If you don’t have ADD, it can be really challenging to maintain relationships with people who do. They lose track of time. They interrupt you constantly. Their eyes gaze around the room when you’re in the middle of a conversation (but they insist they’re listening). It takes them forever to respond to your emails, texts and phone calls, if they respond at all.
Daily life in an ADD-affected relationship comes with a thousand forms of frustration, but the underlying challenge boils down to this: adults with ADD live in a largely non-ADD-friendly world, with norms and expectations that clash with the way their brain functions. As a result, common ADD behaviors are often interpreted by individuals without ADD as rude, disrespectful or hurtful.
In other words, if you don’t have ADD, your loved one with ADD can drive you up the wall.
I speak from experience. I have been in a committed partnership with my ADD husband for almost eight years. I consider this a triumph given that divorce is one of the symptoms used to diagnose ADD in adulthood. It hasn’t been an easy journey, in part because although I understand the neurological basis for adult ADD, I still feel hurt when my husband reaches for his cell phone when we’re talking over dinner and I still want to scream when he says he’ll do his share of the housework, but I end up doing it instead.
When I first launched Adult ADD Central in 2015, I hesitated to write about my own personal experience. I wanted Adult ADD Central to provide comprehensive, accessible, evidence-based information — all the information I felt I lacked when my husband was first diagnosed. I hoped that a clearinghouse of up-to-date information from reputable sources would empower adults with ADD — and the people who care about them — to better understand ADD and the many factors that affect mental health, and access the resources they needed.
Then a trusted friend pointed out that the website doesn’t provide any information or resources for family members and friends who struggle with their loved one’s ADD, people just like me. I had intended the entire website to be a resource for people without ADD, since I thought they would be more likely to spend time reading and doing research to help their loved ones. I hadn’t considered that they may need something in addition to data. They may simply need survival strategies, and ways to cope with everyday ADD behaviors.
So here goes. For what it’s worth, this is what I’ve learned after seven years of loving and living with someone with ADD.
1. It’s important to understand your loved one’s ADD — and everything else that might be going on
Everyone has a unique neurological make-up, including “attentional capacity,” as well as their own culture, personal history and lived experience. Techniques that work to manage one person’s ADD may not work for another.
How does your loved one’s ADD manifest, and how does it affect him? Is there anything else going on, like depression, anxiety or a learning disability? Is she suffering from a sleep disorder? Does he work at a really ADD-unfriendly job that leaves him mentally exhausted and stressed at the end of every day? Has she tried to overcome ADD-related deficits with medication, exercise or otherbehavioral interventions? What exacerbates his symptoms, and what seems to make them better?
As far as I’m concerned, understanding your loved one’s ADD will always be a work in progress because ADD — like all mental health conditions — is affected by so many different factors, and those factors can change over time. If your loved one is taking medication to manage his or her symptoms, its efficacy may change over time. Negative side effects may also develop over time and affect his or her behavior. Your loved one may go from a very ADD-unfriendly work environment to one that plays to his or her unique capabilities, and symptoms may virtually disappear. So keep observing, keep asking questions, and if he or she is open and willing, support your loved one to try different interventions and see if they make a difference.
2. When conflict inevitably arises, we need to communicate — and it helps to start with “I.”
It took the better part of a decade, and about a year of counseling, but I finally realized that yelling, guilt-tripping and completely melting down aren’t very effective communication strategies. I’ve found that calm, thoughtful “I” statements work pretty well, as in: “I’m hurt when you look at your cell phone in the middle of our conversation,” or “I feel frustrated when I have to wait for you every time we set a date.” Start a sentence with “you” and things can go downhill fast.
“I” statements, however, are inherently non-accusatory. They can diffuse conflict, opening up room for you and your loved one to understand where you’re both coming from without going on defense. They allow you to acknowledge and validate each other’s feelings, talk more productively, and move on. An important caveat: statements like “I can’t stand your laziness” or “I can’t believe you did [insert infuriating ADD behavior here]” don’t count.
Replacing “you” with “I” is sometimes awkward and takes practice, but I like that it’s a hard-and-fast rule, so it’s pretty easy to follow. When we stick to it, our conflicts tend to be shorter and less painful. Start with “I,” not “you,” and see how your next conflict plays out.
3. Living with someone with ADD is the art of trial-and-error.
ADD and non-ADD brains develop and function very differently. Your non-ADD (read: correct/efficient/rational) ways of doing things therefore won’t necessarily work for someone with an ADD brain. That means you have to figure out what works for both of you, which will likely involve a good deal of trial and error, and a lot of patience.
For example, my husband would get completely overwhelmed first thing in the morning when I reminded him of all the things he needed to do as they occurred to me. (“Don’t forget your dry cleaning. You need to do the dishes. Did you turn off the light in the bathroom?”) This worked for me, but came across as a “barrage” to him, and he would inevitably forget most of the things I reminded or asked him about.
To avoid the daily 7 a.m. bombardment, we tried divvying up frequent household chores on paper, and my husband agreed to fulfill his assigned tasks and thus eliminate the need for my constant reminders. I took on the food shopping, cooking, and laundry. He said he would make the bed, wash the dishes, and do the vacuuming. There was only one problem with this approach: it turned out that we have very different opinions on when and how thoroughly vacuuming should be done. The bombardment continued unabated.
Our next experiment was sticky notes. I agreed not to mention housework in the morning if I could write everything down on a sticky note instead. We agreed I would stick it on the microwave, where it’s easy for him to see it. He agreed to read it and follow through every day, with the help of his cell phone alarm, which rings every half hour from the moment he wakes up in the morning until he leaves for work so he stays on task and doesn’t lose track of time. This hasn’t completely solved the problem — sometimes he forgets to check if the sticky note is even there — but he usually gets everything done, and mornings are now a lot more peaceful.
4. We both have to practice compassion.
If you have a non-ADD brain in this predominantly non-ADD world, count yourself lucky. Your loved one with ADD (who may also have depression, or dyslexia, or suffer from ADD medication side effects) has to work much harder than you do just to get through the day.
I didn’t truly appreciate the differences in how my husband and I function until I suggested he write a daily to-do list. To me, it seemed like an obvious intervention. My day doesn’t start until I’ve written my own to-do list. Checking things off keeps me organized and makes me feel productive. So why didn’t my husband just make a to-do list?
The answer is: he tried. But then he inevitably underestimated how much time it would take him to complete each task, or was interrupted by a colleague and couldn’t get back on track, or lost track of time when he was absorbed in a single activity. At the end of the day, his to-do lists made him feel like a total failure of a human being.
So be kind, to your loved one and to yourself. As a former counselor advised me, “grant each other grace.” A little compassion can go a long way.
For resources specifically geared toward friends and family members of individuals with ADD, visit Resources.