Dear Dr. Wes & Kelly: My boyfriend has attention deficit disorder. He takes medication, and it helps him in school. I’ve looked this up on the Internet, and I see that people with ADD often have problems in relationships, and I see a lot of those in him. Can you give me some tips on how to handle this relationship? He does a lot of things I don’t like, like lie to me, not pay attention to me and flirt with other girls. It’s frustrating.
Kelly: In any typical relationship, it’s only common for problems, either minor or major, to arise. Sometimes the problems you experience may be a reoccurring theme, leaving both parties frustrated and the relationship strained, with very few options left. If you truly want this relationship to work, I would recommend that you stop searching for the answers on the Internet. If you want to learn the facts about ADD, talk to a medical professional. Any information you read on the Internet you should read with skepticism. Also, speak up. Be more vocal to your boyfriend. You have a right to be happy in the relationship.
It seems that the first instinct when any relationship goes downhill is to find a scapegoat. ADD seems to be yours. The problems you and your boyfriend face sound similar to what any typical relationship faces. Don’t blame it on the ADD. Break it down and analyze your relationship. I don’t know how long you two have been dating or the extent or seriousness of your relationship, but I gather it’s on the brink of falling apart. Obviously, you want this to work out or you wouldn’t be writing about it. Yet, the real question remains: Does your boyfriend want the same thing you do? Why do you think your boyfriend has or would lie to you? Are there ongoing trust issues? If he doesn’t pay attention to you, yet finds time to pay attention and flirt with other girls, that’s a big red flag. That shouldn’t be blamed on the ADD. I’m only analyzing this through what you are experiencing and there are two sides to every story, so there may be reasons why he is acting this way.
If you have addressed these issues with him and they continue to happen (depending on the severity), I would advise ending the relationship. There’s no reason you should put yourself through this, especially if it has been a reoccurring thing.
Wes: Kelly is correct that ADD shouldn’t be an EXCUSE for your boyfriend damaging your relationship or you tolerating it. However, ADD offers a much greater EXPLANATION than Kelly proposes, and unless you gather some hard facts on this disorder you’ll have a very difficult time getting this relationship to work. ADD is not a minor issue. As anyone who genuinely has it and has come to accept its consequences will tell you, it’s a lot more than not being able to pay attention in school or at work. Depending upon its severity, it impacts every aspect of one’s life, including how one interacts with others.
Forgive me if I can’t capture the full breadth of this problem in 400 words, but in general you can think of people with ADD as not caring as much as other people do. I’m not implying this is a moral or character deficit — that your boyfriend “just doesn’t care.” In fact I think ADD people are routinely misunderstood as being lazy, irresponsible, dishonest, etc., when they are just unable to stay focused long enough from moment to moment to form the same level of concern about things that the rest of us come by naturally. This makes them the opposite of anxious people, who care too much. Everybody needs a certain amount of anxiety to function effectively. If you worry about taking a test, you’ll probably study harder for the test. If you worry about making your friends angry at you, you’ll think before you say something you shouldn’t or tell them something that isn’t true. ADD people tend to lack that level of worry and so they act impulsively, say things they shouldn’t and then attempt to cover those mistakes. In brain science terminology, it’s a problem of frontal lobe executive function.
The reality is that medication alone will not solve all the problems of ADD — nor will psychotherapy. The treatment of choice recommended by every legitimate medical, psychological and psychiatric organization is a combination of medication and therapy. If your boyfriend has only gotten the medical part worked out, he still needs to understand how ADD affects his personality development and the way he interacts with you and others in his life. The good news is that ADD has a fairly predictable course. A good therapist can help your boyfriend find a more productive path — and you to understand how to interact more successfully with him.
We’re way past the point in our society that we should be degrading people with ADD or any other disorder or minimizing the impact of mental health and illness. We’d all do well to be patient and supportive of their efforts. However, if your boyfriend shows no real effort do fully address this situation, I’d suggest you do as Kelly suggests and consider moving on. This is a very treatable condition — but it takes some courageous effort to do so. I have my set of guidelines for the ADD clients I see, and No. 2 on the list is “take personal responsibility.” If your boyfriend will do that and learn some coping strategies, things will go better for you both.
Next week: A follow-up question on school district boundaries and the impact on teenagers of school transitions outside the peer group.