Engaged to Someone with ADHD - Part 2

I’ve written here before about how you might approach thinking about whether or not you should marry a person you know has ADHD (see this post), but there is a conversation going on in the forums now that makes we want to write further on the topic.

I can understand how reading the voices of the many desperate and unhappy people here would make anyone want to question whether they should get married.  But remember that the voices you do not hear here are those who have happy marriages with their ADHD spouse.  These people exist (I know many of them) and they would tell you many great things they get from their marriages.

The heart of the issue isn’t ADD per se.  It is really the very complex business of melding two lives together.  ADHD – because it is a different (and often unexpected) way of experiencing and understanding the world can seem like a foreign language - making the gaps between you harder to traverse.  But once you both understand the “language” of ADHD, you can both make the adjustments necessary to create a smooth translation between the ADHD partner’s viewpoint and the non-ADHD partner’s viewpoint.  Not only that but, having two “languages” in your relationship can make life much more interesting in many positive ways.

We have a tendency to believe that the institution of marriage will somehow make things better or different – we assume that financial burdens will be fewer, chores will be easier to get done with two sets of hands, we’ll feel happy on a daily basis.  We tend not to think about the other side of living with someone else – complexity.  It is harder to coordinate two schedules than one, we experience more complex emotions when we are dealing with another person whose responses we can’t control or even predict.  Financial priorities often don’t match up.  Some chores are more than doubled, depending upon the partners.  In order to deal with this complexity we need to have a really robust and healthy way of managing conflict.

I’m not just talking about arguments.  I’m talking about negotiations – what happens when one spouse leaves papers all over the kitchen and it drives the other one crazy?  What happens when one spouse doesn’t feel any urgency around doing household chores?  What happens when money is tight and one spouse wants to go on vacation anyway?

One marriage expert claims that he can tell you with 95% certainty whether or not you’ll stay married simply by observing your interactions around conflict.  Those with a preponderance of positive interactions will survive (respectful; positive tone even in conflict; acknowledge the needs of the other person; pre-determined ability to work through things without lingering resentment).

We have been raised with a series of “love conquers all” myths (think “Beauty and the Beast”, “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and any host of romantic movies you’ve seen lately).  Deep inside, many of us accept these myths in a way that makes us put aside some of the more unromantic sides of thinking about an impending marriage  – in particular, developing before marriage the sure-fire ways to manage your differences that will keep you married.  Not all couples can successfully develop these conflict-management techniques, so it’s best to know you have them in place before you get married.

If you read the forum post that inspired me to write this, you will find a couple with a “language barrier”, though it may not relate to ADHD.  It seems that in their enthusiasm, they haven’t completely worked through how they will negotiate her legitimate and important issues and fears.  The day you are married you need to be able to say “I love this person just as he is”, not “I love this person just as I expect he will be someday.”

It strikes me that this woman is stuck exactly in that difficult place between the “love conquers all” myth (wanting to believe it will all be fine) and the complexity of the reality of being together.  They have different priorities around cleanliness (she wouldn’t leave the Christmas tree up until April, nor would she cover her home in mess and papers) and money (he is less conservative with money than she is, perhaps because he has the ability to earn more).  Most important of all, though, is that she is still dealing with her emotional issues surrounding her divorce.  He wants to support her by being there for her, she feels she needs space to “figure it out”.

This particular relationship is a pretty short one (1.5 years total, of which 6 months has been engagement) and it seems to me that, barring religious or other reasons to not do so, both parties might benefit from remaining engaged but delaying the wedding and living together for a set time period (set a date 12- 24 months out?).

While it may be painful for him to accept that she is unsure, he may be able to handle her feelings better if he remembers that she has had a tough first marriage to a self-centered man who didn’t take her needs into consideration.  She seems unsure that a spouse will accommodate her concerns.  As disappointing as it may feel to delay the marriage, his responsiveness to her needs will underscore how he is different, and serve them both well.  If she is “uneasy” in her marriage she may run for the hills at the first sign of trouble (“oh, I thought I might be making a mistake…this proves it!”) rather than work from a position of confidence (“Every couple has issues that need to be worked out – good thing we know how to get through this!”) 

Living together will also give them an opportunity to find balance around chores.  This woman claims that she is “very efficient, but very busy making ends meet”.  This, combined with her description of how he lives, is a red flag for me.  In relationships in which one spouse is less aware of living areas than another, “efficient” spouses can take on too much responsibility, leading to resentment and problems.  This couple needs to find a balance around chores and duties that will give them confidence about their future together.  From what I’ve read in the post, I’m guessing they will be able to do so, but her fears are legitimate and need to be addressed.  Even though messiness isn’t a concern of his, the fact that it’s her concern (and big enough to consider cancelling a wedding!) makes it his concern by default.  His promises to do better when they live together are not the same thing as having a proven track record of doing better.  Again, it’s an important but very unsexy part of being a couple.

It's quite possible that these issues can’t be resolved before the current wedding date.  But plane tickets can be cancelled and arrangements can be made to visit relatives who might miss a future wedding – neither logistics nor momentum should determine whether or not you will marry.  Put another way, both members of this couple understand that plane tickets are much less expensive than divorce.

The good news here is that this is a couple that genuinely loves each other, and has much going for them – good jobs, an understanding of what a makes a bad marriage, an ability to cherish each other, etc.  She has unresolved emotional issues that come from her previous marriage that can be worked through with a good counselor.  He has issues around how he lives to which he needs to be more sensitive.  Hopefully the conversations they will have around her nervousness and his living habits will help them start to build the bridges they need to build between his more romantic, spontaneous nature and her more cautious one.  But conversations remain theoretical by their nature.  Living together puts actions behind the words – and action is what confidence is built upon.

The next few weeks will be a test of each person’s sensitivity toward the other – yes, these conversations may hurt…but they probably need to happen for this marriage to work out successfully.  Resolution will help both partners approach their wedding day (whenever it may be) with greater clarity and confidence.

An added thought (word of caution) - please remember that you cannot predict another's response to any action you take.  So, in this case, the fiance may be so hurt or offended by the woman's need to delay the wedding that he will not be able to remain in the relationship.  Or, he may be relieved and welcome the idea because it makes sense to him.  The way to determine whether or not to start talking about delaying a wedding is to look inside yourself and look to see what you need, not to try to anticipate how the other person might respond...or to assume that they'll respond either as you expect or wish.