If your ADHD partner has piles of things all over the house, and has difficulty cleaning up or throwing out, you are NOT alone! This is a common issue for adults with ADHD, and it can cause quite a bit of friction between partners. I've had many non-ADHD partners say that the mess their ADHD partner leaves makes them physically uncomfortable in their own home, Plus, when you've requested that a partner keep track of their stuff and they don't seem to, it feels as if they don't care about you and/or don't listen to you.
Stuff everywhere is, therefore, a big deal in ADHD-impacted relationships.
What follows is information about ADHD an hoarding, as well as 9 tips for what couples can do about it.
ADHD and keeping stuff - what's going on?!
Some research studies have suggested that ADHD and hoarding-like tendencies (and, in fact, hoarding) are tightly linked. Perhaps a bit more than 40% of people with ADHD have hoarding tendencies, in fact. You can read more about that research here.
This certainly fits with what I've observed as I have worked with partners. It can be hard to let things go, and the logic behind it is below. But before I get to that, I also want to note a different aspect of hoarding, which is messiness. It's not just about keeping things, it's also about putting it in its place. So amount of possessions is one thing. But where they are located is often even more impactful. You can put things that are in the way into a storage unit, as one man recently wrote me, but then if piles of other stuff keep piling up in your house, and you have to keep stepping over the new stuff, that doesn't really solve the problem.
Which means it's not just about stuff, it's about mindset and executive function skill set.
8 tips for getting the mess under control
These ideas will help you understand the specific issues you and your partner face, and provide targeted ideas for addressing them:
Sometimes it's about executive function skills. The partner with ADHD wants to be able to be more organized, but just doesn't have motivation or tools. Solution: hire an ADHD coach who can help identify the specific executive function (EF) skills that are in play, and can help the ADHD partner build their EF skill set. This is personalized assistance, and also has the benefit of making the ADHD partner accountable to the coach rather than a partner. In addition, there are organizational skills boot camps for adults with ADHD, such as those given for women with ADHD by Linda Roggli of ADDiva.
Many with ADHD report they just don't see the mess. Truly don't see it. This makes keeping track of it in order to clean it up more of a challenge. Solution: Put a 'task' in your regular reminder systems where part of the task is 'looking differently' at the environmental mess, in order to see it and put it away. One example: a sticky note on the bathroom mirror that says 'did you clean up the family room?' If you are getting ready for bed and the answer is no, you head back downstairs.
Leaving things out makes it easier to find them. This goes along with the 'now and not now' time zones of ADHD, though it's a more physical manifestation. As in 'out of sight, out of mind.' It can be hard to remember where you put something if it's hidden from view and in a drawer, for example, vs. if it's out on the countertop where you can stumble upon it. Solution: create easy-to-view storage solutions, such as piles of things on open shelves (instead of the kitchen counter); clear and well-marked containers that are nearby into which things can quickly be put.
The law of unlimited possibilities. The creative ADHD mind can often see a potential future use for something, thus encouraging hanging onto it vs. letting it go. Solution: create a storage system that is well labeled into which you can put those items for future use if they are needed but so they are also out of your main living area. This is a win/win solution. The ADHD partner keeps their stuff. Neither partner needs to be stepping over it. This system might be stacked clear boxes by 'topic' (bikes; kitchen; tools etc) dates or some other meaningful method that will be understandable.
Each decision to toss is a hard individual choice. When faced with a room of things that need to be sorted through, taking the time to ask "what do I do with this?" for EVERY INDIVIDUAL ITEM can be almost physically painful to someone with ADHD. Too many choices (and too much stuff to deal with) can feel overwhelming. Solutions: get a helper to do the main sorting to eliminate that step, at least; break the task down into smaller chunks and gamify it (race a time for half an hour and see how much stuff can be done); create a simplified decision system such as 'keep, recycle, toss' so that you simplify each decision point. You can then go back later to the 'keep' basket.
Doesn't have an ADHD-friendly organizational system set up. Some organizational systems work better than others for those with ADHD (such as using large clear bins, vs. a multitude of drawers to sort things into). Solutions: implement some ADHD-friendly organizational tools. To do this, consider hiring an ADHD coach or purchasing the book, ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize your Life. A professional organizer familiar with ADHD could also be a great help in setting up an initial system and getting a large amount of stuff tamed up front.
Doesn't care about the mess. For some, doing tasks like cleaning up don't carry much meaning...and are hard to do. I had one houseguest memorably say to me, "Why would anyone do chores? They are boring, never ending, and the work gets messed up right away in any event..." If you don't see the mess in the first place, or it doesn't bother you, this is a very logical (if frustrating) point of view. Solutions: Gently change the conversation from being about chores to being about making the effort to show others that you care about them AND simultaneously implement some ADHD-friendly organizational strategies. Using a buddy system, or gamifying boring chores can both help, for example.
Sometimes, a power struggle. Less often than other issues, not cleaning up can be an act of defiance. If the other partner is very upset about the mess, not dealing with it can be a case of expressing "you're not the boss of me." Solution: work to eliminate parent/child dynamics.