When Clutter Makes Your Relationship Messy

In The Tale of Two Brains™ (ADHD and non-ADHD brain), one of the most common stressors is messiness. To the neurotypical brain, living in the chaos of disorganization can be stressful. To the ADHD brain, keeping a house tidy is stressful.

In The Tale of Two Brains™, team cleaning normally plays out something like this:

The partner with the neurotypical brain tries coaching their ADHD partner by sharing the techniques that work for them. They may try to encourage putting things away after using them or share how important it is for them to have a clean space. Or they may patiently wait for the other person to notice the pile of clothes on the floor before realizing that their person may never notice it.

Unfortunately, none of these things normally work for the ADHD brain. This in turn might lead the other person to believe their ADHD partner doesn’t care or isn’t trying.

To the ADHD brain, it can feel frustrating to see that their mess negatively impacts their partner. They may attempt big cleaning projects, yet leave them unfinished. This scenario often leads to self-criticism or defensiveness, as the world— and shows like Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up”—say that tidying up is easy. This can lead to explosive fights over little things like cleaning off a table.  

Most of the time, the ADHD person IS trying hard but doesn’t have the skills to function that way. This conflict creates unnecessary stress in the relationship. The messiness causes anxiety or frustration in the non-ADHD brain, while for the ADHD partner, the stress comes from knowing their partner is unhappy. They want to fix the situation without fully being able to. Basically, the two brains do not know how to work together when it comes to cleaning.  

The ADHD brain needs a different type of organizational style that works for THEIR brain (check out the Marie Kondo for ADHD blog). Small, mundane tasks actually decrease brain activity in the ADHD brain, making it extremely difficult for them to put things back where they belong. It is the equivalent of asking someone with a neurotypical brain to do something really challenging, like present an unfamiliar topic at work without time to prepare.

Now, an ADHD brain would generally rock that task, because their brain turns ON when other brains turn off. Understanding that putting the milk back in the fridge is actually a big ask for someone with ADHD can help both partners come up with new ways to keep their place clean.

Here are 3 tips to help your two brains work together to minimize stress and anxiety:

Schedule—Routines help ADHD brains, so set a short amount of time each day to do a quick team pick up or cleaning challenge. Doing the same thing at the same time helps the ADHD brain not switch into crisis mode in order to turn the brain on. I recommend 5-10 minutes daily to pick up an area of the house before a designated relaxation time.

Games & Challenges—Instead of creating a crisis, create a fun challenge. Who can pick up the most items in five minutes? Who can do the best dance moves while sweeping? These are ways to turn the ADHD brain on without the anxiety. This works great with kids too!

Celebration—Celebrate the cleanliness of your house with praise, high fives, or a victory lap.

Want more helpful advice on living with an ADHD brain? I highly recommend seeing a couples therapist specializing in ADHD and non-ADHD couples (like me!). Generally speaking, relationships can suffer from not knowing how to communicate effectively with each other’s brain. It is also hard to get out of patterns that have been occurring for years. I’ve found that couples may need a “bootcamp” of sorts to jumpstart using techniques that will effectively communicate with BOTH brains.

Premarital Counseling



A long-term investment with immediate benefits

Relationships have a deep impact on your overall health. Strong, long-term relationships reduce stress and anxiety, increase life expectancy, and help people be more productive. However, in relationships where there is a lot of conflict, uncertainty, or instability people find themselves so preoccupied  that it’s hard to concentrate at work or enjoy normal activities. 

It’s important to realize that all relationships will have conflict, but it’s possible for couples to use conflict to bring them closer together. This is a learned skill that takes special knowledge and practice. Generally, people do not want to hurt each other. When couples disconnect or behave differently, it is usually because their defensive instincts kick in. This is why it’s so important to learn how to counteract those instincts by developing the skill for staying connected. 

Premarital counseling is a great way to learn these skills  that has huge benefits. Imagine not feeling stressed when you and your partner fight. Most people will say that their relationships are great 99% of the time but that 1% is incredibly painful. These skills teach couples how to fight well, be emotionally responsible to one another, and to invest in their relationship on a daily basis. It also makes it easier to come in for a quick tune up session if either person notices more fights or arguments. The sooner a couple comes in, the easier it is to repair and re-connect. Otherwise, it’s like an open wound that, without treatment, can fester and become more complicated to treat. If a couple neglects this caretaking and continues to have unresolved issues, these infect many other areas of the relationship, making treatment that much harder. 

An analogy I like to use is that strengthening your relationship is like going to the gym. You can do it on your own, go to a class, or get a personal trainer. Using a personal trainer will help you achieve your goals more quickly and easily, and enable you to make modifications depending on your body and needs. Taking a class helps you complete a full work out when you might otherwise stop earlier on your own. Similarly, using a relationship ‘trainer’ can help you dig deeper, and safely explore insecurities and vulnerabilities. Strengthening your relationship in this way is really hard, mentally and emotionally, but the payoff is tremendous. Trying to do this work on your own can lead to relationship injuries (think of sharing something vulnerable and if your partner rejects or dismisses it, it can create a hesitancy to share things in the future). 

Why is premarital counseling better with a trained premarital couples counselor? 

●      Licensed Couples Counselors pick up on any underlying issues that may impact healthy communication.

○      This can include dysfunctional  family dynamics, past trauma, personality differences, or having ‘non-neurotypical’ brains.

○      For example, look at my article on the ADHD and Non-ADHD couple. Many of common communication techniques won’t work for a couple like this because they need to learn how to communicate specifically with a different type of brain. 

●      A premarital counselor can explain the research and why people are wired differently.

●      Premarital counselors experience working with couples in all stages of their life and relationship.

●      Couples can come back in for counseling with someone who knows their history.

●      Unlike trained premarital counselors, many couples counselors will see premarital couples but will not cover a curriculum, use an assessment, and explore future times that are stressful for most relationships. 

●      Premarital counseling is a non religious approach that can be beneficial for those who may not share the same religious beliefs or identify as agnostic or atheist. 

There is evidence that even taking 8 hours before marrying to explore your relationship and learn these skills is huge. Positive outcomes include:

●      Increasing marital satisfaction by 52%

●      Decreasing chance of divorce by 30%

●      Decreasing areas of conflict by 83%

●      Increasing communication and conflict resolution skills

●      Reducing wedding planning stress

One of the reasons I love working with couples, especially in premarital counseling, is that relationships are powerful. They restore, heal and create safety. I love helping couples learn those skills so they can have a better relationship and be able to identify the signs of when to come in for extra support. Ultimately, we know this to be about prevention. No matter where you are in your relationship, stepping into marriage with a strong foundation and the confidence to use these skills will remove many barriers that most couples typically face. Why wait until your relationship doesn’t feel good to take action, when you can make it feel even better today? Check out my Premarital Group and Private Classes today!