Why adults with ADHD often struggle with codependency -- recognize it and break free

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

I've long felt there's a link between ADHD and codependency. Codependency can be defined as: "A dysfunctional set of behaviors and attitudes which renders a person dependent on another person (or persons) in order to feel whole and complete". A healthy relationship is a union of two whole individuals providing one another with love, companionship, help, and understanding; by contrast, a codependent relationship is a union of two half-individuals who rely on one another to provide an interlocking, dance of care-giving and/or care-receiving that stunts rather than promotes growth.

So what's the connection to ADHD? Let me illustrate with a little of my story: Long before I knew I had ADHD, I identified as being codependent, and attended CoDA meetings to cope with a relationship I was in at the time. For me, the pattern went something like this: I'd feel bad about myself, I'd fantasize about someone who would make me feel good about myself, I'd throw myself away to be with that person, I'd realize the relationship was insane, and (usually) I'd end it, often by quickly starting up a similar cycle of dysfunction with a new person.

The reasons I did this make more sense now that I understand ADHD. Going back through that illustration, the first part of the cycle was: "I'd feel bad about myself." Why did I feel bad about myself? Probably because I had recently failed at something due to my poor executive functioning (a hallmark of ADHD), or because of my lack of a clear direction (also due to deficits in my executive functioning). To get out of my slump, I needed a big shot of adrenaline (infatuation, lust, fantasies of a future together = dopamine boost!) to get my mojo back. As if by magic, I'd often meet someone new (or turn someone I already knew into my "aha, that's the one" person). I'd feel great about myself (the second step of the cycle) as I succumbed to the fantasy of a love that would change my life.

The third part, "I'd throw myself away to be with that person," refers to the way I'd disregard my own aspirations and values to keep the good feelings going. A characteristic of ADHD is impulsive behavior. A characteristic of codependency is adopting another person's lifestyle, belief system and goals. The thinking is: "My life isn't working, so I'll hitch my wagon to this confident person who thinks I'm great."

Fourthly, "I'd realize the relationship was insane," i.e., I'd come to my senses. Now it was time to look around and assess the damages, cut my losses, and start living my own life again. So much emotional fallout (on both sides), and so much wasted time.

Now, thank God, not everyone with ADHD lives out this dysfunctional pattern in their intimate relationships. But, think about this: Who in your life are you "hitching your wagon" to because you don't trust yourself to manage things? It's one thing to accept help from people who are stronger in some areas than you are, but are you over-esteeming anyone? Just because you have ADHD and someone else doesn't, does NOT mean you're inept and they're Superman or Wonder Woman. Not at all, my friend.

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