Verywell Loved is a series on the dating and relationship topics people are talking about, with personal stories and expert advice to help you better understand your own experiences.
Much has been written about how to be in a relationship with someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but what about the challenge of finding love when you have ADHD yourself? Sure, tips on how to maintain a healthy relationship with ADHD are great, but a lot of us are just trying to survive the first couple of months with a new boo.
Most people who receive their ADHD diagnosis in adulthood may soon recognize their own patterns of behavior within past relationships, leading to a better understanding of why certain relationships didn’t last.
This realization is both enlightening and discouraging. While it’s nice to have a diagnosis, you’re suddenly left wondering if anyone will ever truly love a neurodivergent weirdo like you. The answer is obviously yes, but research confirms that individuals with ADHD often face lower relationship satisfaction—particularly when their symptoms are poorly managed.
It goes without saying that ADHD isn’t always to blame but having a better understanding of which tendencies apply to you will save you a lot of romantic strife and ultimately help you feel more confident in your search for love. We’re going to break down a few.
The Delights and Perils of the Apps
You don’t have to have ADHD to hate dating apps, but they can be uniquely punishing to those who do. At first glance they’re a blast, playing perfectly into the ADHD brain’s need for variability. Every swipe and new match triggers a burst of dopamine, but before you know it you have twenty new matches, seven conversations going on at once, and you’ve made plans for four dates in one week.
This behavior is common for everyone, but the amplification of the ADHD brain’s difficulty focusing on any one thing—or person—can be a slippery slope. Dating apps reward distractibility, and when a person with a short attention span is spread too thin, it can be very difficult to be fully present for anyone you’re interested in. But the tug of war between wanting a relationship and wanting to lean into the stimulation of serial dating is neverending.
“After several years on the dating apps, I realized I was using them more for the excitement that came from meeting new and interesting people (ones who thought I was hot!) than for the actual purpose of finding love. I told myself I was looking for love, and deep down I was, but I was inadvertently feeding my ADHD demons and just couldn’t get enough of the endless options— especially in a place like New York City,” says Jane, 31.
And by all means, live your best single-person life and experience all that dating culture has to offer, just be mindful of your goals if you’re also someone learning to manage ADHD.
Dr. Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a couples therapist and ADHD specialist explains, “People with ADHD may be more likely to impulsively swipe people who they otherwise wouldn’t if they paused first. It also takes a fair bit of attention to detail and memory to move from chatting on the app to meeting in person. It can be hard to keep different people straight and not start mixing up details. And because people with ADHD seek excitement, there is always the thrill of who’s behind the next swipe, making it hard to commit to someone who is actually a pretty good fit.”
Now you might be thinking: Hey, I’ve outgrown the casual dating lifestyle, I only match one or two people at a time and I am ready to commit to someone! Well, ADHD can throw a wrench in your efforts, and you have to pay attention to your symptoms throughout the process—hyper fixation in particular.
Hyperfixation and Dopamine
When it comes to textbook ADHD symptoms, hyper fixation is high on the list. ADHD brains crave stimulation and dopamine, and when they find something that gives them that spark they cling to it with all they’ve got.
Hyper fixation usually manifests itself in the form of a new hobby, a certain meal, or a topic they’ve researched ad nauseam—but it can also present as hyper-fixating on a person.
From the moment you match with someone cute on a dating app, this hyperfocus can start. You get the initial rush of dopamine that comes from learning someone is interested in you, then once you start chatting with them—and there’s a promising connection—you’re hooked.
It’s very hard for people with ADHD to move slowly in a relationship because their brains are just so delighted by the way a new relationship makes them feel.
Moving quickly in a relationship isn’t always a bad thing, but when you fixate on someone too strongly during the infatuation phase, it can lead to a number of challenges.
“In the rush of excitement, it’s easy to spend as much time as possible with the new partner, to the detriment of the rest of your life. This can push a relationship forward really quickly which can be fun but also risky if you get too emotionally involved with someone before you really know them (and they know you). It can also set a bar really high that can be hard to sustain over the long run,” says Dr. Tuckman.
We Wish the Honeymoon Phase Would Never End
One of the biggest patterns people with ADHD tend to experience with new relationships is an unexpected loss of interest. We all know the phenomenon of the honeymoon period, where everything feels like bliss before we settle into a routine, but for people with ADHD the end of this period can feel a lot more intense.
You’ve been riding the wave of hyper-focus and infatuation with this new person, but once the rush of stimulation starts to wear off you feel ready to move on to another interest. Suddenly you’re left thinking, “Hang on, do I even like this person?” This is when many people feel compelled to jump ship.
The truth is that your partner was never meant to be a source of eternal stimulation. “If you expect to feel like your brain is on fire all the time, then you may prematurely end a relationship that is actually pretty good.” says Dr. Tuckman.
Being in love should always feel special, but at the end of the day, we want someone in our lives to make us feel supported, grounded, and appreciated—not eternally buzzed. The ADHD brain is always seeking novelty, so it can help to do novel things with your significant other in order to keep your brain associating them with newness.
Andria, 35 shares, “Before my diagnosis I would get caught up in the ‘courting’ part of the relationship (the best part, let’s be real) and be frustrated when the relationship would die down after the honeymoon phase. The reality is ADHDers need stability even though it’s not “sexy” or appealing. So it’s just about making the most of who you’re with and creating those special moments together rather than trying to seek it out in others.”
People with ADHD should work on building awareness of this tendency and take note of dopamine highs and lows within their relationships. Just because there’s a lull in excitement doesn’t mean something is wrong.
Another key symptom of ADHD that often impacts relationships is emotional dysregulation, or the phenomenon of feeling things much more strongly than neurotypicals—oftentimes in an overwhelming way.
Falling in love is an intense experience for anyone, so when you factor this symptom into the process it can create some unexpected hurdles.
In the Early Stages
One way emotional dysregulation shows up is in the earliest phases of dating, when you’re still going on first dates and really just trying to get to level one with someone. Let’s say you’ve been texting a match for a week or two and are riding that initial dopamine rush.
Then, out of the blue, they stop responding. You impulsively send five, paragraph-long texts oversharing your feelings and trying to understand why they vanished after you’d had so much fun. You’re crumpled in the corner weeping, shocked that someone you barely knew could make you feel this way.
“People with ADHD generally feel their feelings more strongly, tend to wear them on their sleeve, and tend to act on them more. This can make someone a lot of fun when things are going well, but can cause big strains on the relationship when the feelings being expressed are anger or frustration,” says Tuckman.
It feels terrible to be ghosted by someone you liked, but the emotional pain, coupled with rejection sensitivity dysphoria, is often too much to bear for a person with ADHD. Dating in this day and age is a marathon, and it can be incredibly draining to endure such highs and lows again and again.
If you’re thinking “ugh, this is totally me” it might be time to give yourself a little more space between each of your romantic pursuits, even if the dating app dopamine is screaming your name.
When Things Get More Serious
Emotional dysregulation is also very common further along in the relationship. An ADHD person’s highs, lows, and general sensitivity usually become more apparent once they start to let their guard down with their new partner.
Research has found that dopamine plays a role in empathy, so it’s thought that lower dopamine levels could impact things like communication and mutual understanding. This can cause tension if chemical variability in the ADHD brain isn’t addressed.
Taylor, 29 shares, “Dating in my teens was marked by some pretty intense mood swings. In fact, most of the friendships or romantic relationships that ended during that period did so because of my unchecked impulsivity and unregulated emotional shifts. In several relationships, I’d get into a fight with my partner and just snap—I’d hyper-focus on the issue until I was seeing red. I would explode into a tirade, sometimes for hours, and could not let it go. It wasn’t until I learned about emotional dysregulation later that I realized it might have been related to ADHD.”
This is why accurate diagnosis and management of ADHD are so important. If you don’t have self-awareness of your symptoms, you run the risk of pushing the person you’re dating away.
Luckily, the current effort to broaden awareness of the disorder is lifting some of this burden since the normalization of ADHD behaviors fosters more compassion and understanding.
“The emotional dysregulation can be exacerbated if the person isn’t managing their ADHD well and is generally more overwhelmed—so it is really important to address this emotional reactivity. This may mean taking medication, generally getting on top of your ADHD, making sleep a priority, etc. All of this is easier said than done, but it’s important,” says Dr. Tuckman.
No one should have to fear losing a partner over their disorder, but it’s important to try and meet your partner in the middle. Maintain an open dialogue about how your brain works and pay attention to your triggers. Your efforts won’t go unnoticed.
The Importance of Disclosure and Self-Acceptance
Anyone with ADHD knows we’re only skimming the surface of how neurodivergence impacts the process of falling in love. But at the end of the day—even after you’ve recognized your tendencies and are trying to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again—you will always be you, and that’s just fine.
So you’re a space cadet, an impulsive talker, scatterbrained, and can’t sit still through a movie no matter how hard you try…you’re still super loveable! Truly there are so many people who think those qualities are pretty damn charming.
The best thing you can do is work on loving yourself for who you are, drop the mask, and take it one step at a time. A big part of this is having the confidence to discuss your diagnosis with the people you date. It doesn’t have to be part of your usual oversharing routine on the first couple of dates, but being upfront about how your brain works will save you a lot of grief down the line.
“ADHD has a tendency to reveal itself, especially if someone isn’t managing it well. Unfortunately, the other person may make the wrong assumptions about what the behavior means—as in, someone who runs late may be seen as uncaring. So it’s probably best to get ahead of the story and to explain what the behavior means and doesn’t—as in, ‘I am really bad at getting places on time, but I really do value your time. So, I will text you when I am on my way and then you can head out to the restaurant,’” says Dr. Tuckman.
Jack, 26 shares, “I always make sure to tell my partner up front that I have ADHD and include the ways in which it sometimes impacts my behavior. It’s the same way people with anxiety or depression might tell you about potential panic attacks or phases of sadness and reclusiveness… it’s not that I want to do these things, and I know it’s annoying sometimes, it’s just a part of who I am and I hope you still can accept me.”
This can be scary, especially if you’ve been burned before. Just remember that not everyone is going to like you (who needs ‘em?) and if anyone breaks up with you because of your ADHD, they weren’t worth it to begin with.
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