Having ADHD Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Partner
Tips on how to date someone with ADHD, from someone with ADHD.
Google "my partner has ADHD" and the search results could make you think people who have it are incapable of functioning romantic relationships. One blog brags, "Here's how I fixed my husband" as if people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are broken. An article in US World & News Report implies that loving ADHDers is so hard that the people we date should join a support group.
As a single woman who was diagnosed at 15, I'm telling you that people with ADHD are just as lovely (and as challenging) to be in a relationship with as someone without it. We all have our "stuff" that we bring to relationships. I know what the title "Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder" implies: We will never pay attention to you. You are in a relationship with a fidgety flibbertigibbet who can't sit still, who will always be late, who is completely incapable of finding her keys.
But that's not true. "Don't assume that a relationship with a partner who has ADHD can't be a successful one," says Ruth Wilmot, a certified professional coach who counsels ADHD students at Landmark College, a college in Vermont exclusively for those with diagnosed learning disabilities, attention disorders, or autism. "People with ADHD are often extremely creative, fun, and exciting people to be around," she says. Still, if you are dating someone like me, there are things you need to know about keep the relationship healthy and stable.
First, we don't do boring—our minds are neurologically engineered to avoid the mundane. I'd argue, even more so than everyone else. So, for those who are adventurous enough to date us, here's your guide to ADHD dating success:
For starters, "If you don't know very much about ADHD, learn more about it," says AJ Marsden, psychology professor at Beacon College in Florida. Attention Deficit is a lifelong, neurological condition caused by a lack of or underproduction of dopamine and/or norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters regulating focus in the brain. Symptoms group around three categories: Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Stereotypically, men exhibit hyperactivity, women inattention—but not always. That's why Wilmot cautions, "Remember that not all people experience all symptoms of ADHD. It's very important to know how your partner perceives their diagnosis and how they see it impacting their life." For example, I struggle with impulsivity, firing off texts I don't mean, starting fights my partner and I don't need to have.
After talking about how ADHD specifically affects the person you're seeing, talk again. Her condition will never go away, but life stressors make certain symptoms more difficult to manage at different times. Marsden says, "If you have been together for a long period of time, it's easy to fall into a routine and go through an entire day without actually talking with your partner." So just like you would any other relationship, check in from time to time: How does ADHD make life harder for her now?
Marsden says, "This constant communication will help you understand how ADHD can affect your partner's behavior and mood—which will help you be more empathetic towards him or her when the garbage still hasn't been taken out even though you asked two times."
ADHDers are prone to start tasks but not finish them, so when your partner promises to do something—like take out the trash—a lack of follow through may just mean she got distracted. That's a very different issue than intentionally not following through on what she says she'll do.
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"If your partner seems to be acting selfishly, it might be because he or she is feeling overwhelmed with their own issues," Marsden says. "Pick your battles and the right time for those battles...Take some time to calm down before diving into a discussion." Taking a breather during fights also gives your partner the opportunity to put her impulsivity in check. And, if she takes medication for her ADHD—like Ritalin or Adderall, some times quite literally aren't good for debate: One man I dated noticed we fought more between 4 and 4:30. Turns out, that's when my morning meds were wearing off but my afternoon dose was yet to kick in.
Partners of people with ADHD: Even when you desperately want to fight, ask how you can help. While it's a simple and obvious request, it's kind of hard to do in middle of a heated argument. People with ADHD typically don't function as well in a messy home (even though some of us can be disorganized AF), so keeping symptoms minimized could be as easy as picking up after yourself. "Ask them if there are things they would particularly like you to do or not do that may be related to their ADHD," Wilmot says, "This might be things like reminders at a particular time or of a particular type or it could [be] that they would appreciate empathy and understanding when they forget something or have trouble meeting a deadline."
But don't turn helping into parenting. Adults with ADHD are, well, adults. We mail our rent on time, but sometimes just neglect to sign the check. You can understand why we might lean into a partner who wants to take care of us. "It's easy for some partners to step into taking over all tasks or responsibilities that might be challenging to their ADHD partner. Although it may be tempting to do so it can lead to imbalance in the relationship which could be problematic," Wilmot says. In practice, I'm not looking for someone to tell me to take my meds every day. But I'd love a boyfriend who reminded me to drop by the pharmacy and pick them up.
In the end, though, Wilmot advises, "Remember that ADHD is only one aspect of who they are. Don't assume that a conflict or disagreement you may have with them is always related to ADHD." Yes, your partner has a neurological condition, but if you always give and she always takes, she may also be a jerk. ADHD is an explanation, not an excuse. Despite what the internet may tell you, a relationship with an ADHDer isn't that different from one with anybody else: You both have to hold up your end of the bargain. If you're the only one working to keep communication healthy, ask yourself if it's the disorder or the date.
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