Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Polyamory and Adult ADHD

The question of whether polyamory is a good idea or a bad one for adults with ADHD came up this week in an adult ADHD online forum. I thought I'd offer some perspective as a polyamory educator and a polyamorist who was once in love with a guy with ADHD and posted the following.

I do not recommend polyamory to people with ADHD. The problem I had with my poly guy who had ADHD is that when we were together, it was fabulous. He was intensely focused on me and us, and I'm an intensity junky.

It was a long distance relationship - we lived about 100 miles from each other - and he had two other ladies, one of which lived where he did. I was actually very happy for him for finding a woman as a primary partner where he lived - he needed the support and stability, particularly because he was underemployed and going through a very difficult divorce and child custody battle.

Anyway, the problem was that though things were great when we were together, I never heard from him otherwise. It was clear that the out of sight, out of mind phrase really applied here. At first I was hurt. Then I bought a couple of books on adult ADHD and the problem became a lot more clear.

In order to have happy polyamorous relationships, it is essential that the people involved be good at juggling time and attention. They need to be able to keep their eye on all the balls, so to speak, i.e. remain conscious of the importance of checking in with significant others regularly, remaining alert for any issues that might be brewing, and soforth.

My guy was a wonderful person, and I still think of him fondly with no animosity, but I couldn't stay in relationship with him without regular contact. I need my partners to meet me half way. It was very difficult for him to do that. Also it's pretty hard to take on the burden of doing all the reaching out if you have another relationship or two that require attention as well.


Matt Arnold said...

What you probably mean is that adults with ADHD shouldn't have multiple partners. But is it possible that they can be one of the multiple partners who share the same partner? What do you think?

Anita Wagner Illig said...

Thanks for commenting, Matt.

Anything is possible. It's all a matter of whether the person with ADHD can remain focused enough to abide by their relationship agreement and commitment with their poly partner(s).

In another forum one adult with ADHD disputed my conclusion about polyamory and ADHD not being a good mix. I imagine that a person who is taking medication and has reasonably good focus could pull it off, and certainly my experience was only with one person with ADHD.

Bottom line, I think the poly hill is steeper for people with ADHD than for those without. Some may not be able to handle it at all, and I still think the odds of success at an already challenging relationship style are fairly significantly less if you have ADHD than if you don't. The best thing would be to talk with poly partners about the issue, go slowly, and don't make a commitment to the relationship until those involved see if it works for everyone. If it does, hooray for them!

Matt Arnold said...

Hmmm. It's true that the relationship success -- in any relationship style -- of an adult with ADHD will depend on whether he or she can abide by relationship agreements. I'm not sure what is especially ADHD about it, so long as you remove the component of the ADHD having to split attention between multiple partners.

If you're saying that the ADHD's partner having other people would cause problems for the ADHD (I mean problems that would not be the same problems encountered by non-ADHD), I'd be interested to hear about that.

Until then, just remember poly is sharing someone. So far as I know, ADHDs can share.

Anita Wagner Illig said...

I'm not saying that the ADHD would have problems with a partner having other partners - in fact, the guy I was involved with was happy to see me get involved with someone else, since he had come to the realization that he couldn't offer me the kind of time and attention our relationship needed, especially since it was a long distance relationship (about 100 miles.)

My ADHD partner had two other partners as well, and I and one other lived near each other. All of these relationships started at about the same time. The third woman lived in his town and was local. He and she began living together very quickly after they met. This seemed to absorb all his attention - kind of the out of sight, out of mind problem. I and the woman who lived where I do stopped hearing from him, and when we'd call him, he was always happy to hear from us and apologetic for not keeping in touch. So it wasn't that he just wanted to end it with us and wasn't doing a very good job of communicating it. It was just that he had a hard time keeping his eye on all the balls, so to speak.

I read up on adult ADHD, and it became obvious to me why he was struggling and why our relationship wasn't going to work out, at least not for me. I need my partners to meet me half way - he couldn't manage it. I don't have hard feelings, just awareness of the special circumstances involved.

He was a great guy, probably still is - this was more than five years ago and we've lost touch.

Anonymous said...


I really don't think ADHD is the key factor here. Having had lots of experience as an adult with ADHD, the key factor of what I give attention to isn't based on whether my partners are 10 feet away or 100 miles away, its where my focus is.

While crisis can strike anyone, I'm not convinced you can paint ADHD folks with such a broad brush. Are ADHD folks in treatment incapable of doing poly well? What level of ADHD, ADD, etc.

Based on a handful of bad experiences I could just as well say women or couples have an uphill battle with poly because of their tendancy to have children. Or catholics because of religious stereotypes..

ADHD people have great things that make them better suited to poly. They include:

1. Endless Energy
2. Hyperfocus
3. Energy and hyperfocus combined
4. Great imagination
5. Creativity
6. Humor
7. Ahead of “establishment” thinking
8. Creative thinking and problem solving
9. Spontaneity
10. Great passion for interests

Anita Wagner Illig said...

Thanks so much for your comment. As you see, this post has been pretty controversial. I know there are exceptions to everything and try not to paint a whole group with that broad a brush. I'm sure there are people who have ADHD who do better as poly people than others. And I want to be clear that I have a lot of respect for those who struggle with ADHD and acknowledge that they are no less worthy of living a poly life than anyone else. Certainly there are people who don't have ADHD who aren't well suited for polyamory.

I am always happy to have feedback - whatever enhances my understanding of human behavior, especially as it relates to polyamory, the better. So thanks again.

slyypper said...

I COMPLETELY understand Anita's point of view on this. I've been in a polyamorous relationship with an ADHD person for a bit over two years. This person does not medicate for his condition; it is a long-distance relationship; we are both involved with other people. The frustrations are real and not insignificant. I've often felt neglected & not noticed. On the other hand, the rewards have been also been pretty awesome.

It is not true that my ADHD lover forgets me when I'm not there. He thinks of me often. (Don't ask me how I know what another person is thinking: that's the love part. :-) ) What does not happen is him remembering to pick up the phone and call. I am the one who takes the initiative here.

For me, the worst drawback of basking in an ADHD sun is forgetting from time to time that I have my own sun that burns as brightly. I'm a natural introvert, a bookish and idea-driven person who looks before she leaps. This relationship, and my one other with an ADHD person that is blossoming now, have taught me to take care of my own needs like no other. When I visit, I bring paperwork, books, artwork, things to do. And I insist on taking the time to do them. I do not follow them around basking in the sun. If I need to make a meeting, I make a meeting. If I need to go to bed early while they forge onward until three in the morning, I go to bed. If I need a piece of craftwork done urgently, a basement refloored, whatever, if I ask them they will do it. I allow them to develop a curiosity about what it is I'm up to and let them send some of that laser focus my way, on my stuff, to focus on my needs. That's how it works for me.