It’s Not You. It’s Not Me. It’s ADHD.
Attention deficit disorder makes it hard to start and keep romantic relationships. Dating with ADHD requires an understanding of the brain chemistry behind the inattentive symptoms and impulsive behavior that can turn into relationship dealbreakers.
“Are you typing right now?” my boyfriend yelled. He had called on his way home from work, worried that he’d get fired after losing a major client. He was halfway through his story when, suddenly, I decided to check email.
I am not the worst girlfriend on the planet. I just have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Acting callously toward your boyfriend isn’t classified as a symptom, but two types of behavior are: hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention. Each can be divided into more specific traits, like “often does not seem to listen when spoken to” and “is easily distracted.” In other words, my mind wanders.
The Neuroscience of ADHD Relationships
I know that checking email during my partner’s worst-day-ever story doesn’t say “I love you.” If he opened his laptop and started clacking away while I was saying something important, I’d get mad too. But “I don’t love you” — the message my behavior sent — couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’d never loved someone so much in my life.
My heart was all in, but my brain was not. From the day I was born until the day I die, I will have ADHD. Attention deficit is not a children’s disease; our minds don’t magically begin to produce more neurotransmitters when we turn 18. But research shows there’s one way to get more dopamine in our brains — falling in love. Not just any love. I mean the type that Helen Fisher, Ph.D., calls “early-stage intense romantic love.” Four years into a relationship — which is when my ex shared his worst-day-ever story — those early-stage effects wear off. My heart may still have leapt a little every time we were together, but my hypothalamus did not.
It may be why many of my courtships fizzle out after a few weeks, when “early love” dopamine production falls off. Once the infatuation disappears, so does the extra dopamine, and there I am — distracted Terena in all her ADHD glory.
Heads up, fellas: First dates are when I’m most scattered. It might not be easy to tell if I’m into you. A guy I went out with in my 20s took me to one of those restaurants where they make your food in front of you. There was blazing, there was chopping, there was no way I could focus on a thing he said.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. ADHD is a deceptive term. The words imply a deficit of attention. But instead, as you know, we pay attention to everything. When you don’t have ADHD, dopamine and norepinephrine create a filter. They help you separate stimuli you need from stimuli you don’t. But without that filter, I see all, I hear all, and I can’t focus only on you.
Relationship Advice for ADHD Couples
We’re taught that attention equals interest. Engage the object of your affection in conversation about his interests, focus on his comments, and respond in return. Make and maintain eye contact. Attention means “I love you.”
So how do you show love when, thanks to your neurology, you can’t focus? Worst-day-ever boyfriend developed an action plan: He no longer called between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., the time window when my morning medicine was wearing off and my evening dose hadn’t kicked in. He knew it wasn’t me, it wasn’t him, it was ADHD.
Whether or not you have ADHD, healthy relationships require intentionality. If I truly love a man, I can’t take him for granted. ADHD is an explanation, never an excuse, and everybody does something that makes love harder. My boyfriend had an active career that made him cancel plans at the last minute, which sometimes kept us from seeing each other for months. But he wasn’t an asshole and neither am I. We had to make an active commitment to show each other love.
Flirting 101 says I’m supposed to be all girly-girly, hanging on your every word. I understand that it’s going to be harder for you to know how much I like you if I’m not focusing on you. But if you’re the right guy for me, you’ll see the signals: that I am present and that I am trying.