DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!
When I speak to couples that seem to be in distress, I’m always interested in learning more about the time their troubles began. For several reasons. First, if there was ever a “happy time” in their lives as a couple, I want them to be able to tap into what was going on between them at the time, recapture the feeling, so they can hopefully feel that way again and work toward becoming a happy, loving couple again. I also want to learn what variables were going on and may still be going on to push them off the rails of their formerly successful marriage.
For some couples it’s a little fuzzy, but most of them seem to be able to point to some defining period when things no longer worked for them as a couple. Some reminisce about their dating period, when they felt like life could not be more perfect. But once the pressure of the engagement period began, with each additional stressor, such as planning the wedding, finding an apartment, and getting ready for their new lives, the bloom was off the rose. How each one reacted to the pressure seemed to bring a new dynamic into the picture that sent the relationship downhill fast.
Some couples speak about happy memories until the point they actually got married. The act of living as a couple, having adult responsibilities, paying bills, and managing their lives created differences between them that turned into major stumbling blocks that grew in intensity.
Some couples talk about blissful lives until the pressures of children entered the picture. The added burden of raising a family, enormous expenses, and having different approaches to childrearing started to take a toll. But regardless of which time the couples pointed to as the turning point in their lives, underlying it is the fact that they are two people with different sensibilities who may have different ideas about life, and bring different strengths, weaknesses, personal issues, resilience, and unique abilities to talk honestly about their feelings and successfully hear the other: any one of these can come together to create the perfect storm for a marriage that is sorely in need of rescue.
What I’ve always found most troubling, however, is when I meet with a couple who are still dating, but right out of the gate, it is clear that there are potential landmines waiting to explode, yet one or both of them seem to believe in the fantasy that all will be good. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t any beautiful marriages that started off rocky, even during the dating period, but the likelihood of things going from bad to worse is definitely strong.
That was certainly my reaction to Joe and Rita. Though they were both extremely sweet and adorable, the writing was definitely on the wall.
Twenty-two-year-old Joe was easy to like from the moment he said hello. Charming, friendly, and pleasant to talk to, he shared much about his childhood and his departure from his parents’ Modern Orthodox lifestyle. Though he was still close to them, he gravitated toward a frumer lifestyle and spent a few years in Israel learning. When he returned to the States, he began college, but dropped out because he found it difficult to get to classes on time and keep up with the lessons.
He found a yeshiva where he could learn, and hoped to return to college the following semester, but was honest with the fact that he enjoyed the freedom his yeshiva allowed him. His honesty was engaging, but as he spoke more and more about his love of playing video games, which kept him up until ridiculous hours, and his crazy sleep habits, and some other telling signs, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was some ADHD going on.
I finally came right out and asked him whether he’d been diagnosed with ADHD. Again, no secrets. With full disclosure, he laid it bare. “Funny you should ask. Absolutely. I’ve been on and off medication since the fifth grade. I’ve always had a problem with focusing, except of course on Rita and video games,” he responded with a chuckle. I looked over at Rita to gauge how she was responding to all of this. She laughed along with Joe, apparently thinking it was all very cute and endearing. I knew right away she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
Joe and I talked a bit more about the downside of having ADHD. His lightness eventually turned serious, and he did share that he struggled quite a bit. He worried about going back to college and knew that he needed to get back on medication and be more committed to taking care of himself. But he felt confident that with Rita at his side, everything would work out.
I appreciated, for Rita’s sake, that he was being completely open about his past and present challenges, but I sensed that Rita had no idea what was really at stake. Not to say that having ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other challenges, means you can’t get married and have a wonderful marriage. All of the above is absolutely true. But the spouse of such an individual must be very knowledgeable about what’s at stake and be up for the challenge, because there will be challenges.
Rita was every bit as adorable as Joe. They made a charming couple. Rita had a similar trajectory as Joe in that she did move more to the right than her family, but like Joe, it didn’t create any tension, and they were a close-knit family. Rita was a very diligent student, on track for getting her degree shortly as a physical therapist.
Her childhood and early adult years seemed to lack any drama, and she appeared to be as easy-going as they come. When I asked her whether she ever experienced any issues around Joe’s ADHD, she very enthusiastically claimed that she knew she had to help him out at times, and that was fine. “For instance, I make sure to call him every morning to wake him up. Sometimes, I’ll call back a few minutes later just to make sure he’s up. I don’t mind. I’m up anyway and I like helping him out.”
For better or worse, I know how this story often plays out. What may start out as feeling helpful and even fun, can easily turn into a burden no one wants. Especially, when one is rushing out to work, dealing with crying babies, or any other facets of life. But for now, I kept these thoughts to myself.
I asked both of them what their intentions were moving forward. They both talked with excitement about their upcoming engagement and marriage. Though it is not my job to tell couples to break-up at any stage of their relationship, I wanted to make sure they are being completely honest with themselves and each other regarding who they are and what that could mean for the future.
I thought it might be best to speak to each of them individually and they both agreed to see me alone. When I met privately with Joe, his happy-go-lucky veneer was less shiny as he shared the darker side of his ADHD, which Rita was never privy to. He struggled tremendously and had many fears. I asked him whether he thought it might make more sense to put off getting engaged until he was back in college and in general, back on track. He basically blew off my idea, stating that he loved Rita very much and knew that being married to her would be the answer to his problems.
When I had an opportunity to speak to Rita alone, I tried to give her a fuller picture of what her life would be like when married to Joe. She focused entirely on his positive qualities, which were plentiful and definitely easy to appreciate, but I couldn’t help but note that she was more or less clueless regarding the real story of ADHD. Again, not that one shouldn’t marry a person who is dealing with ADHD, but it’s important to go into marriage with one’s eyes open, with an abundance of love, acceptance, and understanding about life’s possible challenges. I wanted to make sure that Rita was realistic about what her future would look like. The great stuff and the not-so-great stuff. But no matter what I suggested, I realized that Rita was blinded by her love for Joe, and nothing I could say would motivate her to look at Joe and their relationship any differently.
Does love conquer all? Sometimes, and I knew that Joe and Rita did in fact love one another tremendously. However, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I received a call from Rita a year or so later, asking if she could come in to speak to me alone. When she walked into my office, no longer did I see the bright eyed, happy-go-lucky, cheerful Rita of the past. Her downtrodden expression said it all.
She and Joe had in fact gone through with their engagement and marriage. The way she described their life to me from the get-go sounded like a living hell. Sadly, Joe was not doing well. He never returned to college, slept most of the day, was up all night playing video games, and didn’t carry his weight in other ways. All of the marital responsibilities were on Rita’s shoulders. She was miserable, exhausted, and regretful. She wanted me to know that she had filed for divorce and was moving back in with her parents. She struggled to understand why she was not able to listen to the warning bells—not just from me, but from her parents and a few close friends, who were able to see things about Joe that concerned them that she could not.
Rita continued to see me for a little while to work through her grief, her guilt, and her ability to trust herself moving forward. Sadly, many of us have to learn life’s most important lessons the hard way. With a heavy heart, this was the case with Rita.
Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. She works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, email@example.com.