ADHD Partner Sweeps But Leaves Piles!

ADHD and sweeping

Can poor sweeping habits wreck a marriage?  That’s right, I said “sweeping” — as in sweeping the floor.

The answer is yes, poor sweeping habits can sow simmering discord. Unnecessary conflict. Chronic resentment.

Let me explain with a few examples and how sweeping challenges might relate to ADHD.

Disclaimer: Before we get started, I’m not saying that all people with ADHD have trouble sweeping! Nothing is true for all people with ADHD. In fact, some are superior sweepers and their partners slacker sweepers!  This post transcends sweeping itself.

My point is this: When an adult  struggles with the “simplest things,” think about understanding and trouble-shooting through the ADHD lens.

Mrs. Doubtfire Robin Williams sweeping

Passive-Aggressive Sweeping Style?

A few months back, a woman in my Adult ADHD group mentioned her long-running marital conflict. Long-running as in 30 years of marriage. This was her first meeting. She is not diagnosed but is starting to wonder.

What’s exactly is the source of conflict?

I’ll sweep the kitchen floor but won’t pick up the piles.  Actually, I don’t sweep the kitchen. I sweep sections of the kitchen. At different times. But I never pick up the debris.

She explained why this behavior increasingly infuriates her husband:

  • He can’t understand why she refuses to pick it up.
  • Why does she begrudge him this small thing?
  • Can’t she understand he’s tired of accidentally walking through the piles and then having to re-sweep the floor himself?

Lacking a better explanation, his ears perked up when their couple therapist explained “passive aggressive” behavior.

In case you are unfamiliar, here’s one way of describing passive-aggressive behavior: A disconnect between what a person says and what they do. For example, this woman might tell her husband,  “Okay, I’ll pick up the pile next time” but doesn’t.

Yet, this woman denies being passive-aggressive, and I believed her: “I don’t know why I do this—or why he gets so angry.” 

Her attitude is, this is simply one of life’s many mysteries: what are ya gonna do?   When you live with unrecognized ADHD for a few decades, this is a common, understandable response. We might call it a type of Learned Helplessness.

Sweeping under the table - illustrate ADHD and sweeping tips

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Sweeping Under The….Table?

Curious about the prevalence of sweeping-related conflicts, I queried my “mixed” group — adults with ADHD and partners of adults with ADHD. Could anyone relate?

One woman jumps in:

My husband does that! You know that old expression, to sweep important issues under the rug—as in, ignore them?  My husband sweeps things under the dining room table. Our children know never to sit down at the table barefoot.

He was diagnosed with ADHD years ago, but what does sweeping have to do with ADHD?

Another woman says of her then-undiagnosed husband:

He swept the floor  as if he were sweeping flood water out of the house, huffing and puffing to suggest that he was doing a really tough job. Hard labor.  In fact, it was usually just a few crumbs.

Whatever specs of dust and crumbs he encountered, he swept into the same corner every time. Every. Time. Then he’d tell our young children not to step in the crumbs…or he’d have to sweep the floor all over again!

If I suggested that he put them in the bin straight away so he didn’t need to worry about where the children were stepping….I was met with outrage.

One woman responded:

I figured I was the only one in the world whose spouse would do that. Never mentioned it to anyone as I figured they wouldn’t believe me. It’s just baffling. Why sweep the floor only to leave the crumbs, etc. in a corner?!

These domestic situations can be particularly tricky for men with female ADHD partners to navigate, as one man asks:

Do I need to be more sensitive to her difficulties or can she learn to do these kinds of tasks completely and reliably? Will I have to patiently explain what ‘sweep the hallway’ and ’empty the dishwasher’ means forever?

Can she learn to take initiative and do some of these things without my asking? Or am I stuck forever with doing everything myself?

ADHD and sweeping - using a robot vacuum to clean the floor

So They Can’t Sweep—Who Cares?

You might be thinking:  Good grief!  Get a stick vacuum or robot, people!  Makes sense. My husband loves our self-guided vacuum, but he was diagnosed with ADHD years ago. The reasons he loathed sweeping (and did it badly) are no longer a mystery to us.

Let’s step back a bit.

For the first woman,  sweeping was just one in a string of puzzling ADHD-sounding challenges that frustrated her and held her back. Until folks in her situation come to terms with ADHD, superficial solutions tend to quickly run aground.

In fact, I find this one of the biggest mistakes ADHD-challenged couples make: Thinking they can solve problems with bandages rather than in a comprehensive, integrated fashion. After a while, they grow tired and resentful.

Then they discover ADHD. But how much energy and goodwill remain? Sometimes not enough.  They exhausted themselves over the little things, never seeing the Elephant in the Room: Adult ADHD.

That’s why I remain vigilant for everyday examples like this — these quirky “teachable moments”.  ADHD crops up in the most surprising ways, if we know how to recognize it.  Start from the ground up, and you’ll solve more challenges more quickly.

This perspective is  key to ceasing chronic frustration and  over-engineered solutions — and getting traction. Otherwise, we risking staying stuck in an irrational, angry loop.

George Constanza watched clothes in washer - "this is the dullest moment I've ever experience". Yet this is the only way some people with ADHD remember to move the clothes from washer to dryer -- wait until it's done.

Related: Lost Keys, Moldering Laundry

Consider my friend with late-diagnosis ADHD. Before diagnosis, she chronically lost her keys. She refused to acknowledge the possibility of ADHD or even to simply hang a nail by the front door. Why? “Because I am an adult and I should be able to find my keys!,” she said.

That “should” belief blocked her path to truly helpful strategies, including (in her case) diagnosis and medication.  When I helped her to grasp the complexity of ADHD, the light bulbs went off. That’s why she had trouble keeping track of her keys, not because she wasn’t a responsible adult.

She experienced the same doing laundry, clothes left moldering because they never made it to the drier. No number of reminder systems, sticky notes, and signs helped. That’s because “doing the wash” wasn’t her root challenge any more than losing her keys was. They were little tips of a big iceberg.

Trouble-shooting through the ADHD Lens.

How Can ADHD Affect Sweeping?

So, what might be the root cause of poor sweeping habits for some folks with ADHD? I’d say difficulty with follow-through.

We might already understand “poor follow-through” in other contexts. That is, the ADHD Partner might:

  • Make a promise to complete some paperwork—but doesn’t
  • Install new tile in the bathroom—but no grout
  • Mean to follow through—but gets distracted, loses track of time, runs out of time, procrastinates, forgets the details, runs out of motivation…..

But what, specifically, can explain sweeping without picking up the sweepings?  Well, for starters:

  • The focus required to sweep ran out with the need to mentally transition to another activity: Picking it up!
  • Especially if the dustpan is not right there. In which case, the ADHD Partner must stop to think …where do we keep the dustpan?
  • On the way to fetching it, a distraction throws the ADHD Partner off-course—perhaps it’s even a missed pile! “Argh! I missed that. I’ll never get it right. I give up!”

We see a related phenomenon with kitchen cabinets and drawers. For example, the ADHD Partner opens a kitchen cabinet to get the cereal (goal)—but doesn’t close it. Their partner, not realizing the cabinet or drawer was left open, ends up with bruised hips and banged heads.  They can tell themselves, “My partner is so inconsiderate”.  Or, they can start jointly problem-solving.

When we start looking through the ADHD lens—when we truly understand core challenges—we can start applying them to all kinds of previously puzzling situations.

We also avoid superficial cookie-cutter explanations. That is, poor sweeping is not diagnostic for ADHD!  But if sweeping is an issue for an individual with ADHD, we might figure out why.

Hmm clean house, no silverfish. The Simpsons. ADHD and house cleaning

Related Links:

ADHD Drug Holiday—Or Horror:  Just as some folks with ADHD cannot sustain a cleaning task, other folks with ADHD cannot “put on the brakes.”  Katy learned this the hard way when her stimulant medication ran out on Friday.

Tips to Finish Chores for Adults Who Have ADHD – Eight strategies for streamlining your effort

Cleaning with ADHD: Why is it SO Difficult? What Can You Do?   I’m unfamiliar with the cleaning products at this site (Hyperleechee), but they seem to have my husband’s number. He’ll dive into most any task if it involves a labor-saving, don’t-touch-the-goopy-stuff gadget!

Cleaning House — Hacking Your ADHD Podcaster William Curb delves into the existential dilemma. That is, how do you keep motivating yourself to clean dishes— when there will always be more dishes? And more.

—Gina Pera


8 thoughts on “ADHD Partner Sweeps But Leaves Piles!”

  1. Hi Gina!
    As always, I fully recognise and appreciate your points, and your dedication to helping people to try and have a greater understanding of ADHD issues. You’ve definitely helped me after I was late diagnosed. I celebrated my 64th birthday yesterday and with every birthday I appreciate more and more the benefits of not taking many things in life too seriously 🙂
    Btw, love the first video in your post!
    Thanks again for all your hard work and willingness to address every issue. You’re a star!

    1. I know you do, Josie. Thank you. It’s other folks that might be tempted to turn me in to the Broom Nazi. 🙂

      Thanks for all your support! And Happy Birthday!!!


  2. I always had a cleaner before meeting my current partner 20 years ago. He refuses to have a cleaner so for the first couple of years the cleaning became a war of attrition: who can live with dust, dirt etc for the longest time. Turns out we both can! Living with your own lack of cleanliness is different from living with someone else’s. So we admit that we’re both domestic sluts and care more about what happens in bed rather than how much detritus is under it. Every now and again we have a bit of a clean up, mostly when the situation has reached “bio-hazard”. Works for us! It wasn’t so much of an attitude adjustment, more an attitude acceptance.
    Recently I read two quotes that I rather like. So just a bit of fun and your possible amusement:
    “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life”
    “I prefer to sweep the room with a glance”
    PS: we have no children 🙂

    1. Hi Josie,

      I prefer to sweep the room with a glance. LOL!

      If that works for you, great!

      I’m not coming to anybody’s house with the “white glove test”. ;-).

      Just pointing out how sometimes the most mundane but contentious puzzles — not picking up the swept piles or even not brushing teeth – can find root in unrecognized ADHD.


  3. ADHD is always a present potential, and back of mind of mind conscious, and I’m thinking unconscious, and even physical issue, going through life. I can manage it in various ways, and have learn many of my strengths and weaknesses. It is never an easy task. Just relax, don’t overthink. I wish. Letting my guard down, when I’m on my own, too often, has the same effect as transitions of tasks.
    I have to know too much, and think presently too much so as not to miss the little things, the future goals (lanes) are long, short, and present, on a life track with the three lanes running through three on off ramp intersections, moving back to the main life track. Rest areas scenic byways trails, activities, service areas, etc scattered along the way. Plenty of places to lose your keys, run out of gas, get lost, pass people you know without noticing, and on and on. Is it usually disastrous, no, but it is a struggle, with explanations, to those who don’t deal with it, rarely understand.
    Every life has issues, executive function issues can be harder, because you have internal thoughts, behavior, controls and modulating mechanism deficited issues, that need to be understood, overcome, planned for, bypassed, accommodated, regulated, turned on or off, without totally shutting down, with some random shorting along the way.

    You used the very apt term “Learned Helplessness”,

    In addition I use the term “Learned Avoidance”. The problem with avoidance, with ADHD (for me) is it is often ingrained, resulting from past negative experiences (known and unknown). I do believe I avoid many things, feeling, sometimes without even knowing that I am, and, more sadly, not always understanding why. When self and ADHD collide.

    The avoidance just makes good coping skills, changes and living, even harder to maintain.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Yes, the avoidance can become engrained. And the thing is, it’s often RATIONAL.

      That is, you realize you don’t do X well, so you avoid X. Smart!

      It’s not like a random phobia or the result of poor self-esteem.

      That’s why standard therapy, including CBT, is seldom helpful. It typically doesn’t understand how the coping was useful at one point.


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