“A 504 Plan for Romantic Relationships”
My girlfriend was late, disorganized, and spacey. I was angry, frustrated, and felt like a victim. It wasn’t until many years later, when I understood all about dating someone with ADHD, that I forgave her and wished I had acted a lot differently.
It was 2009. Not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I decided that I would get a job in sales, make enough money to pay the bills, have a little fun, and be independent for the first time in my life. I was a fresh-faced college graduate living in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was a cute, homey area well known for being the settling place for many energetic, naive, immature 20-somethings. Although I thought my college degree meant that I possessed a certain level of emotional maturity, the neighborhood fit me perfectly. I was a 20-something looking to work hard and party hard.
With my new job in sales, I was immersed in a team full of big personalities and charismatic extroverts. There was one salesperson in particular who was the life of the party. Her energy was unlimited, her personality charming, and she seemed to always be the center of attention in the room. I was instantly drawn to her, and she to me. A few work outings and secret dates later, Jenny and I decided to be in a relationship.
As most relationships go, ours was off to a great start. She was a hit with my friends, continuing to entertain, engage, and impress everyone she met. Her liveliness was unmatched, especially when we were at social gatherings. We were in our honeymoon phase. Months passed. We met each other’s parents. We went on a trip. I was blinded by the bliss, thinking nothing but the best of Jenny.
Patterns of behaviors started to emerge, though. The most common was when I drove to her apartment to pick her up. She lived near Lake Michigan on a compact street lined on both sides with cars, parallel parked like sardines. I showed up at the designated time and shot her a text to let her know to come down. I remember the street vividly, because I was always nervous about waiting, but there I was, throwing my hazard lights on and blocking the street.
The more often I picked her up, the more I noticed that I had to wait 5, 10, 15 minutes, even a half hour sometimes. I sat, glancing from my rearview mirror to the games on my brand new Blackberry Curve. The wait became a typical event each time I picked her up — sometimes in my car, sometimes in a cab, and sometimes with friends in the car.
Eventually, she would come out, and we headed off to our dinner reservations, usually showing up late. This was a pattern that continued for most events we attended: parties, restaurants, movies, Cubs games, and family events. Sometimes she’d be so late she told me to go alone, and showed up an hour or so later. I assumed that being on time for me was not important for her.
What I didn’t know was that she had ADHD, and that the disorder can lead to executive function challenges. Letting my emotions sway me, I interpreted her lateness as a reflection of her feelings about our relationship.
Then I noticed that we had trouble communicating with each other. It didn’t matter whether she was at work, at home, or out and about. Calls and texts went unanswered for hours or even a day. A lot of times, I got an email from her at night letting me know she couldn’t find her phone and asking if I had texted her.
She mostly communicated with me through her computer. It was hard to make plans. Simple messages like, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” might not get a reply for four or five hours, or after dinnertime passed. She also took naps, so my messages went unanswered for long stretches of time. She would lose her car keys, wallet, phone, and credit card. I became more frustrated. I assumed that she was an organizational mess, and that she would never be able to free herself of this trait.
It caused a lot of strife in our relationship.
I tried to be cool. I tried to be mature. I tried to be laid back. Like a lot of 23-year-olds, I thought I was emotionally and cognitively well beyond my years. I looked down on my college-student self — all of one year earlier — as the fool, and saw my new self as a broad-thinking, all-encompassing relationship peacemaker.
Emotions got the best of me, though — not because I was overreacting or losing my mind, but because I misinterpreted her behaviors. In a committed, long-term relationship, we perceive our significant other’s actions as a reflection of their stake in the relationship. Waiting 15 long minutes in the car each day became a marker of significance. I thought that Jenny was treating me this way on purpose because she didn’t value our relationship as much as I did. She had reached the point where she felt that it was OK to take advantage of me. She felt no urgency to meet my needs and downgraded my importance.
In hindsight, my perception of events was wrong. There are two questions that should have flashed in my mind, and the mind of anyone in a relationship with someone diagnosed with ADHD.
The first is, “What did Jenny’s behaviors show about the way she feels about me?” Jenny’s struggles with ADHD weren’t a reflection of her feelings toward me or a slight of our relationship, but this is what they had become in my mind. I was more concerned about the impact of her behaviors on me.
The second question is, “What skills did Jenny lack because of her ADHD?” Asking this question would have led me down a different road. It would have encouraged me to acknowledge and accept her ADHD challenges. It would have removed blame from the equation and led to more questions: What can I do to help? What other areas of her life is this affecting? How can I be more accepting of the challenges that she faces?
Little did I know that, later in life, I would become a special education teacher working with students who have ADHD. Now, as an academic consultant, I coach students who have ADHD. My journey has provided me with many experiences with and lots of knowledge about the disorder. Would my relationship with Jenny have worked out if I had this knowledge all those years ago? I don’t think so. However, it would have have made me more understanding and supportive of her.
I have learned to see things differently these days. Even after knowing that Jenny had ADHD, I made myself the victim: How could she continue to let me down and disengage from our relationship? Had I been able to overcome my misguided perceptions and be more aware of her struggles, I would have clearly seen the reasons for her actions and supported her.
Many students with ADHD have an IEP or 504 Plan in school. These plans define the impairments and offer strategies—accommodations and goals—to address, compensate, and develop the skills that are lagging.
Adults can use the same plan in their relationships. Dating someone with ADHD can be fun, spontaneous, and exciting, but it can also be trying and intense. As difficult as it may seem, understanding the reasons for our loved one’s behaviors — the abilities and challenges faced by a person diagnosed with ADHD — instead of taking those behaviors personally, is the right stance to take. That’s the only way we can cultivate and foster meaningful relationships with them.