Attention Dating Disorder

What to do when you’re the non-ADHD partner in your relationship

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Google “my partner has ADHD” and the search results could make you think people who have it aren’t capable of adult relationships. One site brags “Here’s how I fixed my husband” as if people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are broken. US World & News Report once reported that people we date should join a support group. Yes, our likelihood of getting a divorce is double. But lots of folks without Attention Deficit get divorced too.

As a single woman who was diagnosed at 15, I know what “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” implies: I will never pay attention to you. You are in a relationship with a fidgety flibbertigibbet who can’t sit still, who will always be late, who is completely incapable of finding her keys.

But that isn’t true. “Don’t assume that a relationship with a partner who has ADHD can’t be a successful one,” says Ruth Wilmot, a certified professional coach who counsels ADHD students at Landmark College. “People with ADHD are often extremely creative, fun, and exciting people to be around,” she says. Creative and exciting just have to be what you’re into.

If you do prefer a boring relationship, stop reading here — and stop dating people with the disorder. We don’t do boring. Our minds are neurologically engineered to avoid the mundane. This article is for the people who are adventurous enough to date us, for those who understand there are more important things in love and life than the ability to find your keys.

With that in mind, here’s the non-ADHDer’s guide to dating success:

For starters, Dr AJ Marsden, psychology professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida says, “If you don’t know very much about ADHD, learn more about it.” Attention Deficit is a lifelong, neurological condition caused by a lack of or underproduction of dopamine and/or norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters regulating focus in the brain. Symptoms group around three categories: Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Stereotypically, men exhibit hyperactivity, women inattention — but not always. That’s why Wilmot cautions, “Remember that not all people experience all symptoms of ADHD. It’s very important to know how your partner perceives their diagnosis and how they see it impacting their life.” For example, I struggle with impulsivity, firing off texts I don’t mean, accidentally starting fights my partner and I don’t need to have.

After talking with your partner how Attention Deficit specifically affects her, talk to her about it again. The condition doesn’t go away, but life’s stressors change, making certain symptoms more difficult to manage at different times. Marsden says, “If you have been together for a long period of time, it is easy to fall into a routine and go through an entire day without actually talking with your partner.” So just as you would any other relationship, check in: How does the disorder affect her now?

Marsden says, “This constant communication will help you understand how ADHD can affect your partner’s behavior and mood — which will help you be more empathetic towards him or her when the garbage still hasn’t been taken out even though you asked two times.”

ADHDers are prone to start tasks but not finish them, so when your partner promises to do something — like take out that trash — a lack of follow through may just mean she got distracted. That’s a very different issue than intentionally not doing what she said she’d do.

“If your partner seems to be acting selfishly, it might be because he or she is feeling overwhelmed with their own issues,” Marsden says, “Pick your battles and the right time for those battles…Take some time to calm down before diving into a discussion.” A breather also gives your partner the opportunity to put her impulsivity in check. And, if she takes medication — like Ritalin or Adderall, know that certain times of day may not be good for debate: One man I dated noticed we fought more between 4 and 4:30. Turns out, that’s when my morning meds were wearing off but my afternoon dose was yet to kick in.

Better yet, instead of fighting, ask how you can help. ADHDers typically don’t function as well in a messy home, so keeping symptoms minimized could be as easy as picking up after yourself. “Ask them if there are things they would particularly like you to do or not do that may be related to their ADHD,” Wilmot says, “This might be things like reminders at a particular time or of a particular type or it could [be] that they would appreciate empathy and understanding when they forget something or have trouble meeting a deadline.”

But don’t turn helping into parenting. Adults with ADHD are adults. We just sometimes set our keys in funny places and forget where they are. We mail our rent on time, but neglect to sign the check. You can understand why we might lean into a partner who wants to take care of us. But watch out. Wilmot says, “It’s easy for some partners to step into taking over all tasks or responsibilities that might be challenging to their ADHD partner. Although it may be tempting to do so it can lead to imbalance in the relationship which could be problematic.” In practice, I don’t want someone to tell me to take my meds every day. But I’d love a boyfriend who reminded me to drop by the pharmacy and pick them up.

In the end, though, Wilmot says, “Remember that ADHD is only one aspect of who they are. Don’t assume that a conflict or disagreement you may have with them is always related to ADHD.” Yes, your partner has a neurological condition, but if you always give and she always takes, she could just be a jerk. ADHD is an explanation, never an excuse. Despite what the internet may tell you, a relationship with an ADHDer isn’t that different from one with anybody else: You both have to hold up your end of the bargain. If you’re the only one working to keep communication healthy, ask yourself if it’s the disorder or the date.

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