We love the questions that you all have been sending in! Not only do they encompass different types of love, but they touch on the various experiences that students have around love, dating, and relationships, while being mindful of the different identities which students possess. This week, we invited Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program (JHSAP) clinician, Ann Yu Natterer, to share some advice for ADHD-ers and other neurodivergent folks around love, so read more below!
Q: Does true love exist?
A: I appreciate this question because I think it has crossed many people’s minds, mine included. My take is that true love exists, but maybe not in the way we have been told it does.
To quote bell hooks in All About Love: “Our culture makes love a compelling fantasy…we often confuse perfect passion with perfect love.”
People think that love is a feeling, which is true, but those feelings only last so long. Doing things sustained by that feeling can only get people so far. True love is the active choice to continuously extend the same attention, interest, and prioritization to your partner when your feelings change as you would at the beginning when things were more fun and exciting.
hooks also says: “To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability as responsibility…Usually we imagine that true love will be intensely pleasurable and romantic, full of love and light. In truth, love is all about work.”
True love is hard work, in which all parties are willing to go through growing pains for the relationship. (Important note: the hard work of true love does not encompass suffering through cheating, abuse, or emotional unavailability.)
Love is learning how to be vulnerable and effectively communicate your feelings. Love is showing gratitude for things your partner already does. Love is being curious about them, their opinions, and their perspective, especially if you think you already know them. It’s small consistent actions over big showy displays. It’s being calmly in love versus being madly in love.
Don’t forget true love can exist outside of romantic relationships. It’s you and your friends hyping each other up in a group chat, a sibling who stand up for you, and your pet sensing that you had a bad day and curling up next to you.
I leave you with another quote from All About Love and a strong recommendation to read it: “The truth is far too many people in our culture don’t know what love is. And this not knowing feels like a terrible secret, a lack that we have to cover up. Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love.”
Read about love, learn about love, and be about love, and there’s a strong chance you’ll find others who do the same.
Q: I love my friends but we’re all SO busy with work and school and family/partners stuff, and sometimes trying to schedule time to hang out all together is yet another source of stress. What’s a good way for a friend group to navigate a bunch of busy schedules?
A: I love this question because it’s such a real feeling that making time or trying to be present for our friends can be a stressor when we have a million things going on in our own lives. I also pride you on wanting to make the time because it makes a huge difference in the quality of your friendships.
That being said, a good way to navigate a bunch of busy schedules is to find a way for your friends to schedule time. For some, this looks like having an actual calendar that everyone populates with their scheduled events/commitments for everyone to see, which could help with visually finding a day/time for everyone to meet up.
Also, make plans in advance! If everyone is busy, it might be easier to plan a couple weeks out to ensure that everyone has availability and can already commit to spending time together. You can also try making your hang-outs a regularly scheduled event, so that it’s already built into everyone’s schedules to take away the stress of finding a day and time that everyone is available. (That’s how this group of undergrads established a recurring Family Dinner night that’s been going strong for a year and a half.)
I’d also like to mention that it’s okay if not everyone can attend everything or if you really don’t have the time! Being confident in your friendships means understanding that we all have personal lives and might not always have the capacity to spend quality time with loved ones. Always trust that your friends know you well enough to support you no matter what, and that even when it seems impossible, you will eventually find time to spend together because you care.
Q: How do you tell attachment from genuine attraction? (ADHD-er Edition)
A: I’m not an expert on ADHD, but I’ll try my best. Let’s talk about attraction versus attachment. Attraction can be seen as an initial interest in someone based on physical appearance or personality. Maybe you like the style of someone you see on the shuttle, or maybe even their laugh, voice, or sense of humor. Attraction can be fleeting or consistent, and can grow deeper as you get to know someone and find more qualities you like about them.
Attachment is giving stronger importance to that person in your life. Romantic love can usually be broken down into three stages: lust, attraction, and then attachment. Not everyone sees relationships this way, but hopefully it helps show a way to distinguish the last two stages.
So, how would ADHD affect relationships and attraction? Healthy relationships release neurochemicals to the body that make us feel good, like oxytocin and dopamine. Dopamine is the reward neurochemical released in our brain that motivates us to do things. It’s released when we’re doing things for our well-being and survival, like when you satisfy hunger or thirst, push through a difficult task, or spend time with people you care about.
Dopamine is released and regulated differently in folks with ADHD. It can take more dopamine for a person to feel the same enjoyment, interest, or focus on certain tasks, including relationships. It might also mean novel exciting experiences, like getting to know someone new, can be particularly rewarding for folks with ADHD. The intensity of attraction might taper off the longer you know someone. When the novelty and excitement fades, it might affect the transition from the attraction phase to the stable, consistent attachment phase. The neurochemicals released during the initial attraction phase might be felt more strongly by folks with ADHD, so they might be more inclined to seek out novel experiences and people to experience that again and again with others.
People with ADHD also have brain differences that affect emotional processing, memory, and higher cognitive function. This difference could affect the intensity a new relationship can bring, remembering things (like texting back during the attachment phase), or proper planning for time together. Some of these regions are activated when people are in committed relationships. Areas that deal with dopamine like the ventral tegmentum area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA), as well as the hippocampus (which deals with memory, social and emotional learning), are activated when people are in love. These three areas of the brain are different in folks with ADHD. The differences in the VTA and NA can contribute to intense responses and hyper-fixation with romantic experiences, and the differences in the hippocampus can affect how people with ADHD learn from and process the experience.
Some studies suggest that some college students with ADHD find meaningful connections with others with similar ADHD symptom types and severity. Purposefully seeking out friendships with fellow ADHD-ers might be a good addition to your overall well-being. Whether you’re single or partnered, or if that partner is ND or NT, it’s nice to have friends who really ‘get’ you and can provide support as you navigate romance and life in general.
If the difference between attachment and attraction is something you’d like to explore more, I recommend finding a counselor who specializes in ADHD to better understand the way it affects relationships.
As a JHSAP clinician with a background in couples counseling and considerable experience working with ADHD-ers and other neurodivergent folks, I think Jay did a great job of explaining the neuroscience of the ADHD mind. If I had anything to add to her answer, it’s this: if you’re moving out of the honeymoon phase and into the stable attachment phase in any kind of relationship, communication skills are important.
Put your feelings into words. Using ‘I’ statements avoids putting blame on your partner for whatever is causing conflict. This step shows ownership and accountability, rather than blame and victimizing. It also shifts the focus of the thought process to what each individual can or cannot do, rather than demanding change from the other person.
Ask open-ended questions. This approach allows the other person to respond more freely and with fewer constraints. It also helps facilitate bringing up topics that may have otherwise been avoided or overlooked.
Express empathy. Try to see where your partner’s coming from without feeling defensive about what led them to feeling that way. Acknowledge their feelings without having to formulate a rationale for your actions.
None of these are exactly easy for anyone, but in my experience skills No. 1 and No. 2 can be particularly challenging for people with ADHD. It may be more difficult for them to articulate what they feel, or to listen to and really absorb the answers to open-ended questions, especially if your partner is talking for a long time.
Fortunately, like any skill, you can improve these with practice.
Parroting (also known as reflective listening), in which you repeat back what you heard your partner said, can be a useful tool in intimate conversations. Here’s an example of parroting:
Partner 1: You seem unhappy lately. Can you tell me what’s been going on?
Partner 2: I feel like we don’t communicate enough, and I am sick of always being the one to initiate all conversations. I don’t feel loved because you’re not texting me as much as you used to when we first started dating.
Partner 1: Thanks for sharing that. So what I’m hearing is that you feel like we aren’t communicating enough, and this is due to fact that I’m not texting you as much as I used to when we first started dating. You also feel like you’ve been the one to start all conversations. Am I getting this right?
Parroting can seem childish or weird at first, but you’d be surprised at how much it can do to prevent misunderstandings. A lot can get lost in translation when two people are having a conversation, and I don’t just mean across language barriers. I’m talking about syntax, cultural differences, and regional barriers too. It’s especially true when people are emotionally riled up and their listening skills are not at their best. Parroting fosters active listening and allows you to focus on what your partner is saying (and not on what your response is going to be).
Another strategy that I’ve found is useful for people with ADHD is to have concrete relationship goals versus abstract ones. An abstract goal is “We should communicate better.” A concrete goal is “Let’s have a morning check-in text every day, or every other day.” Note: more communication is not always better. Find a happy medium that works well for both parties.
Avoid viewing ADHD as a problem or some sort of deficit that one or both parties in a relationship have to work around. Look at it as a part of who that individual is, and try to understand as much about it as you can and work with it. There are perks of dating people with ADHD; they’re usually fun and energetic and passionate! Rather than seeing this neurodivergence as a flaw, view it as a part of who an individual is as a whole person.
Thank you Ann for sharing your thoughts with us this week! Readers can email HopkinsGBVP@jhu.edu if you have any follow-up questions, and we wish you all a happy, safe Spring break! Until next time, keep sending in your questions about love, dating, and relationships!
Note: DT&J is intended to educate and spark discussion. The advice offered is intended for informational purposes only, and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological, or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. If you need help getting started, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.