A guide to navigating your love life with ADHD

·9-min read
Photo credit: Jaime Lee
Photo credit: Jaime Lee

TW: psychological and financial abuse

Dating is hard. Dating with ADHD is even harder. Dating when you have unmanaged ADHD? It feels impossible. Nothing puts that into perspective more than a break-up.

When my most recent ex, let’s call him Tom*, dumped me, it hit me hard. We’d dated for just 4 months, but it was the longest I’d been with someone in years and it taught me a lot about myself. “I like you so much,” he said, when we spoke for the last time, “but I can’t give you the attention you need.” Part of me wished that he’d said he hated me, but it wasn’t that simple. He just didn’t understand me.

Like an estimated 2.58% of adults worldwide, I have ADHD. From a young age, I’ve ticked all the boxes: impulsive, obsessive and I’ve been told time and time again that I can’t prioritise or organise to save my life. But no matter how often my friends and family have pointed out that I fit the bill for ADHD perfectly, I brushed it off as simple quirkiness.

Due to a lack of awareness and representation as well as chronic under-diagnosis, women like me with ADHD can fly under the radar. This means that we’re not just missing out on professional mental health support but that even our most well-meaning friends, families and partners might not know how to be there for us; confused and struggling to understand behaviour that is really just a tell-tale sign of ADHD. In my experience, this has been especially alienating when it comes to romantic relationships. In fact, seeing how my ADHD manifested in my relationship with Tom, and the many misunderstandings that sprang from it, was what gave me the push to finally pursue a diagnosis and treatment.

ADHD and romantic obsession

Even at the beginning of my relationship with Tom, things began rather impulsively. We matched on Hinge, exchanged about 5 messages, and then I popped the question: “Wanna meet up?” An hour later, we were sharing pizza and beers as I regaled Tom with endless stories about my dating history, childhood, and dreams of becoming a writer. At the back of my mind, I knew I needed to take things slow but, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t help myself. Within weeks, Tom had wormed his way into every thought: he was my newfound obsession.

When it comes to ADHD and patterns of romantic obsession, I’m not alone. Stephanie Sarkis PhD, psychotherapist and ADHD expert (who also has the condition herself) explains that it’s all a matter of brain chemistry. “People with ADHD are born with lower levels of some neurotransmitters so when you've got your oxytocin and dopamine boosted [through a new romantic relationship], the loop of excitement can be addictive,” she explains. Breaking that cycle can be difficult for someone with ADHD as they struggle with impulse control and, as Stephanie puts it; “It can feel like drug withdrawal.”

The links between ADHD and relationship abuse

But the relationship troubles people with ADHD are faced with can go much deeper. Studies suggest a link between ADHD and psychological abuse, showing that the more severe a person’s ADHD symptoms the more at risk they are.

This is something that I can back up with my own experience. At just 25, my dating history took 5 hours to get through with my therapist and while it initially took a while to sort through my past relationships, the process was invaluable, opening my eyes to how ADHD has made me more prone to abuse in the past. Looking back now, I realise that my ADHD tendency towards intense love and attraction made me more susceptible to manipulation tactics like love-bombing whereas impulsivity led to struggles enforcing boundaries when partners became controlling.

Stephanie explains that, sadly, this isn’t uncommon for women with ADHD. According to her, the “weaponisation of ADHD” can be a key component in the gaslighting tactics of abusers; essentially that the ADHD brain’s difficulty with attention, memory, flexible thinking, organisation and time management are symptoms that can be used to control women.

Stephanie’s words ring true to me: at 21, when an ex insisted that I was too irresponsible to handle my own finances, I believed him when he said he wanted to help me. Instead, he stole my money and used it as a means to control me in other ways throughout the relationship. With what I know now, I wish my 21-year-old self had the awareness that her difficulty with money was just a symptom of ADHD, and that she could find ways to manage it herself.

Dating someone with ADHD

“I like how dating you feels like talking to the main character in some mad film that’s already like halfway through”, Tom once wrote to me. Ironically, given how things ended, it was partially my ADHD symptoms that attracted him to me. When we first met he loved listening to me as I discussed the things that excited me, found my insatiable appetite for adventure refreshing, and described my big emotions as “uniquely charming”.

But dating someone with unmanaged ADHD has its own special set of challenges. Tom loved my childlike joy for the small things in life, but my intense emotions were harder to stomach when he was running late for work and I was crying over the perceived rejection of no morning cuddles. My impulsivity was exciting when I rushed out to meet him for impromptu dates; less so when I couldn’t resist spam-texting him all day long.

After we broke up, I blamed myself – and my ADHD – for the demise of the relationship. But I've since realised that the problem was never me or my ADHD. The problem was that, like the manic pixie dream girl in so many movies, I was a fantasy. His perception that I was different, exciting and whimsical was what made him want me in his life but he only wanted me on his own terms, with the attraction fading once he was confronted with the reality of what my symptoms were like.

Forging your own relationship path

There is light at the end of the relationship tunnel – no matter how dispiriting my own experience sounds. There are plenty of people with ADHD who report happy relationships: among them is Nora Nord, a queer, interdisciplinary artist based in London and the creator of the podcast You & Me: Let’s Talk About ADHD.

For her, entering into a loving and committed relationship has been possible – in no small part thanks to being with a partner who also has ADHD and allows her to feel seen rather than judged or pathologised. “I feel things so much, so being able to share that with someone who also feels the same is just really special”, she notes, “There’s this abundance of space for the both of you and for both of your emotions.”

For Nora, her experiences of both queerness and ADHD may be perceived as burdens for some – but in her experience they have been a blessing and allowed her to create more purposeful relationships and carve a life that feels more authentic to her. “Societal structures don’t serve marginalised people, so both queerness and being neurodivergent require you to choose your path more deliberately, rather than just letting life happen to you,” she says. “It’s about being really purposeful and designing your life with intent, in a way that serves you and your needs.”

Just like Nora explains, I can reframe how I view ADHD. It's not a curse, and I don’t need to accept relationship struggles and being minimised or dismissed by my partners. I can work on identifying what an ideal partnership looks like to me – based on what I need and not what society tells me is "normal". Finally accepting my ADHD and the fact I need professional support was a huge part of this consciousness shift – it made me realise that I’m not broken when it comes to relationships, I’m just wired differently and need to respect that.

How to manage your ADHD symptoms in a relationship

With the help of my therapist, I’m learning to spot how ADHD behavioural patterns might manifest in a romantic relationship and work on techniques to manage my symptoms. This is a long, committed process that is not only specific to my experience but which also won’t happen overnight. So, for the interests of this article, I decided to reach out to Dr Kojo Sarfo – a mental health nurse practitioner, psychotherapist and TikToker who spreads awareness about ADHD – to gain some simple but effective insights on how to approach dating with ADHD.

While these are important principles for any relationship, Kojo advises that self-reflection and establishing boundaries are particularly vital when you add ADHD into the mix. “The most important thing is to be self-aware. That way you can be explicit with your partner and let them know exactly what you need, and what your limitations are,” he explains.

As people with ADHD, we navigate the world slightly differently to the majority of the population – making it tricky sometimes to understand how our relationship styles could be impacting our partner(s). In this case, it can be important to share details of the relationship with our support system and ask them to “witness” our behaviour and feedback honestly. “They can tell you the things that you're doing that are helpful, and also point out unhelpful things that you're doing,” he adds.

Finally, people with ADHD need to remember to take dating slow and not be afraid to pause and listen to how we really feel. “It’s really important to pace yourself [when dating with ADHD]. As someone with ADHD, you may have a tendency to move faster than you would like to when you’re dating,” writes Kojo. “Take a break every now and then to question how you feel about yourself, how you feel about your potential partner and how you feel about the whole situation.”

*Name has been changed

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