Do People With ADHD Have a Harder Time With Monogamy?
Research finds that ADHD is tied to greater interest in consensual non-monogamy.
Posted Oct 02, 2019
Sex therapist Ari Tuckman just published a book titled ADHD After Dark that explores these questions, as well as how ADHD impacts people’s sex lives and relationships more broadly. For this book, Tuckman surveyed more than 3,000 people who were in relationships in which one partner has ADHD and the other doesn’t in order to better understand when these relationships work—and when they don’t.
One of the things Tuckman’s survey revealed was that persons with ADHD were more likely to have participated in both consensual non-monogamy (i.e., being in some kind of sexually open relationship) and non-consensual non-monogamy (i.e., cheating or infidelity). Persons with ADHD also expressed more interest in having an open relationship compared to their non-ADHD counterparts.
I thought these findings were particularly interesting, so I asked Tuckman what he thought about how persons with ADHD might fare in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Below is an excerpt from our discussion (you can listen to our complete conversation in this podcast). Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: You mentioned how persons with ADHD expressed more interest in consensual non-monogamy and also that they had a harder time maintaining monogamy in the sense that they reported having been more likely to commit infidelity. This made me wonder whether polyamory or other forms of consensual non-monogamy might be particularly well suited to persons with ADHD.
But, at the same time, it could be a double-edged sword. Something like polyamory could be a challenge for people who have time management issues, right? When you have more relationships to manage, that's obviously going to take more time. So I’m curious: do you have any thoughts on that, or any insights into how persons with ADHD might fare in a consensually non-monogamous relationship?
Ari Tuckman: First of all, I love the fact that you've kind of done a deep dive into this. I think it's an interesting thing and I think that you're absolutely right that, on the one hand, to effectively manage polyamorous relationships requires a lot of communication and coordination. Simplistically speaking, this could be a challenge for folks with ADHD. It's hard enough for them to keep one partner happy, let alone keeping two or three or more happy.
And there is the risk of that sort of hyperfocus, which when you're a kid might be on Minecraft. But as an adult, there's the risk of hyperfocusing on that new, awesomely interesting partner to the exclusion of your older or more familiar partner(s). So that would require much more direct communication. And much more assertiveness on the part of the longer-term partner to say: “You know what, I love the fact that you're having a great time with that new person, but I'm kind of feeling neglected right now. So, I'm not going to yell at you about it. I'm not going to be passive-aggressive. I'm just going to speak my words, and we need to make sure that you and I are spending time together as well.”
I have zero data to back this up, but it's possible in some ways that folks with ADHD might do better with certain kinds of consensual non-monogamy. I'm thinking, in particular, that guys with ADHD who have much higher sex drives than their non-ADHD female partners might do better in more of a strictly sexual non-monogamous relationship rather than a more intimate, polyamorous arrangement. I think there's less complexity in that case. It might meet the higher-desire partner's needs while ensuring that the lower-desire partner doesn't feel constantly hounded and pushed to have sex that they're not really in the mood for.
That said, I think to do consensual non-monogamy well, you have to be doing a lot of things really well in your relationship. These couples in particular really need to be doing a lot of things well to even consider doing this. But I do think it's a viable option for some.
Justin Lehmiller: You've just laid out some really fascinating hypotheses! As someone who studies consensual non-monogamy, now I'm really interested in taking the role of ADHD into account in how these relationships work and how people navigate them. I've previously done research looking at how people's personality traits, attachment styles, and so forth are linked to satisfaction and success in consensually non-monogamous relationships, but not ADHD—at least not yet. That's something I definitely need to look at in the future!
Ari Tuckman: I think it's an interesting overlay on top of everything that you've already mentioned. I also think it’s interesting that my survey showed that folks with ADHD were more likely to have infidelities, including the physical, nonemotional hookups as well as the more emotional, affair kind of arrangements. Either way, we all know how devastating that can be. So the goal is to stop the nonconsensual non-monogamy and, instead, to either have really good monogamy or to have really good consensual non-monogamy. It's all about the fact that—whatever it is—it should be consensual.
Listen to my full conversation with Tuckman here to learn more about how ADHD affects people’s sex lives and relationships.
Tuckman, A. (2019). ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship. NY: Routledge.