Is My Partner Just Annoying  -- Or Could It Be ADHD?

Mark Vogel, Psy.D., Ext. 318


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect at least 4 to 5% of adults. ADHD is a disorder that causes impairment in a wide variety of life activities, including employment, relationships, and parenting. Russell Barkley, an internationally acclaimed expert on ADHD, considers ADHD to be a combination of:


-- Poor inhibition (Making decisions impulsively; difficulty tolerating waiting; making off-the-cuff comments)

-- Poor self-control (Acting without considering consequences; difficulty delaying gratification; starting a project or task without reading or listening to directions carefully)

-- Problems with executive functions -- i.e., brain functions that enable us to plan; focus; activate; integrate; prioritize; and modulate effort.  Examples may include forgetting tasks, responsibilities, or obligations; having a poor sense of time; problems with self-motivation; not learning from past mistakes.


Not surprisingly, ADHD adults encounter serious problems in their relationships, having nearly double the incidence of separation and divorce compared to the general population.  And it's not hard to see how such familiar ADHD signs as absent-mindedness, distractibility, and disorganization could lead to relationship discord.  But having ADHD may also leave a person prone to behaviors suggesting characteristics that are even more unattractive:


Selfish or self-centered:  The ADHD person is drawn to what is most interesting or stimulating for them. This narrow focus may result in a lack of reciprocity in a relationship, where the ADHD partner is not good at sharing or being "fair" when there is a difference in preferences.


Thoughtless, inconsiderate: Deficits in working memory -- the ability to hold information in one's mind  -- can result in failure to remember a date or occasion that is important to the other person.


Rude, insensitive, unempathic: The ADHD person's impulsivity -- an inability to "put on the brakes"  -- may cause them to say things that are offensive or inappropriate.  The self-reflective capacity -- where we ask ourselves questions like, "What might happen if I do or say this?" or "How might the other person feel?" -- is missing or impaired.


These ADHD-related obnoxious behaviors do not stem from any belief  that the other person is less important, or unworthy of consideration; rather, it's more about a failure, in the moment, to remember or consider the "bigger picture" of behavior and consequences in relationships.  Still, these behaviors have serious consequences for adult functioning, so identification of this disorder is important. And, with treatment --medication, behavioral coaching -- the ADHD person can learn to deliberate, to reflect, and cultivate better awareness of  healthy relationship behaviors.