Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Are you typing right now?” my then-boyfriend yelled. He had just called on his way home from work, afraid he’d get fired after losing a major client. He was halfway through his story when, suddenly, I decided to check my email.
As an emotionally intelligent adult, I understand why he was peeved. Checking email in the middle of someone’s worst-day-ever story doesn’t exactly say “I love you.” If he opened his laptop and started clacking away while I was saying something important, I’d get mad, too. But the message I was sending at that moment wasn’t an accurate reflection of reality: I’d never loved someone so much in my life. My heart was all in. It was just my brain that was the problem.
I have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurological condition caused by a shortage of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that regulate focus in the brain. (People tend to think of it as a disorder for kids, but our minds don’t magically begin to produce more neurotransmitters when we turn 18.) While acting callously toward your boyfriend isn’t a symptom, two types of behavior are: impulsivity and inattention. Each is broken up into more specific traits, like “often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly” and “often easily distracted.”
All of which is to say that when it comes to dating, things can get a little rough. The best indicator we have for someone’s interest is their level of attention, but I’m not exactly built to use that particular tool to my advantage. Flirting requires me to focus, to stay grounded in the moment. Attention means “I like you,” and it’s a message I can’t easily send.
My first dates are when I’m most scattered. In my 20s, a guy looking to impress took me to one of those restaurants where they make your food right in front of you. For two hours, we sat between the meal prep area and a fire pit, a hubbub of blazing and chopping right in front of us. I knew as soon as we sat down that there was no way in hell I’d be able to focus on a thing he said.
I was right, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The title attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a little deceptive. The words imply, well, a deficit of attention. But really, the opposite is true: Attention is on overload. When you don’t have ADHD, dopamine and norepinephrine create a filter of sorts, helping you to separate the stimuli you need from the stimuli you don’t. But without that filter, I see it all and I hear it all, and I struggle to know in the moment what needs to be tuned out. No matter how much I like someone, I have trouble focusing on only them.
Sure enough, that’s what happened with fire-pit guy — despite my best efforts, I came across as uninterested in his stories, my gaze and attention continually spinning around the room. Needless to say, things didn’t progress between us.
Even when I do connect with someone, my ADHD is always there with us, making its presence known in ways both good and bad.
The beginning of a relationship — what biological anthropologist Helen Fisher calls “early-stage intense romantic love” — floods the brain with dopamine, the same chemical that I ordinarily have too little of. During that early honeymoon period, I’ve found that my difficulties temporarily subside: I’m less all over the place, more tuned in to my partner’s stories, better able to focus on them and only them (which lines up with research showing that people with ADHD thrive on novelty — and another study suggesting that higher dopamine levels can also come from lots and lots of sex, often the hallmark of a new relationship).
But eventually, the swoony glow of the honeymoon period fades. And as the romance settles into something more worn-in and steady, I inevitably return to my old, distracted self. To the untrained eye, it looks a lot like restlessness or boredom, both pretty powerful relationship killers.
So how do you show your love when the very wiring of your brain means you have trouble focusing on the object of your affection? Worst-day-ever boyfriend — who, to this day, remains one of the best men I ever dated — developed an action plan to minimize ADHD-induced conflict between us: He would no longer call between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., the time window when my morning medicine was wearing off but my evening dose was yet to kick in.
On paper, it sounds like a simple step, but it made a world of difference. It also taught me a lesson I’ve since vowed to apply to all my relationships going forward: Healthy partnerships require intentionality. Mine especially. Sure, there’s that whole neurological tendency to appear as though I’m ignoring what he says. But I work hard to remind myself that ADHD is an explanation, never an excuse.
Besides, everybody’s got something that makes love a little bit harder: That ex, for example, had a demanding, time-consuming job that often caused him to cancel plans at the last minute, which sometimes kept us from seeing each other for frustratingly long stretches of time. But he wasn’t an asshole, and neither am I — we were just two people who had to make an active commitment to intentionally show each other love. And sometimes, we had to put in a little more effort.
I get that if the concentration isn’t there, it’s going to be harder for you to know how much I like you. But if you’re the right person for me and I’m the right person for you, you’ll see the signals I do send: that I’m more present than I seem, and that I’m trying my best.