February 21, 2014

Adventure Deficit Disorder & ADHD Relationships. ~ Kirsten Milliken

mountain yoga trekking adventure

Yes, ADD is just a way for people who don’t want to be labeled as “hyperactive” to delineate themselves.

But what I am talking about is Adventure Deficit Disorder. The lack of the thrill that was there when a relationship was new. The waning of the intense connection felt when falling in love. The lost feeling of neurotransmitters constantly flooding the brain, creating a feeling of being focused, motivated, interested and “on.”

For neurotypical partners, this ebb in excitement is expected and tolerable. But for an ADHD partner it can lead to significant problems.

A large body of research and a multitude of case studies and personal accounts attest to the fact that ADHD can have a serious impact on relationships. Research shows that people with ADHD are twice as likely to get divorced as their neurotypical counterparts.

Often this can be attributed to the fact that the ADHD spouse has not been diagnosed.

In the absence of a diagnosis, symptoms of inattention, distractibility, impulsivity, hyperarousal and emotional dysregulation may be misattributed to the ADHD partner’s poor character, lack of caring and disinterest.

Even when a diagnosis is made, the non-ADHD partner may have had enough already or be unwilling to explore the impact ADHD has on the relationship and how to mitigate it. Sometimes the person with ADHD is unwilling to seek treatment to manage their symptoms and repair the relationship.

No relationship starts this way.

With or without ADHD , the first 18 months of a relationship are typically a thrill. After all, what is more exciting than being with someone who obviously finds you attractive? In a new romantic relationship, what we have to learn from and share with each other seems infinite.

Social psychologists have postulated that, as humans, our primary motives include increasing our abilities and our effectiveness—that is, to “expand ourselves.” Finding someone who meets these needs is exhilarating. Everything is new, exciting and interesting and we are “turned on.”

In recent years several MRI studies have shown that falling in love activates the reward centers of the brain—the same area that lights up when sniffing cocaine or win the lottery (Younger, Aron, et al., 2010). Research has also shown that dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine increase when two people fall in love. Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria and adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for the pitter patter of the heart, restlessness and overall preoccupation that go along with experiencing new love.

Research has also shown that there is a significant deficit in the function of the dopamine reward pathways in individuals with ADHD, which translates into a decreased sensitivity to being able to be engaged by stimuli that are not inherently rewarding or reinforcing. When the reward pathway is activated, whether by love, drugs, or engaging in adventurous behavior, people with ADHD can pay attention for long periods of time. And that feels great!

Taking stimulant medication for ADHD, one might perceive otherwise boring tasks as much more interesting. Why? The medication increases dopamine in the brain. Feeling love also increases dopamine in the brain.

So love works like an ADHD medication.

biking mud rainIt activates the reward center and increases motivation, attention and interest.

While someone with ADHD may love for a lifetime, once the “honeymoon” is over it can take some effort to feel the “rush” that is associated with new love. Over time couples begin to develop routines and habits and there are fewer novel interactions.

The neurotransmitters that once flooded the brain almost constantly return to “normal” levels; this means that the person with ADHD is operating at a deficit, unless they are prescribed medication. Their partner also has reduced levels of the neurotransmitters associated with falling in love, but, again, these are at a more functional level.

This is when the trouble can begin.

All the excitement, passion, attention, inspiration and romance that the ADHD partner once lavished wanes and can seem to be nonexistent as the couple “settles in” to the relationship. Work becomes more of a priority, intentions are not acted upon, moodiness becomes more apparent, distraction contributes to conflicts and the roles that each partner takes on may become toxic to the relationship.

Although they were not looking specifically at relationships involving ADHD, researchers at the University of Michigan and Stony Brook University interviewed 123 couples and found that not only conflicts but also simple boredom with the relationship can shape relationships over the long term (University of Michigan, April 29, 2009, Seven-Year Itch? Boredom Can Hurt A Marriage).

The researchers examined boredom in predicting relationship quality over nine years. They focused on years 7 and 16. Participants were asked, “During the past month, how often did you feel that your marriage was in a rut, or getting into a rut, that you do the same thing all the time and rarely get to do exciting things together as a couple?” Other questions asked how satisfied they were in the marriage and directed them to select a picture that best described how close they were with each other.

The study indicated that greater boredom in year seven predicted significantly less satisfaction at year 16. However, greater satisfaction in year seven did not significantly predict less boredom in year 16.

Being bored with the marriage undermines closeness, which in turn reduces satisfaction.

According to one of the researchers, the results suggest that “excitement in relationships facilitates or makes salient closeness, which in turn promotes satisfaction in the long term.”

While it may be obvious why excitement or adventure makes someone with ADHD feel more “on,” how exactly does this translate to improving relationships? For one, as the researchers at University of Michigan and Stony Brook University suggested, adventure alleviates boredom.

If we know anything about ADHD, it is that boredom is the kiss of death.

The prescription for all couples but especially those with a partner with ADHD would be participating in exciting or playful activities together—activities that make them feel close. That closeness may lead to greater satisfaction, partner responsiveness, commitment and trust, the researchers said.

Second, we know that people with ADHD have lower activation of the reward system in their brain and that experiences of love can activate this system. Medication, video games, drugs, or even a cup of coffee can activate this reward center, but none of these make us feel closer to our partner.

The reason why engaging in a challenging, novel or adventurous activity with a partner can lead to a happier relationship is explained by “Misattribution Theory.” The basis of this theory is that when people are aroused, they can misattribute the reason for their arousal to attraction.

Psychologists Art Aron and Donald Dutton (1974) hypothesized that under the right circumstances, arousal could be labeled as romantic attraction. They found that mild fear combined with an attractive person of one’s preferred sex can sometimes elicit arousal.

Aron and Dutton hired a woman to stand in the middle of a long, sagging suspension bridge.

As men passed her on their way across the bridge, she asked them if they would be willing to fill out a questionnaire. At the end of the questions, she asked them to examine an illustration of a lady covering her face and then make up a backstory to explain it. She then gave each man her phone number and told him that she would be more than happy to discuss the study further if he wanted to call her that night.

Fifty percent of the men who were on the dangerous suspension bridge called that night. Only 12.5 percent of men similarly questioned on a secure bridge called. And that wasn’t the only significant difference. When the researchers compared the stories the subjects made up about the illustration, they found the men on the suspension bridge were almost twice as likely to come up with sexually suggestive narratives.

Mistaken emotional origins can save relationships, create amorous mirages and lead us into behaviors and attitudes both sublime and hypocritical. Aron and Dutton showed that when feeling aroused we naturally look for context and an explanation as to why we feel so alive.

This search for meaning happens automatically and unconsciously.

Do not re-use

Whatever answer we come up with is rarely questioned because we don’t realize we’re asking. In many situations we either can’t know or fail to notice what caused us to have a physiological reaction and we mistakenly attribute the source to something in our immediate environment.

People, it seems, are our favorite explanations. Studies show we prefer to see other human beings as the source of our heightened state of arousal.

Aron and Dutton focused on fear and anxiety, but in the years since, research has revealed that just about any emotional state can be misattributed. This has led to important findings on how to keep a relationship strong.

In 2008, psychologist James Graham at the University of North Carolina conducted a study to see what sort of activities kept partners bonded. He found that couples who routinely performed difficult tasks together as partners were more likely to feel close. Graham found partners tended to feel more attracted to each other and more in love with each other when their skills were routinely challenged.

Graham concluded that humans are driven to grow, expand and to add to their abilities and knowledge. When this motivation for self-expansion is satisfied by incorporating aspects of our romantic partner or friend into our own skills, philosophies and self, it does more to strengthen the bond with that person than any other act of love.

This opens the door to one of the best things about misattribution of emotion. If, like those in the study, we persevere through a challenge—be it remodeling a kitchen or going down a zipline together—that glowing feeling of becoming more wise, the refreshing feeling of heightened alertness, that buoyant sense of self-expansion will be partially misattributed to the presence of the other person.

We are conditioned, over time, to see the relationship itself as a source for those sorts of emotions and physiological reactions and we’ll become less likely to want to sever the bond with the other party.

At the beginning of a relationship, just learning how to relate to the other person and interpret their nonverbal cues, emotional swings and quirky habits is an exercise in self-expansion. The frequency of novelty can diminish as the relationship ages and settles into routines.

The bond can seem to weaken.

To build it up again adventure and adversity are needed, even if simulated. Being challenged to take on a new or daring activity, traveling to new places, or teaming up against friends in Trivial Pursuit are more likely to keep the flame flickering than a romantic dinner.

While most couples come to misattribute the physiological reaction of an adventure to attraction for their partner, those with ADHD may feel relief from boredom at a more salient level. This activation is essentially “like a drug” that is often used to treat ADHD.

By engaging in adventures, a brief form of treatment is provided, not only for the deficits in neurotransmitters inherent in ADHD, but also for the effects that the symptoms of ADHD can have on a relationship.

So buckle up for the roller coaster ride, travel to exotic lands, or learn to scuba dive. It might help to reignite the passion and keep your relationship from being another ADHD statistic.


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Editorial Assistant: Richard May/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photos: Ryan Smith/FlickrPhil and Pam/FlickrRichard May

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