They’re Outta Here! My ADHD Is Chasing Away Potential Girlfriends

Why do young adults with attention deficit have trouble sustaining relationships? An expert and an ADHDer share insights on love and friendships.
The Experts | posted by Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D.
Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., and Heather Brandenberg

I spent most of my life wondering why it seemed hard for someone to love me and why, when I found someone who did, I couldn’t love him or her back.

I am a 21-year-old diagnosed with ADHD. I have never had a relationship with a woman that lasted more than a month. Are ADHD symptoms short-circuiting my relationships? Can ADHD have that effect?

Wes: I find that most psychotherapy involves learning how to love and be loved. Many of the teens or young adults whom I work with want to learn to connect and work with others. For people with ADHD, relationships with family members, peers, or romantic partners are complicated and full of conflict.

There are reasons for this. If you have ADHD, or if you love someone who does, these three are the most common:

> Boredom. Doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of torture to an ADHDer. Since enduring relationships are, by definition, stable, they’re not as entertaining as doing something else with someone else every day -- and twice on Sunday. People with ADHD have their core group who they keep close. But those relationships often feel less steady and connected than others might like. Though maintaining relationships is a challenge in childhood and later in life, it is critical in the teen and young-adult years because relationships are important to growth and happiness during that period.

> Psychological integrity. People with ADHD may feel and think one thing on Monday, something different on Wednesday, and something completely different on Friday. That leaves parents’ and partners’ heads spinning. Don’t confuse psychological integrity with moral integrity. Psychological integrity is more about consistency than judgment or honesty. When your friends and family can’t tell what you’re going to do next, they get uncomfortable, whether they admit it or not.

> Mind mapping. Although this sounds psychedelic, It’s just a fancy way of describing how we learn about other people’s expectations, perspectives, and ways of doing things. Mind mapping helps us understand how a person thinks and feels and what he might do in a certain situation. People with ADHD often struggle to get this right. Without it, they make a lot of social faux pas.

Learning how to love and be loved is tough for an ADHDer. For non-ADHDers, the secret to dealing with ADHD people is learning when to tolerate and ignore their behaviors and when to push for accountability and responsibility. For people with ADHD, the secret is to learn when you’re overtaxing others and how to change things so that you don’t. If everyone can get that formula down, your love, family, and work relationships will be better.

It’s no easier than I make it sound, but I’ve saved a lot of relationships over the years by teaching people how to think about and respond to ADHD.

Heather: I spent most of my life wondering why it seemed hard for someone to love me and why, when I found someone who did, I couldn’t love him or her back. In the few years since I was diagnosed, I’ve learned how much harder it is for ADHD people to do the things that Wes mentioned above. Luckily, I’ve had plenty of people in my life with the patience to teach me what 'appropriate' means in terms of social behavior.

One of the hardest parts of maintaining any relationship is learning how to read people and to use social cues to understand them. If we misinterpret others’ intentions, we can damage our relationships without understanding what we did wrong. I usually have to ask what I did to mess things up because, while I sense that I’ve upset someone, I don’t know what I did. Maintaining open communication about how I interpret people and situations -- and how others interpret my responses -- has made a big difference in my relationships.

Yes, boredom threatens relationships. I used to get bored with friendships in less than a year and dating relationships in a few weeks or months. Now, I have friends I care about and who care about me, and they’ve been in my life for over two years. Some, I know, will be there forever. I have loved the same guy for over a year now, which is a record for me. Boredom was a problem until I found the right people to befriend. Now, those relationships keep me pretty interested.

Love can be difficult for anyone, but when ADHD is in the picture, it’s harder. The lack of psychological integrity that Wes mentioned can make the people who love us feel like they’re on an emotional rollercoaster. If you’re in love with an ADHD person, just remember that we’re on that rollercoaster, too, and it frustrates us even more knowing that we can’t get off.

Note: Learn more about ADHD and relationships. Listen to the recent podcast of Dr. Wes and Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, on “Up to Date” with Steve Kraske from Kansas City Public Radio at www.dr-wes.com. The experts take calls and discuss how people with ADHD can get the most out of their relationships.

Wes Crenshaw Ph.D., ABPP, is a Kansas City area psychologist and author of I Always Want to Be Where I'm Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD in paperback, library binding, Kindle, and now on Audible.com and iTunes. Heather Brandenberg is a junior at The University of Kansas majoring in pre-physical therapy. She has been diagnosed with ADD and treated successfully since her freshman year.

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