Dealing with Your ADD/ADHD Husband’s Chronic Disorganization

As the old saying goes, “The best way to get nothing done is to try to do everything at once.” For non-ADD/ADHD adults, the phrase strikes a familiar, humorous chord that reminds us to rein things in when we find ourselves running off in all directions at once.

However, for men with ADD/ADHD, this phrase is not just a funny statement. It’s actually how they live their lives. When these men are single, the quirks associated with being chronically disorganized may not impact the people around them. After all, no one has to see their bedroom, their kitchen or even their car. Once they get married, though, the disorganization that comes with being ADD/ADHD most certainly does have a negative effect on other people – most notably, their wives!

To be sure, marriage is a relationship that needs romance, nurturing and love to flourish. At the same time, most marriages are also intricate psychological and logistical ecosystems that require both parties to pull their own weight. Dishes need to be washed, laundry needs to be done, bills need to be paid. Mail and magazines need to be sorted. Stuff has to get put away. To most people this is all a no-brainer. But to the wives of men with ADD/ADHD, getting their husbands to take care of the tasks that make up the day-in and day-out of a life together becomes a nearly insurmountable challenge.

The result? You guessed it. Anger, frustration and, eventually, hopelessness as the understanding sinks in that their husbands may never change.

These words ring particularly true with Melinda D., a photographer who lives just outside Austin, Texas.

“At this point, I don’t want amazing,” she said. “All I want is someone to clean the toilets once in a while!”

She went on to explain that certain tasks, such as washing the dishes, paying the bills or picking up the kids for school are “not optional” for her – but they are her husband. In his disorganized approach to life, spending hours in the garage working on a project takes on equal importance as doing what needs to be done just to keep the household running.

To make matters worse, even when her ADD/ADHD husband attempts to help out, his chronic disorganization usually creates more harm than good.

“Last week he threw some clothes in the wash to help me out,” she said. “He promptly forgot all about them and left them there wet so long that they wound up mildewing the washer. A utility bill that he ‘assured’ me had been paid had of course not been paid. We almost had our power shut off because of him.”

The disorganization associated with ADD/ADHD is one of the more troubling aspects of the condition, because its effects tend to seep into nearly every area of life. Wives whose husbands have ADD/ADHD find themselves watching with disbelief as their husbands constantly misplace routine items, purchase things more than once after misplacing the first one or find their workspaces buried under a mountain of junk that they can’t get rid of and can’t put in its proper place. Phone messages go ignored, paperwork gets lost, keys go missing for days.

Furthermore, most attempts at solving the predicament fall on deaf ears.

“I’ve been married seven long years,” said Joanna H., a medical billing specialist in Indianapolis. “I work full time. I have a three year-old to take care of – and a 40 year-old teenager.”

At one point, in utter frustration, she created a chart system that listed both her household chores and her husband’s.

“I learned that if you put down, ‘do the dishes,’ that does not necessarily translate into cleaning the countertops, table, and putting the kitchen back in order,” she said. “He thought putting dishes in the dishwasher and turning it on was enough – no matter what the kitchen actually looked like at the end.”

“Needless to say, the charts did not last too long.”

Given the daily frustration faced by wives of ADD/AHDH husbands, the temptation to give up is often overwhelming. However, the situation need not be completely bleak. While it is unrealistic to expect perfection, improvements can be made to create a more manageable situation. In fact, moving from
chaos to ordinary messiness should be regarded as a major victory in the “war on disorganization.”

As a first step, wives should remember that the disorganization associated with ADD/ADHD starts in their husbands’ minds. As such, taking the whirlwind out of the mind and putting it onto a piece of paper represents a key strategy in gaining control over chaos. Planning things out on paper, preferably in short to-do lists per category is probably best. Stay away from fancy computer software programs, because sitting a disorganized ADD/ADHD husband in front of a computer is a recipe for more interruptions and disorganization. As the saying goes, “if it’s worth remembering, it’s writhing writing down.”

Second, in terms of fighting disorganization on a daily or weekly basis, most experts recommend creating a Top Three To-Do List. This means focusing on only three tasks at any one time. Done daily, this helps keep the flow of the household moving forward in an organized fashion. Once the tasks have been completed, that’s it for the day. Do not allow your husband to shift into “hyperfocus” mode and start obsessively moving through an extended to-do list. This will inevitably backfire when he tires of it and moves on to some other project that catches his attention.

Another helpful tip when tackling to-do lists is to estimate how long each task should take and putting that number down next to the item. One word of caution: apply the Rule of 1.5 to any time estimates. This means that it is always best to assume that any task will take that much longer than originally planned.

Third, conquering clutter starts by making sure every object has a “home,” a place where it goes, always goes, and shall forever go. The obvious benefit of crating such a system is that, once again, it forces the disorganized person to create order outside of his brain. Keys go on the key hook, wallets on the dresser, coats in the closet. It may be helpful for a wife to post reminder posters along the path her husband takes when he enters the home.

Yet another strategy to help reduce clutter is the OHIO rule. OHIO stands for “Only Handle It Once.” This is a great tool for getting rid of junk mail, and it also helps reduce the chances of forgetting to pay bills or taking care of important responsibilities. To be sure, in some cases, it may not be productive to have a disorganized ADD/ADHD husband take care of the mail. Nevertheless, he can still apply the rule by agreeing either to let his wife bring the mail in (as tempting as it may be to look at each and every “interesting” item when he finds it in the mailbox), or to handle the mail once – by giving it to his wife.

A third aspect related to clearing clutter has to do with ridding the house of unwanted papers, magazines, tools – and just assorted stuff that accumulates over time. One wife explained that when it comes to reducing clutter in the house, she simply decided to take matters into her own hands.

“My husband used to get mad at me if I threw things away or put everything into one pile,” said Terri S., an ice-skating instructor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Now she gives her husband two days to go through all of his paper junk. After two days, Terri places everything in a plastic box and leaves it in the garage. When the box is full she throws the contents away. The plan leaves everyone much happier.

“By that time he’s forgotten about it, anyway,” she said.

From a global perspective, it is important to remember that ADD/ADHD men a wired to resist schedules and routines. This means that even the best laid plans of their wives may go astray as the to-do lists threaten to turn into a jail cell of obligations. Though many wives may believe that nagging only counts when it is said out loud, their ADD/ADHD husbands would argue that a post-it note can contain plenty of nagging of its own.

Peter Jaksa, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Chicago who works with both children and adults with ADD/ADHD. He recommends a multi-layered approach to helping husbands maintain their enthusiasm about becoming more organized over the long haul.

First, the whole process should contain as much entertainment value as possible. Dishes, for example, can get just as clean – and maybe even cleaner – when there’s good music playing in the background. Small victories can be rewarded in ways that increase motivation.

Second, visualizing the benefits of conquering disorganization can help husbands keep their eye on the eventual goal. It may even be useful to create an actual dream board around this goal.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, is that men with ADD/ADHD need to understand that living an organized life is much more than adopting a restrictive set of rules. Instead, living an organized life allows a person to pursue all sorts of activities and dreams he never had time for before. Indeed, it is the most liberating gift in the world.

Posted by David Ordan