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Hidden Steps: How Learning to Dance Shaped My ADHD Marriage

Before our wedding, my wife and I enrolled in a dance class. In the process, I learned to tango — and how to practice listening, patience, and moving with purpose through my new marriage with ADHD.

Reviewed on April 22, 2019

Back in January, my wife gifted me the Holstee Reflection Cards, 100+ thought-provoking questions centered around mindful themes meant to spark meaningful conversation and reflection. Today’s card did just that with this question:

“What was one magical memory from this past year?”

The answer was easy: The first dance with my wife at our wedding last year. My focus — which is, it seems, forever fleeting — was trained in that moment on nothing but her contagious smile as we spun around the dance floor for the first time as husband and wife. As we spun, I could actually feel my senses attempting to absorb every ounce. Dizzy from euphoria, I felt a high that I never expected, and now I know it was because I have never danced like that before.

The spring before our winter wedding, my wife and I enrolled in dance classes to help us get a feel for moving in unison, learn structure, and acquire some actual dance moves. Our first dance was to be a semi-structured waltz. When we practiced, we faltered then improvised, laughed then sneered, engaged and then interrupted each other. We feared we would look foolish, in our most intimate and serious moment. These lessons became a metaphor for something much larger: How I must learn to manage my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) in new ways as an equal partner in life.

The dance floor was my classroom — the space where we set up silent expectations through invisible boundaries. Ignoring a boundary, in my case, resulted in crashing to the floor. So I resolved to quiet my mind and give my full attention, appreciation, and respect to the agreements we had made as a couple. When we first began to learn about dancing, I was still taking my life and business day by day. I didn’t understand that my significant collaborator was depending on me for my foresight, intention, and direction. I didn’t appreciate the power of nonverbal communications, self-confident steps, and nagging. This last one was particularly poignant for me.

Thanks to my ADHD, I am overly sensitive to critique and rejection. I physically squirm in pain and discomfort when I am the subject of critique, especially from a loved one. Though I tensed every muscle to brace for corrections on the dance floor, I leaned in to take the big hits in order to seek my reward. As a result, I became more open to learning a critical lesson about the importance of embracing opportunity, patience, and permission with an intimate partner.

[Self-Test: Hyperactive and Impulsive ADHD Symptoms in Adults]

1. Opportunity: First, Gracefully Shut the Hell Up

The resistance to this was strong with me. With every conflict or misstep, my impulsive reaction was to quickly process aloud and then attempt to solve the problem on my own. I would show frustration whenever it was time to listen. Over time, I came to understand why it really does take two to tango.

This work took intention, attention, and follow-through. In order to be really focused, I had to learn how to be quiet.

To quiet my mind enough to listen deeply, it took enormous focus. I had to learn to pause my own reactions, and to separate my own emotional sensitivity from my partner’s. When I learned to shut up, I realized that I created half of the overstimulation that I was experiencing in any conflict. Addressing one perspective at a time was a game changer.

To truly listen, I had to train myself to accept my partner’s words without any expectations. I found that when we critiqued each other and advocated for ourselves, we always meant something deeper. There was a bid for an underlying need within the spoken need. The interpretation was more important than the literal translation. As I struggle with interpreting bigger pictures, this was my greatest challenge.

[Free Resource: Make Mindfulness Work for You]

2. Patience: The Secret to Good Timing

Waiting is the essence of admiring a moment. Waiting provides space and opportunity. As an official card-carrying member of ADHD, I am reminded of the value of patience on an almost-daily basis.

“Why did you do that?”

“What were you thinking?”

“Why couldn’t you wait?”

Patience, for me, means understanding that sometimes the appropriate action is actually non-action. For me, this is the ultimate foundation for self-control, and so so hard for people with ADHD.

1st: Realize you have patience.
Take a breath and become aware of partial ownership in the situation. No one can force someone to move in a direction, speed up, or change their belief. Establish and accept that you can only control yourself.

2nd: Learn how to establish patience.
Use these questions to help you spark mindful patience in impulse-inducing situations:

  • “Will I forget if I do not act/say this now?”
  • “What will happen if I do not say/do something now?”
  • “What is my partner’s intention? What is her fear?”
  • “How much control do I actually have over the situation?”

Sometimes things happen and we get to learn from our mistakes. Lean in and leverage the learning. When reflecting, ask: What is the worst-case scenario and what is the probability that it actually happens? Was it relatively low? Can you recognize the fear building up before you let actions happen? Lean in and learn; it’s a growing process.

3rd: Realize that patience is power.

  • Do not overact, find the right action.
  • Let silence be powerful.
  • Take action on purpose.
  • Take your time, or time will take you!

In my moments on the dance floor, I had to acknowledge these principles in order to keep a level head. It provided me space to give more attention to my partner and as a result, I grew more secure when I learned that if I do nothing, nothing will happen yet.

3. Ask for Permission to Lead

Asking for your partner’s hand in dance — or in marriage — means taking on certain responsibilities and making sure she is able to follow. Think about following an ADHD mind as it tells an unplanned, meandering, ever-expanding story. It’s like assembling a puzzle in the dark. And that is no way to start a marriage.

To succeed, you’ve got to have a plan. Whether you create it together or you ask her to follow yours, it is the lead’s job to have the plan. This ownership means that the lead studies, practices, and creates confidence and trust before and during the dance.

Then you’ve got to communicate the plan. Know and agree on signals beforehand. Use cue words, body language, and intentional movements. Practice mindfulness — being intentional, and giving attention to moving on purpose.

Finally, follow through as planned. Improvising has its perks, but you can’t improvise without first building trust with consistency — the framework that creates open spaces for unplanned brilliance. And to do this, of course you’ve got to start with respect. Respect that your partner needs boundaries, structure, and direction. Respect that trust and confidence don’t exist without communication and consistency. This is key.

Author and wife dancing at wedding

On the dance floor, my wife and I learned to share space, respect one another’s needs, and develop collaborative roles. This is the space where I was finally able to focus on dancing with someone instead of for someone. When the big moment came, the maid of honor passed out sparklers and dimmed the lights. As we glided through that orange glow of warm faces to begin our first dance, I felt the power of what we had already accomplished and I felt confident about each step ahead. And then I led my love in a spin… and it was magic.

[13 Resolutions That Saved My Marriage]

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