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. 


too funny

I can totally relate to what you said. I finally realized I DIDN'T have to do all my ideas. NOw when I get ideas I say I need this do I have time ..yada yada yada. It's helped. Otherwise I would be redesigning my home until I die!! how many decorative pillows do I have ready to sew in my sewing room? And redoing the mud

Disrepair husband

How do you? When do you? What to do when normal upkeep of yard repairs, car repairs, home repairs, appliances, tools repairs do not cross their minds until crisis time. Our house has been slowing going downhill year after year. The shutters were taken off fives years ago (and you can still see where they were) in preparation of the house being painted. The roof was replace two years ago, only because of hail damage. This past fall the air conditioner started acting up. (Will have to wait for spring) The yard is bare of trees, since one died and the others (on the street) were taken down by the city. I have asked many times about getting a new tree to replace the ones that were lost (for resale purposes) and the answer I receive is "I'm not into gardening".  This isn't gardening, it's maintenance. Grass is slowly being overtaken by crabgrass and dandelion. The driveway was supposed to be replaced ten years ago, when we received insurance money to do so, but that went to pay something else. The cars do have their oil replaced every three thousand miles, but the rest is left to chance. The garage is a storage place for all kinds of mechanical stuff that (slowly rusting), will never be used. It's a bad case of "Someday I'll" only someday never comes. Good intentions do not get the work done. Neither is having a career that keeps you out of town Monday through Friday late night and you leave on Sunday. I have tried to get a handy man but male ego interferes. I feel so left behind when I see other women have nice homes and mine is in disrepair. I have a husband who is too busy with his job, doesn't have the knowledge and refuses to pay for someone else to do it. It makes no common sense. And what hurts is that he is not around to take the guff from other people and I do and it doesn't sink in that this embarrasses me.

Disrepair that goes beyond repair

Time4me, I feel your pain!  I have been a hardworking single mother.  I went back to school to Get my Masters degree to make sure that I can always give my child a better childhood than I had.  I was very proud to have been able to afford the home we are in.  Then I got married and moved my ADD husband and his two children into my home.  Since this time, my house has gradually taken a crap downhill as most homes do, however my husband accelerates this.  He breaks things and doesn't fix them.  Okay, thankfully I have home repair skills... But I can't find a stinkin tool when I need one because the garage explodes when he's in it.  And yard work, PLEASE--he hates manual labor.   I used to drive up to my house with pride, now I look around and feel like we are making our neighborhood look white-trash with holes in our screens, broken shutters and overgrowth.  Soon it won't matter because the front door lock is broken (for a few months now) and we are down to one garage door remote so I won't even be even be able to get into my own home.

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I'm an ADHD single Mom with two ADHD daugters, and a boyfriend who I believe to be undiagnosed ADHD. If anyone wants to feel better they can visit our house!! Just imagine us all trying to co-exist...yet we do. The biggest thing for me is poor time management, to do lists that are impossible to accomplish in the time limits I have, and being un-organized, which I compensate for with extreme organization in other areas....Outside help sounds refreshing!!

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I have a wife that was just diagnosed w/ AHDH. Initially, we thought she was just eccentric and irresponsible. When our son was diagnosed, we realized she had the same thing. We have issues w/ household chores, putting things away (tools, clothes, etc)and financial, as she is impulsive and wont try and follow a budget. We have times when we agree on a stragety or divy responsibilities, but the next day its forgotton, like we never spoke, even when its put in writinig. SHe is not receptive to working together, and some is probably due to me getting frustrating. Does anyone share the same type of experiences?

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I very much identify with Mere's comments above. I am the one with ADD, and find the need to have our house organized and tidy, or I feel very edgy. Orderliness feels peaceful to me, but I easily get "caught up" in designing a brilliant new scheme (or furniture arrangement) for areas of the house. Too bad these efforts usually trap me and I soon find too many tasks left undone. My husband only sees the clutter (which is perfectly organized in my view) and would prefer there never be a crumb on the kitchen counters or floor. So many awesome ideas - yet so many other competing "must be done first" chores that kill the fun!

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I read all this and have to comment like Ronda. Both my boyfriend and I have ADD. And we both have completely different concepts of clean. Dirt, dust and grim are what drive me nuts. A little clutter doesn't, since I know that's all it is... clutter. He comes home and will see clutter as disgusting! Yet trying to get him to dust at all is met with "it's fine!". I've begun to try and see his side of it too, but it's not always easy when the other person just thinks they are right. If I make dinner for both of us I get to clean it up by myself because he didn't ask for dinner and could had done without it, and more importantly he's been working all day and "has things to do on the computer" i.e. he wants to play more (yeah, we're working on that one). When we get together and clean its wonderful because we're able to focus on different areas. But when we don't, one person gets the brunt of the load it's not cool, and generalizations get made. We're working on it, but it still gets both of us frustrated sometimes.

re: ADHD and Household Chores

That "wildly difficult" thing with chores gets even more difficult when both partners have ADD. It's still generally the woman who gets to do the picking up and such, but when her abilities are also impaired, well .... Ronda

re: ADHD and Household Chores

My husband (ADD -- no H) and I had years of war about this issue, vitally important to me and incomprehensible to him. How could I equate not doing his chores with not caring about me? Things have moved on and now he does a reasonably fair breakdown of household chores. I've learned to let go and have a lower standard of household neatness, and he's stepped up to the plate. I find, however, that it's not easy to let go of, say, 12 years of anger and resentment from being the "adult" in the marriage and being the one to choreograph our lives. I find I still do a fair amount of organizing us and bringing up the vast to-dos for assignment, and while I still wish it weren't that way, I'm okay with it. I feel bad that the anger I have about all those years still haunts me, especially since he's made such an effort.

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I was very interested in the article and all the comments. I am a single mom with ADD and my son has it as well. I would just like to add my experience because its very different from what I'm reading. I am into chores and keeping my house very clean and organized. What happens when I don't is worse. The dirtier or the more unorganized it becomes, the more stressed. I have a hard enough time finding things when it's clean no less if its not. A lot of clutter is over stimulating. I get irritated. I grew up with an extremely organized mom that whipped us into shape. I think that's how I got through school so well. Now with my son, I realize how important it is for us to be tidy, clean and organized. He's 12 and keeps a ship shape room too. There are times when things go to chaos but it's not for long.

re: ADHD and Household Chores

I agree - household chores can definitely be a point of contention between partners, especially if one partner (usually the non-ADDer) has stricter standards of cleanliness and organization. My partner and I have divided the household chores based on what we don't mind doing. For example, she has ADD but likes to cook and take care of the dogs, two major responsibilities. I don't have ADD, and I actually enjoy cleaning (gasp), so that's my primary chore. You basically have to find what works best for your particular household. And sometimes, the best thing you can do is hire outside help!

Wrong place

Hi Diane I posted a comment "too funny" that was supposed to be a comment  for you. Yes my desk looks like a bomb explosion but I know where everything is!! DON"T touch it!! LOL

Hurray MOM

I too had a mom that kept us whipped in to shape..I think it has helped me immeasurably with organizing and surviving life with ADHD.It helped my with school too. My house is OK..I realize that when the dust bunnies turn into rabbits it is time to clean! I put on some good music and set the timer.. After making a list of what to stick too!! Clean the whole room don't get side tracked and sort my sock drawer! LOL Yahoo organized moms!