Yesterday I began exploring ADHD “paralysis”, a sense of overwhelm unique to people with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder that freezes us in place and robs us of economic productivity by causing us to hyperfocus on fear of failure. As promised for Valentine’s Day, today I want to talk about how that fear of failure, never far from the surface for ADHDers on the best of days, works to sabotage our love relationships, too.
Of course, we ADHDers like everyone else do our best to present ourselves as well-adjusted, minimally baggaged individuals. After all, who in their right mind wants to share with employers, colleagues, friends, and lovers that deep down, you really feel they’re wrongly involved with a perennial screw-up? ADHDers can spend their whole lives fighting this single inner demon and still never fully feel they’ve gotten ahead of it.
When applied to the dating arena, it’s almost as if ADHDers set an inner egg timer the moment they step out their front doors on a first date. Before you know you have ADHD, you blame your dating partners who never seem to want to stick around in usually tumultuous relationships with you for very long. Post-diagnosis and armed–or so you think–with meds and coping strategies, often ADHDers continue to wonder why their love relationships continue to end.
Of course, years of barely self-aware, distractable behavior don’t end overnight. We ADHDers know that. But it’s a lot easier for our brains to hyperfocus on the consistent message the world keeps sending us through our interpersonal relationships: go away, buster. It’s not me, it really is you.
ADHD message boards are full of stories from men and women who mourn how hard the disorder can make it to find your way finally into a committed relationship (for examples, see here and here.) It’s not that we’re inherently un-datable. (At least not post-diagnosis, anyway.) It’s that ADHDers rarely offer themselves the same generosity, kindness, and understanding regarding their symptoms that they expect from the other people in their lives.
If we’re really doing our best to manage our symptoms, who’s to say who’s at fault when a relationship ends? Sometimes it really is us. Sometimes it’s them. Sometimes it’s circumstance.
When we don’t remind ourselves on a daily basis that success in love–and in life in general–really is possible for ADHDers to achieve, we have a tendency to act as if it’s not. Post-diagnosis, those times when we truly do have a hand in helping cut short a love relationship, the failure probably has more to do with an inner decision to surrender to that damnable expectation of failure than from our actual symptoms, as annoying as others may find them.
I speak from experience. Every relationship I’ve ever been in since I started dating at the age of 16 was ended by my partners, not by me. Before I knew I had ADHD, I blamed them for the tumult and drama of my short-lived relationships…and wondered what was wrong with me for attracting such unavailable men. That explains a good deal of the drama surrounding my breakup with now-NYC-based photoblogger (and friend), Devyn.
After learning about my ADHD, the tumult and drama in my love relationships continued, sometimes with unabated ferocity, sometimes with a good measure of newly found self-awareness. But so far, with the same unenduring nature as before. I know it’s not just me anymore. But like any good ADHDer, I still find it hard to shut down the persistent inner voice telling me I’m a total hot mess. What on earth would I do without it’s familiar refrain?
Dating Pastry Chef Chris, that inner voice was more of a whisper, though I still wondered when I was going to make the relationship self-destruct. Dating Doctor Dementia, who by all objective measures was a total screw-up himself, I wondered even more strongly what I was going to do to ruin the relationship.
When Overly Frank dumped me last month in an IHOP in Boystown at 1:30 in the morning (pathetic on the face of it, I know), I could barely hear his words over the veritable and never-ending scream of my inner failure-voice. The next day, I sat with him on my couch and told him about that voice. Until then, I’d never really shared my hidden monologue of low expectations with anyone.
The talk was enlightening. Our breakup wasn’t just my fault, of course. Frank and I are simply a better match as friends. But talking to him helped me see how much I’d given into to my classically low expectations, and how that added unnecessary, ADHD-infused friction into our relationship.
The moral of this story is we ADHDers need to allow ourselves–force ourselves, if necessary–to treat ourselves with kindness and a big, fat open heart when it comes to our normal, human foibles, of which ADHD symptoms are certainly a part. Staying as aware and in the moment as possible and reminding ourselves that happiness in love–and every other domain of life–is inherently possible is of critical importance to avoid giving into our deeply seated low expectations about the future.
After all, if my ADHD life is going to be played out as a foregone conclusion, I’d rather that conclusion be a happy one. Wouldn’t you? Or as I put it to Frank last night over dinner, “So it wasn’t my ADHD…Hey! I forgot my pickle!”
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.