’s so much disorder, and our assistance is really, really needed! One woman says, “My goals? My dreams? My desires? They were getting lost in his chaos.”

We Feel Both Guilty And Helpless

We may feel guilt that we couldn’t control our partner’s chaos—or our response to it—in a more calm or effective way. In the book, psychologist Herbert Gravitz, an expert in the effect of a person’s alcoholism on family members, says there are parallels for the loved ones of these adults with ADHD:

In trying to control the uncontrollable, loved ones can feel helpless, impotent, and frustrated, all of which can lead to a pervasive sense of failure and sadness.

Gina adds: “It can also make you look like a certified nut job.”

She shares examples of partners who have lost it after one too many broken promises, double-binds, and roller coaster rides:

Only extreme behavior gets his attention, and he doesn’t remember [everything I tried before I behaved in extreme ways.] The night I found myself hurling a small end table, I knew he’d pushed me to an edge I didn’t know I had.

Yes, I Thought I Was a Nut Job

Gina nailed it. That’s honestly what I thought I was—a nut job. I was married to a brilliant math professor, for crying out loud! Everyone could tell you that “Dr. Math” is a quiet, nice guy who thinks deep thoughts.

They would never know that he once quietly told me that we couldn’t afford a babysitter for our 2-year-old—while I was on bed rest with my pregnancy. They would never learn that, when I was having preterm labor symptoms, he told me, “Put her in front of the TV, and only move to get her food.”

(ADHD Roller Coaster readers might recall Dr. Math’s double-standard around spending money in Chapter 4: ADHD Marriage and Money — Financial Loop de Loops)

After ten years on the ADHD roller coaster, I lost it.

I didn’t throw an end table, as Gina describes one meek support-group member doing. I threw a bag of apples at the couch. And I threw an iPhone charger plug against the wall. Screaming. Shouting: “I NEED MONEY, not EXCUSES, and I’m not PUTTING MY BABY’S LIFE IN DANGER!” I felt like a monster.

But I’d already lost four babies to miscarriage. I wasn’t about to lose another one because my husband couldn’t understand cause-and-effect: if I move too much, the contractions come harder, I lose the baby, and I can’t get her back. If the toddler gets hurt, because I can’t move, I can’t undo that.freeze-feelings

Isolation and “Freezing Our Feelings”

In the second ADHD Relationship Roller Coaster plunge, we ask ourselves, “How can anyone not see that this is a problem?” We may explode—and then, to our partners and friends, our explosion is the problem.

Because there is no time to “feel”—or what we feel is so hurtful if not terrifying—we may “freeze our feelings,” because heck, there’s no time to feel! We become isolated, wondering if this really is all our fault. What’s at risk here? Our health, for sure. For some, the risk is falling into an addiction.  Support-group members report having started drinking, having affairs, or working eighty hours weekly simply to avoid going home.

We may even start accepting too much of the blame. It’s so tempting, even empowering, to do that! If the problems are our fault, at least we can do something to fix it!

I certainly tried that route. Taking responsibility for things that were not my fault, however, eventually hurt him more than it hurt me. It kept him from making real changes that could have helped him professionally, as a dad, and as a husband.

We, the spouses and partners of adults with poorly managed ADHD, don’t have to be the sole stabilizing force in our families. We don’t have to keep living with the labels of “negative, controlling, the-killer-of-all-that-is-fun.” There are ways we can stabilize our rickety roller coaster, and get on the path of enjoying life again.

Sometimes, however, it is up to us alone to make that happen.

Chapter 9 Discussion Points:

  • How have you tried to compensate for your ADHD spouse in everyday life?
  • How has your life changed as you’ve tried to accommodate your ADHD spouse’s challenges?
  • Have you experienced any grief over your own lost potential or dreams?
  • How does it feel to be viewed by your ADHD spouse and outsiders as the “negative, controlling, the killer-of-all-that-is-fun”?

The ADHD Relationship Discussion Group is always open!

Your Comments Welcome.

—Gina Pera


Read More in ADHD Relationship Series:

Below you’ll find a 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?  We welcome it!   “Finding Your Voice” is an essential part of slowing your ADHD Roller Coaster.

Here’s a link to the book on Amazon (available in paperback, Kindle, and audio) Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?                            

Part One

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

Section Introduction

1    Adult ADHD Myths vs Facts

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

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 (this post)

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








22 thoughts on “Managing the Unmanageable in ADHD Relationships”

  1. Anna Kellett

    3 years with a adhd guy 55 and living in denial and no medication raging to self medicate himself I began to lose my sanity and felt horrible for it
    I had a good happy steady sound life that I had worked hard to get to as a single parent just at a stage with a bit more time to live some of my dreams finally
    He stepped in smashed it all to bits took whatever he could for himself copied my life and dreams and blocked me from moving away from it all – all very odd and confusing and unpleasant
    Put me down and I am a shadow of my former self and with so much stress my once good health was in tatters
    What was that all about I would recommend don’t get involved in such destructive chaos you only have one life
    I hope adhders can get help

    1. Hi Anna,

      That sounds rough. I hope you are on your way to re-building your life, and health.

      I’ll just add that people with ADHD aren’t clones. It’s a highly variable syndrome that affects individuals.

      But I certainly agree on being careful of letting destructive chaos into one’s life. Sometimes we don’t understand what’s happening for a long time.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences and expertise on BOTH ADHD AND PARTNERS OF.

    I have ADHD and when i was younger I did find ways to manage my daily life. ie. Rituals like my keys would hang up at the front door.

    I used to run 3 miles a day, water ski, play on the college tennis team and I worked for Jack Lalane fitness centers I was teaching body sculptured weight lifting and taught 3 aerobics classes the days I worked.

    I was extremely anal about putting my things back where they belong. The more organized I was, my mood swings were a lot less manic/, less hyper and not as much mental ping-ponging ( you call roller coasters) would be .

    So far what you wrote is outstanding! I never thought about how exasperating my fun, jovial, happy “zooming” self would affect my husbands. The first one I divorced. My second husband was calm, supportive, helpful. I am still not on any ADHD medication. THEN. my body broke down, I could not exercise. My lower back had bulging disks for over a year, my knees were going. And my weight was obscene.

    The pain and mental trauma literally were more than I was capable of. I started taking Ritalin about 4 years ago. It has changed my life! The medication at first was weird. I use “weird” because at the end of the day I finished everything I started and I did not complain once!

    I remember walking my dog as I noticed trees and foliage that have been there for years yet I never SAW it before. I had been walking in the same neighborhood for years.

    I realized I was really mentally handicapped. Ever once in a while, I ponder how much different my life might be If I was on medication in high school and college. I might have been able to concentrate, comprehend and remember what I read. I have no regrets but I do wonder. I wanted to be an MD.. but until Ritalin I never thought I could.. I did go back to college for BioChem in my 40’s,

    Again, thank you for sharing your stories.

    1. Dear Lauren,

      Thanks so much for detailing your story. I will relay to Taylor J., who I know will be delighted to read your comment.

      I know so many late-diagnosis ADHD folks who “self-medicate” with exercise their entire lives….until their body starts breaking down. Then, look out!

      Take care,

  3. This is painful for me to read. It is so similar to my life. I am a 41 year old stay at home mother of 3 daughters. My 18 yo and 16 yo were just diagnosed with adhd. I immediately went to the library and checked out every book they had on adult adhd (only 5). My favorite was Gina’s Is it you, me, or adult adhd. The book resonated so strongly with me, I cried. After reading it, I convinced my husband to pursue an evaluation. He has a diagnosis now and just started stimulant meds. (WOW! What a difference.) The problems aren’t just with him, though. I had no idea my terrible, life long struggles to be a responsible, disciplined adult could have any explanation besides weak character.

    Adhd runs in both of our families. I scheduled an appt for myself with the same Dr who dx’d my husband. He asked how I did in high school (drop out, later aced my GED for the last few credits), how I did in college (excellent grades, never finished my degree in integrative studies because I’m missing 3 classes).

    I told him I had been diagnosed by bipolar disorder at age 12 after a half hearted attempt at suicide, but no one who knows me thinks that is remotely accurate. He then had me take the Pearson Quotient test. He said I scored in the 18th percentile and I had to be in the 16th in order to be treated with stimulants. He sent me home with a 1 month trial of Latuda (used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar) and the advice to drink more coffee (I don’t think my kidneys can handle more coffee).

    I have an appt with a, hopefully, competent professional.

    I know this is a bit of a ramble, sorry. I’m just so relieved to not feel alone.

    I want to thank you for all your wonderful work, please don’t stop.

    1. Dear Karla,

      Yes, do whatever you can do to find yourself a competent professional.

      I tell you, some days, I’m wholly tempted to set up a “Rogue’s Gallery” of incompetent mental-health providers. It just beggars belief. This person obviously gave little weight to your life history (a huge component of any competent evaluation for ADHD) and instead relied on one test. Ridiculous.

      Please be sure to read the appendix in my book that describes what an ADHD evaluation should “look like.”

      And, please know that you deserve better. You have answers now. There is a path. Don’t let any knucklehead block that path for you.

      For your girls, you might want to read a great book; I wrote about it here: A Must-Read About Girls With ADHD

      Take care and please keep us posted!


  4. Again, can see myself in all of this chapter.
    I’ve definitely had to resort to extreme behavior to get his attention or get him to notice me. Then add in the shame and guilt about that….
    I’ve also frozen my feelings. For the past year I kind of feel like I’ve lost my way. About a year ago, I stepped away from a part time job that I had for 10 yrs, partly because DH (the ADHD partner in our relationship) was making it very difficult for me to maintain it (coordinating childcare/parenting was becoming a nightmare). I have been trying to figure out what’s next for me. About a month later, DH and I were out one night, and I listened to him go on and on about *his* future dreams. After he was done, I told him about something I was thinking about getting involved in, something I was becoming passionate about. His immediate response was a very quick, violent, and angry NO. The wet, hot tears run down my face involuntarily. I was crushed. And this begs the question that was posed in this chapter (p. 126): “How much is ADHD? How much is not caring?” I’m still trying to figure this out. Trying to have empathy for the challenges that he can’t control but seeing little effort to change his habits… He’s pretty much still in denial.

    1. Dear Deb,

      I’m sorry to hear that. To be so negated in that way….painful.

      I think part of helping some of our ADHD partners is having very clear boundaries and guidelines about how we will and won’t be treated.

      Empathy for him is admirable, but I find it especially important not to let yourself get loss in the process, or to let your empathy mean that you demand less of him.

      Your therapist should be helping him “out” of denial. And providing the tools to develop new habits.


  5. My husband would call his ADHD “adrenaline rush” and mine”disorganized mess”.
    We both have a diagnosis but he says he doesn’t remember his. I have never seen this symptom mentioned before, so I thought I’d Share.

    My husband is addicted to exercise. (And it’s a very bad thing). I mean–crazed insane over-exercise. (He has never used drugs–just very intense, painful workout routines). I cannot express how intense he is about working out. So intense, that he ignores pain and pushes his body too far. And if I try to interfere with his workout, he will get extremely angry.
    He has been through 12 surgeries to repair various body parts since we got married 15 years ago ,including 2 neck surgeries, and 2 other serious injuries. His arm is permanently damaged. (He was back at the gym with his arm in a brace, working out the other side of his body). nobody really gets it bc most of the world is trying to get in shape. He doesn’t know how to do a “regular person” workout.
    Anyway–I wish he had gotten some help before he hurt his body. Also, I have no idea how to help him now. (My own ADHD is a constant work in progress). Maybe this will help someone else.

    1. Hi Sandy,

      Thank you so much for relating your husband’s “self-medicating with exercise,” as I call it.

      He’s not the only one. I’ve heard many reports over the years. And with each I wonder what’s going to happen when those inevitable injuries start piling up — because there that person will be stuck, sedentary. It won’t be pretty!

      I wonder, too, if some of these folks lack the ability to feel pain, to the degree that would allow them to stop when “too much is enough.”

      Just the other day, a friend who has ADHD says that her drive to “win” when running would push her past exhaustion.

      Of course exercise is good for everyone, but these simple-minded notions that exercise will “treat” ADHD can go badly awry, as you have learned.

      Perhaps you could get your husband’s physician — the one treating these various injuries — to talk to him. Of course, that would depend on the physician understanding ADHD.

      You could always try printing out your post and my response.

      Good luck!

  6. Paula Hughes

    After 24 years of marriage, I started having panic attacks. I was post-surgery and my husband was given two weeks off work to care for me, except he was spending his time on his projects, not me. I was so used to this behavior, that I didn’t even realize how selfish he was.

    My meltdown came after five months in group therapy. I got my voice back, and realized my life and dreams were just as important as his. I told him it was about me now, not him! I was tired of spending my time creating order out of his chaos. Since then he has good intentions to make me a priority, but it rarely happens. But I’ve put ME first, and am much happier.

    And yes, the money thing is all too familiar. My husband is so OCD about SAVING and MAKING money, he has made the kids and me miserable, not wanting to spend money for necessary needs, yet he has no issue driving luxury vehicles.

    Question: what happens when the cardiologist does not give your spouse clearance to take any ADHD meds? My husband is having heart palpitations due to his stress and non-stop thinking, but he can’t take the meds to help him calm his mind. It’s a vicious cycle.

    1. Hi Paula,

      Thanks for joining the discussion.

      “Getting your voice back” is so important. Good for you.

      As for the cardiologist, that doctor needs to stop making superficial conclusions and talk to a competent neuropsychiatrist skilled in treating ADHD.

      The anxiety and tension created by poorly managed ADHD can itself give a person heart palpitations, as you’ve probably figured out. But narrow-minded cardiologists who know only about the simple organ called the heart fail to understand the role that the brain plays in physical health, including cardiovascular health.

      Also, there is a class of medication used for ADHD that include anti-hypertensives (Guafancine, Tenex, Intuniv, etc.).

      Good luck,

    2. Paula, we went through the same thing when trying to get my daughter (“The Firecracker”) on ADHD medication. She has an eating disorder, and has struggled with it her whole life. She literally wouldn’t eat the day she was born. (We think that severe GERD contributed to an aversion to food in general.) After her ADHD diagnosis, and after we got her weight stabilized with a re-feeding treatment, the big worry was, “Stimulants can cause weight loss!! Oh no!! We can’t put her on those!!”

      Well, following the instructions Gina put in her book (“start low & titrate slow”) we found a dosage of short-acting Ritalin that didn’t interfere w/ her appetite and didn’t cause weight loss. Go figure, it’s not a black-and-white treatment issue!

      Eating disorders are a literal living hell, but I can’t imagine what it would be like if we also had to deal with the untreated ADHD aspect of it as well.

  7. I do want to update everyone that, after my meltdown, my husband went to our church, told them our situation, and they helped provide babysitters during his work hours for three weeks, until the baby was born.

    It turned out that, when I wasn’t at church, Dr. Math told everyone that we were doing “fine. Taylor’s just not feeling well.”


  8. well we had the problem of that neither us knew that we both had ADHD .. we were fine at first but things became tougher to manage in life when our son was born. well that threw both of us for a loop
    it threw our routine out the window things were spinning out of control, i did not know how to handle this and i don’t think he knew i was out of control because i tried to hide it and work even harder to make things look normal and well he went into workaholic mode while i went into keep everything else perfect mode…it finally blew up when i feel into a deep depression and of course did not know that was the issue when it happened, my husband could not understand how i could be depressed i had it all..but in reality i did not have what i needed most HELP…help from him help for my adhd help to get over my depression…it took a few years and i finally found out what the problem was when my son was diagnosed with ADHD. Like many of us this happens.. My husband still denies he has it, but i myself am glad to know and be diagnosed with it.. now i have myself back to normal but better in many ways… but living with a spouse who still denies it and will not get help with it and other issues makes my life almost unbearable with him. I have tried to have him go in but it always a big im living my life that makes me happy, he will have to figure it out on his own…so far he is far from happy.. Oh and by the way I have you books laying around my house for him to read….Nope he has read nothing yet and it has been months…oh well you can lead a horse to water but you cant make him drink…so to speak…. thanks for your blog and for listening to my ramblings…

    1. Hi Kim,

      Thanks for your comments. It is for people in your situation that I specifically sought a writer in a dual-ADHD relationship.

      I hope your husband comes around at some point, for your sake and his.

      And I’m very glad that you feel happier in life. Good for you.


    2. Kim, we are so happy to listen to your ramblings!! I promise you, it can get better. <3 I lived for a couple of *years* knowing Dr. Math had ADHD, but with him denying it. Please keep in touch, because we'll be talking about really specific ways to lead a stubborn horse to water. <3

  9. Compensate? I feel like a shield for him. I protect him from most of the out world things that cause him grief. Bills? Give them to me. Car? I drive. Care for the critters? Me most of the time – him, when nagged.

    Expectations? In the toilet. Thing is, I *know* he is trying. It’s just hard to see sometimes. LOL

    I have to be the one who *thinks* – of retirement, of paying off the mortgage, of what do we need to do today and do it. His manner of thinking is scattered, yet deep.

    I know that if we had 1 or 2 complications in our lives (like children), the apple cart would be upset, but since it’s just the 2 of us, this is working — and he’s on his meds.

    I worry about him getting older. I worry about me getting older and not being here to balance him. I worry. It’s my job. Sigh.

    But I get great happiness, solace and contentment, living with this man, so I’ll take the lumps too. That’s how it works….at least for us.

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