Relationship Rehab

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is NOT the cause of every relationship breakup for adults with the condition.

Candy hearts which say Love Me because ADHD is not the cause of adult ADHD breakups
Candy hearts which say Love Me because ADHD is not the cause of adult ADHD breakups

Lately, I’ve been thinking about “ADHD paralysis,” feeling so overwhelmed by the persistent expectation of failure that we get nowhere in our lives. We are afraid to make a move. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is never far from the surface on the best of days, and does a mean job of sabotaging our relationships.

People with ADHD, like everyone else, try their best to present themselves as well-adjusted, minimally-baggaged individuals. We don’t want our employers, colleagues, friends, and lovers to think that they may be involved with a perennial screw-up.

On a first date, we set our inner egg-timer from the moment we step out our front door. How long before it ends? we ask ourselves. Before you knew you had ADHD, you blamed others for not wanting to stick around for very long. After you were diagnosed, the message you read into your failed relationships changed. It became, “It’s not you — it really is me.”

[10 Ways to Balance ADHD and a Happy Marriage]

ADHD forums are full of stories from men and women who mourn about not having a committed relationship. It’s not that we’re inherently un-date-able — at least not after being diagnosed and receiving treatment. It’s that we rarely extend ourselves the same understanding that we expect from other people. We forget that, even with medication, distractible behavior doesn’t end overnight. If we’re doing our best to manage our symptoms, are we really at fault when a relationship ends? Sometimes it is us. Sometimes it’s them. Sometimes it’s circumstance.

It’s Not Just Me

If we don’t remind ourselves that success in love — and in life — is possible to achieve, we behave as if it’s not. I speak from experience. Every romantic relationship I’ve ever had was ended by my partner. Before I was diagnosed with ADHD, I wondered why I attracted such men. That explains the drama surrounding my breakup with a former partner, who moved to New York City to put distance between us.

After my learning about my ADHD, my dramatic relationships continued — sometimes with ferocity, sometimes with a dollop of self-awareness. And there were the same consequences. I now know it’s not always my fault, but, like anyone with ADHD, I can’t shut down that inner voice telling me I’m a mess.

Recently, while dating a pastry chef, that inner voice dulled to a whisper, though I still wondered when I would cause the relationship to destruct. During a subsequent short-lived affair with a raging narcissist, who was a total screw-up, I wondered what I was going to do to ruin it.

[Can This Marriage Be Saved?]

Sharing My Secret

When my latest boyfriend, a transplant from Texas, dumped me, last month, in an IHOP in Chicago’s Boystown nightlife neighborhood at 1:30 in the morning (pathetic, I know), I could barely hear his words over the scream of my inner voice. The next day, I told him about that voice.

Our talk was enlightening. The breakup wasn’t only my fault, of course. Tex and I are better as friends than as lovers. But our talk helped me see how much I’d given in to bad thoughts about myself, and how that negative force added friction to my relationships.

The moral of my story is that we should treat ourselves with a big, open heart, when it comes to our foibles, of which ADHD symptoms are a part. Staying in the moment — and reminding ourselves that happiness is possible — is vital to avoid giving in to a dark view of our future.

If my ADHD life is going to be played as a foregone conclusion, I’d rather that conclusion be a happy one. Wouldn’t you? Or, as I put it to Tex, over dinner, “So, it wasn’t my ADHD… Hey! Pass the ketchup!”