Relationships & Love

“Relationship ADHD”: Have We Lost the Instinct for Commitment?

Relationships have always been complicated.

It takes time and effort to develop trust and intimacy and the deep love that sustains a couple over many years and through the rough patches. It takes sacrifice and compromise and putting another person’s wants and needs ahead of your own. These are timeless truths.

Yet it seems that the ways in which relationships develop – or fail to develop – have changed.

My dating clients find that prospective partners come and go before either person has even had a chance to evaluate the potential for a lasting relationship. “What’s going on?” he asks.

“Do we have ‘relationship attention deficit disorder’?

Have our lives become so fragmented and our attention so distracted that we can no longer focus long enough to form a strong bond with a potential life partner?”

It would appear that that is indeed often the case. Life moves fast. We expect everything to be easy, every need to be instantly gratified, often without human interaction. Dinner is delivered to our door. Directions are spoken into our ears. Alexa answers every question. The thrill is in the new – in the chase – and when the excitement wears off or when one party opens up and shows some vulnerability, it’s easier to tell yourself that you’re bored or that “things are getting too intense” and run away than to open up and really get to know someone on a deeper level. When a new date can be found with a swipe, why take the time to let a real relationship develop?

One of the most important ways in which the dating game has changed is that the age-old assumption that dating is a prelude to a committed relationship no longer holds, or at least not for everybody.

There is often a mismatch of intentions,” he says, “when only one party views dating as the means to finding a life partner and the other just wants to hang out, hook up, and move on – to live just for the moment, not for the future.

A 2016 study* found that as many as one-third of unmarried serious relationships are “asymmetrically committed,” that is, one partner is completely devoted and oriented toward a long-term future and the other is enjoying the convenience of the relationship but is not invested in or committed to it.

Many of these relationships break up, with all the attendant conflict and heartbreak. While the relationship may have been serious, it was hardly happy.”

The elephant in the room is technology.

It is in every aspect of our lives, especially our social lives. Our social media selves – what we choose to show and tell the world – become more real than our true selves.” What we truly want and need is sublimated to the superficial projection of a life that doesn’t really exist. The same is true of projecting an image of a perfect relationship while losing sight of the reality of two flesh-and-blood people who can’t possibly live up to that image. “And when our primary means of communication is the text message – with anxiety and resentment surfacing when responses aren’t instantaneous – there’s little opportunity for real understanding and empathy.”

Given this environment, how are we to manage our dating lives? How do we develop relationships that strengthen and deepen over time, that don’t fall apart at the first sign of trouble? Here are some suggestions:

  • Put down the phone!  In one form or another, social media is here to stay. It isn’t necessary to delete your account or to keep those romantic photos to yourself but it is important to recognize that there’s more to your relationship than professing your love to hundreds of friends. Invest time not in posting updates but in developing real intimacy and working on the quality of the interactions with your partner.
  • Put down the phone!  Dozens of texts a day won’t put your relationship on firmer footing. Make time to talk to each other – openly and honestly, with your full attention – about what matters, about hopes and dreams, about how you each feel about your relationship.
  • Put down the phone!  Don’t snoop on your partner’s phone. Whether or not you find something damaging to the relationship, no good will come of breaking the bonds of trust. Once broken, trust is hard to rebuild. If something is bothering you enough to tempt you to snoop, talk about it.

I don’t mean to imply that technology is at the root of all relationship problems, but there is some irony in the fact that a communication device may be the very thing that is getting in the way of meaningful communication.

And the only route to a lasting relationship is through meaningful communication. When you meet someone new, do you let them know that you hope to build a lasting relationship? Or, for fear of frightening them off, do you play along with the casual sex and good times in the hope that something deeper will develop? There is no right answer but as in everything, honesty is the best policy. In this or any other time, the only way to avoid ‘relationship ADHD’ is through open and honest communication.”


Alex Dimitriu, MD, is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and is the founder of the Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine Center in Menlo Park, CA.

* Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, October 2016

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