ADHD & Relationships: Play the Chore-Sharing Game

Adult ADHD Chore Sharing strategy couple

Chore-sharing often presents a major bone of contention in ADHD-challenged relationships. Arguing won’t help. Neither will nagging. And, good grief, stop “talking about it.”  Instead, pick up an ADHD-informed strategy.  A very simple one.

In most attempts at ADHD couple therapy, what is missed?  Instruction and guidance on developing practical, cooperative strategies.  This is a major theme in the couple therapy book I wrote with psychologist Arthur L. Robin, PhD:  Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions.

Dr. Robin and I recommend more focus on creating external supports for  Executive Functions. We advise against more “talking it out.” In fact, talking about problems often exacerbates them!

Therapists who don’t understand ADHD might go searching for deep, dark reasons why the ADHD Partner isn’t “stepping up.”  Online, we see batted about terms such as “Psychological Demand Avoidance” and “Weaponized Helplessness.”    Good grief! Talking about making a bad situation worse!

Let’s stop the destructive psychoanalyzing and focus on what we know works!    That is the entire focus of the newest training in Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle: Practical Supports. It formally launches May 8, so be sure to look for it (and a hefty discount) in your in box!

Meanwhile, let’s get the ball rolling with a simple strategy.

A Streamlined Tool for Chore-Sharing

Psychologist, coach, and ADHD expert Michele Novotni is the author of What  Does Everybody Else Know That I Don’t?: Social Skills Help for Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Below, she offers this streamlined advice for you and your ADHD partner to start establishing priorities about tasks and chores.

The Rating Game Beats The Arguing Game = Adult ADHD and chore-sharing

Remember: You’re On the Same Team

“I want my husband to understand that I don’t do it on purpose. He thinks that I ‘forget’ to close the cabinets or ‘forget’ to put something away on purpose.”

Ginny, a client in my group for adults with ADHD, was sharing her frustrations over living with a husband who doesn’t have ADHD.  Her ADHD-specific need for relationship advice is common, especially when it comes to domestic tasks.

Alan, who nodded in agreement, added, “I wish my wife understood how hard I’m trying. She just doesn’t get how much effort it takes for me to do things that come easily to her.”

Those two comments opened the floodgates. They spurred a lively group discussion about the challenges of marriage when ADHD is involved.

When I met with some of my clients’ partners—many of whom don’t have ADHD—they had their own frustrations:

  • “Sometimes I think I am raising another child.”
  • “Why can she focus on things she enjoys but on nothing else?”
  • “If she can do it sometimes, why can’t she do it all the time?”

All couples must navigate challenges and learn to communicate effectively and work cooperatively, but ADHD can place particular strains on a relationship. Many of my adult clients with ADHD report having partners who are so highly organized that they refer to them (jokingly, of course) of having Attention Surplus Syndrome, or ASS. Over time, it seems, the “opposites-attract” qualities that originally drew the two to each other lose their appeal.

When a relationship hits a rough patch, I advise couples to focus on each other’s strengths, not their weaknesses. I tell them to think of themselves as a team.

Gathering Data—Not Resentments

Every winning team needs a variety of skill sets to make it work—players who can execute a detailed game plan in a timely manner as well as those who inspire with their high energy and spontaneity. A football team comprised entirely of quarterbacks won’t win on game day.

Gauging a couple’s responsibilities and needs—both of which may have changed over the years—is a productive way to start.

One strategy for doing this is describing—on a scale of 0-10—how important or exhausting a task is for each of you. For example, instead of telling your partner how hard it was for you  to organize the holiday party, say, “It was a 10—or even an 11—to put that party together.”

The Results Might Surprise You

Couples often express surprise at the results of this rating game. One couple found that having downtime after work was low in the husband’s list of needs. By contrast, his wife rated getting early-evening help in the kitchen a 10. The result? The husband helped with dinner prep the second he got home from the office.

Ginny and Alan went home and discussed with their partners the degree of energy that various tasks demand of them (again, on a scale of 0 to 10). Each of their partners was genuinely surprised at the effort required to complete some tasks he or she had thought were effortless. They also discussed the relative importance each accorded a given task. This gave Ginny and Alan a clear sense of what was important not only to them but also to their spouses.

Armed with this information, each couple renegotiated responsibilities. For example, Ginny was surprised to learn that her husband didn’t care about eating the gourmet dinners she threw herself into after work  (he scored it a “3”). His preference by far:  having an uncluttered family room (a whopping “9”).

Ginny and her husband did agree completely on one important area:  Each gave a “10” to wanting to be loved and appreciated for themselves.

Two More of Gina Pera’s Posts on ADHD and Relationships:

Breaking Out of ADHD Relationship Dysfunction — After Not Breaking a Fall

ADHD Relationship Success: DIY Style

An earlier version of this post appeared here 12/5/2009

Good ideas never lose their usefulness!


6 thoughts on “ADHD & Relationships: Play the Chore-Sharing Game”

  1. Maria Pugliese

    This is a great topic. Dealing with an ADHD husband, daughter, and son has been a better education than reading books and going to courses (although they do help). Daughter was much less a problem and has moved on. Husband (we have been married 35 years) and dyspraxic ADHD son have been more of a challenge. The more I have learned to accept the things that do not change, the happier I am and I have learned to move around it. For example, having separate checking accounts and my handling all the bills have ended the overdraft fees. Now that I have accept he will never finish a project, I have experienced a real calm. Either I will finish it or someone else will or it won’t get finished. Now that I am elderly and physically handicapped the thing that drives me the most crazy is that both husband and son will drop trash on the floor when they are standing next to the trash can. But I now have a reacher so when I can I will pick it up . My husband is brilliant and was raised by a strict father so it has nothing to do with intelligence or upbringing. The less I get upset, the happier I can be.

    1. Hi Maria,

      Nothing like on-the-job training!

      Of course, you started learning, there was comparatively little to speed your learning curve. Good thing you are smart and practical-minded. 🙂

      Many people, unfortunately, remain stuck — repeating the same dysfunctional coping responses — because they don’t understand what they are dealing with.

      Once they are educated, they can start devising new and more productive coping responses.


  2. Gina….I am so happy that I found your website, I am in tears.

    My husband was diagnosed, as a child, with ADD. He is not on any medication and really hasn’t ever been. When we were just dating, part of me thought, well it must not be that bad, so I never really gave further thought about it. However, after marrying and having a child, I can see that he truly has ADD and needs help.

    We fight constantly about “time” and that he just cannot accomplish, things which seem very simple for me. I did not realize the true effect of ADD and hadn’t done any research on it. Every situation that other couples on your website fight over, such as, closing cubbards, is a daily occurrence and fight in our home. I thought that he was doing it to upset me or that he was lazy and unmotivated. Yet, he can focus to accomplish goals that he wants to do frequently. Now I am begining to understand why he doesn’t sleep, why he likes to pick fights and why he cannot complete anything!!!! Everything on your website is so helpful and I am finally realizing that we may be able to not have as many daily issues. I am ordering your book today and cannot wait to begin reading it! We are/were on the verge of divorce…hopefully understanding and combating these issues in a different manner will effect positive change in our marriage.


  3. Hi Shanna,

    Thanks for visiting and posting.

    I hope the physician is asking for your input as the medication is titrated.

    From your other post, I know that you’ve read my book, so perhaps you read the section on why a team approach is important. I also wrote about it at my other blog:

    As for time, yes indeed, that is a BIG issue for many adults with ADHD. Medication helps many people with ADHD develop a more conscious awareness of time, and it also helps them to complete tasks in a more timely manner — minus distractions, etc. But for the balance, it’s always helpful for the person with ADHD to “externalize” time as much as possible. That means calendars, buzzers, and clocks that make the passage of time visually significant. Example:

    Initiating and prioritizing….also common challenges with ADHD. In addition to medication, it’s often helpful for the adult with ADHD to learn new habits. My book covers some of those, too, and provides some guidelines for finding a therapist or coach who might help.

    Dr. Russell Barkley has a new book coming out that is full of practical strategies for adults; it’s due for publication August 2010.

    Happy New Year!

  4. After years of me suggesting ADHD as the root of behaviors that surfaced after our child was born, and several therapists who didn’t have an ADHD background, and some time with me going to therapy to sort out coping mechanisms, my husband is seeing a therapist who knows ADHD and he is in drug trials now. He is on probably his 4th drug so it hasn’t been easy for him. I am hoping this one is the one.

    I would like to see my husband co-exist peacefully with “time”, moving away from time being a rival and the lack of time being a profound disappointment. I would like him to be more at peace with the things that he chooses to drop or delayed rather than seeing them as failures or huge losses. I would like my husband be able to work better with time outside of “now”. I would like to see him initiate and follow through in a timely manner with things at all levels. I believe this could help move us out of the parent-teenager roles we have evolved into. I would like to see my husband incorporating a “we” frame rather than a “me” frame a significant amount of the time, giving the family thoughtful high priority.
    I would like to see my husband sleep at least 7hours day, be in bed by 11 a majority of the time and get up at a time that allows him to initiate his plan for the day.

    I would love to hear from others for whom this set of difficulties strikes a cord.

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