ADHD and Household Chores

I know no one who loves household chores, but if you have ADHD the chores can move from drudgery to an impossibility.  That is, until you recognize that NOT doing these chores can wreak havoc on your most important adult relationships.

One of the most common issues with couples where one spouse has ADHD and the other doesn't is that the non-ADHD spouse often ends up as the family chore person, while the ADHD spouse does not participate regularly in taking care of daily chores.  For reasons I will explore in a different blog entry, this is particularly complicated when the person with the ADHD is the wife.

In "Delivered from Distraction", Dr. Hallowell provides an overview of what's typical for a couple where one spouse has undiagnosed ADHD.  The first thing he mentions, because it is so common, is this:

The division of labor is wildly uneven.  The non-ADHD member does almost all of the "scut work" - the picking up, the organizing, the reminding, the cleaning, the planning - what psychologists call the executive functions.

He goes on to provide a detailed overview of what the frustrations can be in an ADHD-affected relationship (pp. 318-327 in Delivered from Distraction) and I strongly recommend that anyone reading this blog read that chapter of the book.

Back to household chores and relationships.  "Wildly uneven" is wildly difficult for BOTH spouses.  Here's why it's hard for both spouses and what you can do about it:

You don't get married these days with the expectation that you will end up being the household scullery maid.  Rather, people expect a certain amount of "give and take" in getting things done around the house.  Whether you are male or female, you probably expected that you would be part of a partnership that would take life's challenges (including laundry, cooking, mowing the lawn, making the bed and more) together.

The problems that come from not sharing these chores is not particularly chore related.  Relationship damage comes when one spouse starts to resent that the chores are not being shared and the other responds to that resentment with anger or further resentment.

A common pattern is that the ADHD person agrees to do the chores, but then doesn't actually do them.  This can be a result of his/her poor organizational skills, his lack of interest in small things, distractions in general, resentment towards his partner for requesting assistance and other things.  These are issues that are directly related to his/her ADHD and it helps if both spouse recognize that this is the case.  However, while ADHD can explain why it is so difficult for the ADHD spouse to be involved around the house, ADHD should not be used as an excuse for the ADHD spouse not to be involved.  A person with ADHD can do their share, and should, but both spouses need to know that it takes extra effort for this person and both spouses must be willing to put the systems in place that help get things done.  In addition, both spouses need to make an effort to approach the household chores with patience and with a sense of humor.  But know that if the ADHD spouse stays uninvolved this will certainly spell trouble for the marriage because staying uninvolved sends a message to the non-ADHD spouse that you don't care about them. 

Does that sound ridiculous?  Equating doing chores with whether or not you are loved?  Consider this scenario from one couple I'll call Tom and Anne.  Tom has ADHD, Anne does not.  Tom loves computers and bikes and so set up all the computers in the household and fixed the bikes.  Anne did EVERYTHING else - all the coordinating for their family of 4, all of the heavy and light household chores, including house maintenance, childcare, all trip planning, etc.  At the end of every day she was exhausted.  Finally, she asked that he pick a chore that would be his - dishes, laundry, yard...she didn't care, but she wanted him to "own" some household chore that wasn't "fun" the way setting up computers was.

Tom refused, saying that he did plenty and she was just complaining.  "But it's really important to me, I'm exhausted all the time, and I need your help."  He still refused.  After 4 years of arguements about the topic it had become symbolic.  Anne felt that Tom just didn't care about her, else he would stop being quite so self-centered and start helping out with SOMETHING.  Tom felt that he was being harassed and resisted simply because he felt it wouldn't be right to "give in".  Finally, however, Tom decided that the issue had become so big that it was threatening their marriage and agreed to do the dinner dishes and unload the dishwasher as his household chore.  At first, his effort was sporadic, and when he didn't think to unload the dishwasher he came home to a sink full of dirty breakfast and lunch dishes that he ended up having to load up along with the dinner dishes, so he eventually got into the habit of regularly unloading the dishwasher.  Tom doesn't suddenly love dishes, but his agreement sent a message to Anne - "we're in this together and I understand that".  This message was incredibly important to Anne's self esteem and also to her feelings about Tom.  Now, instead of resenting that he never helps out, she recognizes that he consistently takes care of part of the household.  While it takes him extra effort to do this work, he feels it's important enough that he makes that effort.  Anne feels better about their relationship overall, and about Tom's effort in the relationship, and this has a beneficial effect in other areas.  One example is that Anne finds that she nags Tom less overall to do things, which Tom loves.  And, in a strange psychological twist, making the effort to do the dishes has opened up Tom's eye's a bit about how "unfun" the household chores are.  He sometimes spontaneously helps with other things, as well.  This gets such a positive response from Anne that they both feel quite encouraged.

From a downward spiral of nagging and resentment, Tom's making the effort to commit to doing the dishes has ended up having many unexpected benefits for both Tom and Anne.  Can you equate doing the dishes with feeling loved?  I think so!

Melissa Orlov

P.S.  Tom's initial response - that he didn't feel like taking charge of a chore even though Anne asked him to, is typical.  People with ADHD often have trouble reading emotional cues and Tom was no exception.  While Anne told him this was important to her, he did not pick up on just how important it was.  He was able to "hear" her nagging, but not her desperation or her need for partnership.  If you run into the same type of response, try a variety of approaches - some of which should certainly contain humor.  The worst approach is the one in which you blame the ADHD spouse for their behavior...try to be understanding and proactive instead (easier said than done, I know - I'll be blogging on this topic a lot in the future!)

  Feeling as if the ADHD partner doesn't care is at the heart of why sharing these chores is so important.  Not only are the chores tiring and generally not very rewarding, but if you make the effort to do them and the other person doesn't notice or care, your natural response is to resent the other person.

It is often difficult to bring these chore-type discussions under control.  It took me several YEARS to get my husband to agree to be responsible for a specific set of household chores (doing the dinner dishes and unloading the dishwasher whenever it needed it).  I tried explaining that it was important for me to see that he respected me enough to take responsibility for SOMETHING around the house.  He felt that I was just trying to pawn my work off on him.  (It did not help that his parents had not had a "sharing" type of relationship.)  In the meantime, the amount of resentment that I felt about his refusal to take on this specific household work built to a crisis point.