The Rules of Dating (and Breaking Up) with ADHD
Dating with ADHD requires knowing how your symptoms color a relationship, and making an organized effort to treat the other person fairly and honestly.
Reviewed on May 10, 2019
When I was 20 years old, back in the 1980s, romantic relationships ran the gamut from “friends who don’t hold hands” to “married” or darn close to it. Between those bookends, there were six or seven increments (steady dating, promised, engaged). Today’s young adults and teens have the same ends on the relationship continuum, but there are now about 30 gradations in between. This can be difficult for anyone, but I find that our clients with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) struggle the most.
Our culture sells dating as a free-form, romantic, exhilarating experience, buoyed by the idea that we might “fall in love.” That’s a great metaphor, isn’t it? Love as something to fall into. You stroll along, minding your own business. Suddenly, you tumble into love and can’t get out. Unfortunately, the falling model describes how people with ADHD approach love and a lot of other things: leaping before they look.
Three Obstacles to Love for People with ADD
People with ADHD have three challenges with dating:
1. Boredom. The most fundamental aspect of ADHD is an intolerance for routine, predictability, and sameness. Novel things (in this case, people) are interesting. Seeing and doing the same thing over and over again is ADHD torture. It’s also the definition of an exclusive relationship, which is less entertaining than meeting someone new every other night.
2. A lack of psychological integrity. Psychological integrity means that you feel and think roughly the same way on Monday as you do on Wednesday and Friday. While you may change your views over time, you do so in a predictable way that doesn’t stray far from your values. This isn’t how people with ADHD usually operate. They go with the flow, thinking their way into a situation and feeling their way out on Tuesday, then on Thursday feeling their way in and thinking their way out. This kind of inconsistency leaves both partners’ heads spinning when dating and opens the door to conflict.
3. Difficulty with “mind mapping.” Mind mapping — not the kind that kids use to organize ideas — is an accepted way of understanding how we observe another person’s expectations, perspective, and ways of doing things, and use our observations to develop a “map” of how they think. It’s the intuitive component of empathy that lies at the core of any successful relationship. This is hard for people with ADHD, either as the broadcasters or receivers of this data. Because they miss small details, they struggle to pick up the right cues to create the map, leaving the partner feeling misunderstood. Because they lack psychological integrity, any attempt by the partner to interpret the ADHD person’s cues, and create a map to understand them, may result in disappointment and frustration.
For these reasons, we often find ill-defined relationships among our ADHD dating clients who prefer “not putting a label on it” or “keeping things casual” — not as a way of meeting a lot of people before settling down, but as a long-term pattern of chaotic human interplay. Many of our ADHD clients love this, because “no labels” implies no obligation. However, most will find that such relationships aren’t liberating, they’re just confusing, keeping everyone off-kilter and disappointed. There is a better way.
How Teens with ADHD Should Play the Dating Game
Most therapists agree that a critical task of managing ADHD is to develop systems of organization for school, work, and home. That’s even truer when approaching dating. It may violate what you think you like, but successful dating requires setting and following rules. For example, you have to limit yourself to one clearly delineated relationship at a time with any given person (friend, lover, coworker).
For any relationships categorized as romantic, you must agree with that partner about what kind of romantic relationship you’re in, and decide if you’ll accept that definition. We call this the DTR (Define the Relationship) discussion (or text exchange). Are you talking? Are you exclusively talking? Are you an exclusive couple? Do you call each other boy- and girlfriend (or boy- and boyfriend, etc.). Are you just friends? Are you friends with benefits? Are you just sex partners? We label relationships to know what is going on and communicate that to others.
This may not sound like as much fun as hooking up and hanging out, but dating is practice for longer-term relationships. What you try out now — positive, negative, successful, and failed — will become part of your overall dating style. The more organized your approach, the happier you’ll be with the outcome. Relationship maturity is an extended journey for those with ADHD. Give yourself time to grow, change, and, if you’re under 24, complete your brain development. By your late twenties, you might be ready to make a marital-style commitment.
Rules for Organized Dating with ADHD
Dating is the process of figuring out with whom you do not belong. Your goal isn’t to make anyone into someone you want to date, or to let them make you into their perfect match. It’s to figure out if you belong with that person, and if not, to move on.
1. A fundamental tool of successful dating is to know when to break up. Many people with ADHD don’t like to feel uncomfortable, physically or emotionally, so they put off ending relationships that are not productive. They stay attached to people they know they don’t belong with.
2. Cheating is not a fundamental tool of dating. More often than not, cheating is an avoidance-based way to break up with someone or to force him/her to break up with you. It leaves hard feelings between you and your partner and within your social group.
3. Love isn’t just something you feel, it’s something you do. It’s an intentional act. No couple is meant to be together. Those who succeed mean to be together. They get up every day and decide to be a couple, not just when it’s comfortable and cozy but also when it’s difficult and irritating. If you’re not willing to put in that kind of energy with a partner, you probably aren’t well matched with him or her.
4. Date and get to know a lot of people — I recommend at least 25 — keeping it casual until something real develops. As a certified sex therapist, I’m all for good healthy sex, but hold off until you have a clear picture of what you’re getting yourself into. That’s not moralizing; it’s practical. Making sex an intentional act (we call it giving “mindful consent”) gives you a better strategic position in the dating pool because you’ll be taken more seriously and afforded greater credibility.
5. Monogamy will rarely feel right for people with ADHD, except at the very beginning, when it, too, is novel. But if you choose wisely and intentionally, it can become right for you. It requires a cognitive override of desire for novelty, a willingness to be comfortable with long-term stability in order to achieve the higher value of companionship. If you don’t want to be monogamous, you don’t have to be, particularly in today’s world of hookups, but be sure that your Define the Relationship discussion reflects that viewpoint, and that you’re both on the same page.
Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABBP, CST, is the author of I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD and the forthcoming ADD and Zombies: Fearless Medication Management for ADD and ADHD. Wes hosts a new podcast, called Adventures in Dating, in which he and his colleagues offer dating tips and advice for the over-18 set. Learn more by subscribing to his blog at familypsychological.com. He is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Specialist Panel.