This Is What It’s Like to be in a Relationship with Someone who has ADHD

It’s a condition that affects an estimated 3-4% of adults, but as many as 90% of people with ADHD go undiagnosed. That adds up to a lot of individuals – and couples – wondering… is this how it is for everyone else? As a woman with a ‘typical’ brain, 30-year-old Kari Biondi* reflects on the challenges she faced with her non-typical boyfriend.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it became clear that Tom’s brain was built differently to mine – like most other people’s.

We met we were in our early twenties and I was struck by how easily he wore his emotions. He was always super affectionate, would cry openly if he was moved and was able to empathize and strike up a rapport with anyone. He didn’t talk about his feelings or inner life as such, but I suppose I thought it wasn’t necessary given how open he seemed. Other people – men – found his comfort in expressing himself confusing, and when we started dating one friend of his told me that he was surprised: because Tom was so ‘in touch with his feminine side’, as the friend saw it, he’d always thought he was gay.

The flip side to this was what I came to term WTF moments – rare bursts of anxiety triggered by thinking someone was taking the piss. Often people were being lax or just had their own stuff going on – that’s life – but he’d take it personally, becoming hurt and defensive. This is where I got confused – how could someone be so empathetic in some situations but so damning in others? A lot of his friends have been dropped over the years simply for being crap at arranging to meet for drinks.

It was only after we moved in together that some aspects of his behavior began to grate. Overall we had a cozy routine, interesting plans and lots in common – we went to work, came home and chilled – but his reaction to snubs or unfairness could create tension. He would freak if I was late home without letting him know, despite it being something he was guilty of himself. Years passed like this until he admitted that he saw my tardiness as a sign that I’d stopped caring about him and it started to dawn that there was more going on under the surface than I’d thought. Other habits I just found annoying. Cooking together was a nightmare: I’m lazy about following recipes but when Tom cooks every single ingredient has to be weighed exactly. He takes ages, and gets frustrated by that and the inevitable mess from all the precise prep he does.

There are times when I lose him to his deep dives – what I’d later learn were actually just distractions that tap into his brain’s reward center rather than some noble effort to educate himself. As well as airplanes, over the years he’s had obsessions with drones, Japan’s role in WWII, Westerns and watches. I’d joke that he’d be a total boss in any pub-quiz team, but when he comes across a new topic he loves he can be impossible to reach, burying his head in his iPad, scrolling until his interest wanes. I’d call it ‘nerd mode’ to lighten the mood but when he was like that nothing got done and it was lonely. I would get frustrated seeing him ‘entertain’ himself while I’m picking up his shit. More frustrating was when his distractions were more fleeting and he’d be even more difficult to pin down. I’d ask him to help clean up and he’d pull out the hoover, but five minutes later I’d find him online shopping for random things – an oven thermometer and trick yo-yo are two recent purchases that still sit in their boxes. Jobs would frequently get started then dropped.

I coped with this by being pragmatic, accepting that that’s what life with Tom was like. But then, a close friend died and Tom became depressed. He dropped far, sometimes hidden, sometimes loud and dramatic but was even harder to reach. He needed professional help.

His first appointment was with a psychiatrist for a formal diagnosis before moving into therapy and the doctor confirmed the obvious depression but also ran some question-based tests which suggested another thing – that Tom had ADHD. When he came out of the appointment it was almost like he was looking at himself for the first time. He was relieved that support for his depression was coming, but had to feel his way around the ADHD and what it meant for his past and his future. A week later, after more tests, the diagnosis was confirmed.

We both researched the condition but this was where I went full nerd: ADHD didn’t capture Tom’s imagination the way planes had. The more I learned, the closer I felt to Tom and the more I understood his view of the world and found ways to work with him on it – and for him to work with me. Now, if I’m going out, I never give him a ‘home by’ time and check in regularly so I keep control of my space and he doesn’t get worked up. If he’s distracted, I offer up things we can focus on together like going out to eat or watching a film. It’s taken time, but he’s come to understand why he’d act one way when everyone else seemed to behave in another. It opened the door to his inner world, his confusion, his sense of fighting against the world. One thing we still have to overcome is his resistance to seeing some of his behaviors as ADHD and not just ‘Tom’ – that’s a thing for him, that being ADHD somehow depersonalizes his experiences and responsibilities. But the diagnosis has given us the right language to talk about feelings and behaviors and improve our relationship. It’s been a blessing.

What’s the deal with ADHD?

Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, explains the unique qualities – and trials – of being in love with someone with ADHD.

People who have ADHD have a different kind of neurochemistry and a different physical setup of the brain than people who don’t have it and it’s usually a hereditary condition. It results in very specific symptoms that can include hyperactivity, difficulty initiating and following through on tasks and emotionality, which means that you respond more easily and quickly emotionally than other people do. ADHD also goes hand in hand with anxiety, depression and substance abuse issues.

Chronic distractibility is the number one symptom of adult ADHD, and when you’re a neurotypical – ie, non-ADHD – partner it can leave you feeling unloved or ignored. It’s not that the person doesn’t love you, it’s that the person is distracted. The other big issue has to do with difficulty following through on tasks. Over time, because so many promises are made and broken, the trust in the relationship will erode. Again, it’s not because the person doesn’t love you or is untrustworthy, it’s because they have these unmanaged symptoms.

Between 80% and 90% of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed, and a diagnosis helps the ADHD partner understand the strategies they can use to improve their reliability and performance in the relationship, and for both people in the relationship to understand and interpret the behaviors. If you don’t know that you have ADHD in the relationship, you don’t understand why things are happening or why they’re so pervasive, which is frustrating for both partners.

Almost all of the people that I have worked with who have ADHD are quite emotionally sensitive. It’s a lot to do with shame: ADHD partners have been told their whole lives that they’d be happier and more successful if they work harder and pay attention and so by adulthood they can be sensitive about that and taking blame for things that are beyond their control. Both partners have to understand that they make a contribution to the issues between them.

 

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Nina – Off Her Meds

I met Nina on POF a few years ago. We talk on the phone and she is relatively normal albeit somewhat shallow. Before the 1st date she sends a nude pic, which I was like, ok she must be interested but she tells me she’s a virgin. The 1st date went well and again seemed relatively normal with some quirks that I found cute, but we don’t have sex or kiss except her hugging me and kissing me on the cheek No red flags.

So, 2nd date is a yes for me and her.

A few days before the 2nd date meeting she texts and says how bummed she is cause she went on another date a few days after our 1st and he rejected her (For me no big deal we only had 1 date & I was lining out a date with another woman). Then she proceeds to tell me about her past which is beyond messed up loaded with physical and sexual abuse and a forced marriage by her parents for money. Now being a victim of some child abuse I could relate so it didn’t scare me, but I should have taken it as a red flag considering you’re telling me this when we literally just met in person once.

But date 2, the plan was we play retro video games on my laptop at her place and then eat food somewhere. Day of, she has a court date and says she’ll text me when to come over. Turns out her court date is against the husband she was forced to marry, so not good. I can’t really do anything as I am waiting for her text so I can come over. Not till 4pm do I get her text and naturally she’s not pleasant. I should have canceled, but no I’m too stubborn as I waited for the text.

So, I show up and she is literally in the fetal position crying. So, very awkward. I am awkwardly trying to comfort her. The she starts the whole “I am going to be alone forever. I really want a boyfriend. I’m too damaged. I want to be worshiped,” etc. Now that right there is cause to run away. Then she tells me she has bipolar disorder and has been off her meds for 2 weeks. Instead of leaving I somehow cheer her up, but I cheer her up too well and she starts to get manic and I can tell.

We go to walk her dog together and she continues that “I want a boyfriend who worships me and buys me things” In addition she starts saying some odd things like “I want to be daddy’s little girl in my next relationship” and an anti-Semitic thing telling me that a woman walking by is a Jewish whore repeatedly, but assures my she is not “anti-Jewish”. I would have left, but unfortunately my bag with my laptop is at her place.

We get back and she wants to play retro games and I can’t think of a reason to split, but she’s starting to get sexual saying what a butt plug is and insist I look it up on my phone. (I know what it is)

Then she cooks something for us. During the meal she tells me that she roofied the soup very serious and of course I panic. Then she laughs maniacally saying that she’ll lock me up in her closet, tie me up and feed me scraps. Again super panic, but then laughs maniacally again and says she was joking and states; “I can’t do anything to you as you would be flaccid and of no use.” (I don’t care if it is a man or woman, you don’t make that joke when you cook for a date at your place). She also threatens to spill the soup on me if I don’t drink the broth. I pretty much decide nope, I’m done. I don’t care if I’m rude. I get my things together, say it is getting late and I have to go. Before I do I go to the bathroom as it’s about 1hr to get back home. She literally follows me and asks to see me pee. I force her out and lock the door with her still trying to get in. I get done and she has her nightgown on when I get out and does the split and insists I feel how soft the silk is and her breasts. I’m sorry but just too much crazy for me to do that and as I’m leaving she proceeds to shake and randomly dance saying “Is it good for you?”

I was so glad when I made it back home safely and was not in fact roofied. A few days later she calls me and tells me she invited someone over from online and had unprotected sex with him and how badly she regrets it and how she loves getting attention from men, she feels horrible etc. So, yeah if any attraction to her didn’t die on the 2nd date, this about made sure any attraction was dead. I pretty much said “I really have no attraction to you whatsoever and if you want, let’s be friends and nothing more”, and said bye.

I never heard from her again thankfully. On one hand I do feel bad but on the other hand I have to look out for myself and she should be managing it and use her friends to tell things not someone she met only twice. Needless to say I pretty much took a break from dating.

 

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Harper – Part 2 – Plane Explodes. No Survivors

Another tale of one man’s journey navigating his way through the dating scene in Philadelphia.

South Street

I once hung out with her on South Street. She bought little Indian finger bells to clear the aura or feng shui of a room she was working on. Then she bought a chair and had me carry it on my head across town back to her apartment. It really was the easiest way to transport it, but I looked like a wicker turtle walking around with that on my head. When I got to her place she gave me a glass of scotch. Then she asked me to turn a big rug in the living room. What am I, the hired hand?

She lived with two or three other people in this house in a crappy neighborhood. She said she used to have sex with her one roommate, but then he got a girlfriend and stopped banging her. So now she says she has to listen to them have sex in the next bedroom. She doesn’t like that. I think it’s funny that she thinks it’s ok to shit where you eat. We had a cig and then she took me up to her room.

For an “interior designer’ it was a bit messy. Her underwear on the floor and what not. She showed me that the room was broken into four “stations” and each one had different magic stones or crystals on the furniture in that space. It was supposed to give off different energies. Yea, just crazy shit. But I will tell you this… Crazy is only good in one room of the house and it’s not the kitchen. At least I got to take that kind of her crazy for a test drive that afternoon.

Seaport Museum

I was invited to an event at the Seaport Museum. I was with Harper on South Street. We were at a bar called Tattooed Mom’s. There was going to be tons of free food and booze at the event. It was if she wanted to get a few drinks into her before she went. Maybe she has social anxiety. But then she tells me she rode her bike to South Street. WTF? So I have to call an UBER, but one that is an SUV, because we have to pack her bike in the back of it. Then drive to her house. Then she has to get changed, so we can then get to the event. I was aggravated and pissed, but I still liked her.

So we finally get to The Seaport Museum. We’re late and you know how much I hate lateness. I get a drink and as I literally walk outside to smoke a cigarette, these dudes bum smokes from me. But before I can lie and say I left them inside, fucking Harper says, sure! Then looks at me for the cigs. I fucking hate that. I’m taking it on the chin for $10 a pack now. That shit isn’t cheap. These guys are around her age and she immediately starts chatting them up like I’m not even there. You treat her really well and she just goes and starts flirting with other guys. She’s awful.

I go inside to get away from these turds and to get another refill because I need it. I run into my pal Johnny R. and I’m happy to see him. He can see I’m stressed about getting down here and her behavior. We get some drinks and chat a bit. He’s with his girlfriend and another couple so he has to hang back with them. I run into another friend and he can see I’m stressed but the booze is helping like always. Knocking the edge right off.

I see another girl who is equally nuts that I know, and I just avoid her and get back to Harper. (See: Kylie – 2014 to 2015 – Broken Wing) She’s done chatting with the smoke bums and gives them her business cards. I know they’re just going to call her to try to bang her. But I can’t worry about that. I think I had such a good buzz on that night I almost bought her a painting she liked. I was not thinking clearly back then.

I once took her to Matyson (One of my favorite restaurants that sadly isn’t around anymore) and she acted like a drunk asshole. Spilling champagne, etc.

Horrible Night

One night we went to a nice wine bar called Tria near Washington Square. I knew the waiter so I got the hookup. She was somewhat well-behaved there but it seems the more she drinks, the crazier she becomes.

After that we went to Indeblue in mid-town. It’s a cool Indian bar. All I remember was her putting stupid cocktail napkins on her head and having me take her picture with the bartender, Awful. Then she wants to stop for one more drink at Fergie’s pub. We go in there and she makes everybody at the bar move down so we can sit down. She proceeds to make fun of the bartender, saying how she thinks he’s mentally dim-witted. She starts chatting with some older dude on the other side of her and then said she was leaving. She asked if I was going to leave as well, and I told her I was staying. She left and I was already chatting with a pretty black girl to my right.

Once she came over to do tarot cards with me and started rearranging the furniture in my house. Oh, and drank non-stop. Insane! Who does shit like that?

I heard from a good friend of mine that on one of her interior design gigs, she rolled a chair into a closet and onto a $5,000 wedding dress. That was after she just dropped her keys onto the client’s Steinway piano when she came in. She didn’t get the job.

I can’t talk about this idiot anymore. It’s making me angry just writing about this lunatic.

This could all be chalked up to a few things. Mental illness mixed with alcohol and drugs.

 

 

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