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.

Marie Kondo for ADHD


As the Marie Kondo craze sweeps the nation, a group of my favorite brains, ADHD brains, may once again receive messages that cleaning is simple. While the KonMari method appeals to many, this message may cause those with ADHD to feel like failures when they can’t effectively tidy up like on the popular Netflix show. There is hope for these ADHD brains. Here are some ways to adapt the KonMari method so it works for them.

People with ADHD normally need a different organizational style that works for THEIR brains. Small, mundane tasks actually decrease brain activity in the ADHD brain, making it extremely difficult for them to put things back where they belong. Their brains often need to actually see things in order to remember their to-do lists or know where things are.

Therefore, an ADHD brain may be more comfortable with lots of stuff lying around or piled up in a corner or on a desk. However, sometimes they need to tidy up,  either for hosting guests, or if their mess stresses out their partner or roommate.

Let me break down the ways I’ve witnessed ADHD brains try to force their brain to keep things tidy:

  • Crisis—They make doing the dishes a catastrophic event that induces anxiety in themselves and others. (Ex. if I leave this dish out my house will be infested with cockroaches and my partner will leave me!)

  • Big Projects—They begin to “organize” one room and make a complete mess. They then lose interest and leave the space worse off than before.  

  • Disaster Zone—They wait until the place is an absolute disaster AND a real crisis before they start picking up.

Because of these common ADHD cleaning styles, Marie Kondo’s method has the potential to help the ADHD brain, because having fewer items is helpful in general. However, the KonMari method requires some tweaking to work for the ADHD brain.  This is important to know if someone with ADHD is trying to implement the KonMari method.

  • ADHD brains will love the big project idea. However, without a coach or a T.V. show to motivate them to put everything away when they have purged the unwanted items, an ADHD brain may dump all their clothes on the dining room table and leave them there for months.  Ask a friend or hire an organizer to help with the last part. Setting a deadline can also be helpful.

  • ADHD brains do better with less stuff, but tend to struggle to find a good home when attempting to organize their stuff. Using a professional organizer who specializes in ADHD brains can help ADHD brains organize their homes in ways they can remember.

  • Marie Kondo’s sock drawers are beautiful, but folding and storing clothes that way is setting up an ADHD brain for failure. ADHD brains tend to work better with a “dump and search” method of  organizing. Try a sock box or basket instead.

Want more?  Keep an eye on my ADHD Corner for more tips for the ADHD brain.