How A Whiteboard Saved My Marriage

Many people with ADHD appreciate the importance of externalizing information. To-do lists, digital calendars, launch pads… each is a different way of helping us access information without digging inside our brains (and burning precious energy wondering what we’re forgetting). But there’s another area of life where many of us might benefit from externalizing information as well: externalizing information between people. So, ponder for a moment: is there a source of friction in your life where externalizing information could help nurture a relationship? Is there a frustration that might not really be about “the thing” but about what is known, seen, or prioritized? The following example is one of the many ways that eliminating guesswork has dramatically improved my life.

When my now-husband and I moved in together early in our relationship, our first big fight was about cleaning. I’m confident that our second and third fights were also about cleaning. It took years of painful conversations, hurt feelings, and sleepless nights before we had our big “Ah-hah!” moment. Ready for the big secret that made such a huge difference in my marriage? A whiteboard on the fridge, a question, and a high five. No joke — it made all the difference in the world. Ok, I know that doesn’t sound magical… but here’s why it made such a huge difference.

My husband is a tidier person than I am. I’d say he’s in the middle of the tidiness scale, while by nature, I’m way down the scale and into messy land. Notably, he also sees spaces differently than I do – I suspect this is more common than many realize. We inherently notice (and filter out) different things in a room. He might notice clutter on the coffee table, while I might see the dust bunnies accumulating behind the bookshelf. He would clear the clutter from the table long before it got bad enough for me to notice. His higher sensitivity to clutter meant he always saw (and dealt with) such messes before I did. His better relationship with time and prospective memory also meant he handled time-sensitive cleaning tasks before I’d get to them.

At that time, I was either traveling or working from home, and he had a 9-5. We would have a conversation where we agreed that the apartment needed some cleaning, and the next day…  he would come home to an apartment that still looked like a mess: clutter everywhere, trash still not taken out, dishes in the sink. From my perspective, I felt like I was doing my fair share of work. After all, I had crawled around excavating dust-bunny warrens behind all the furniture and dusted the shelves behind the books! I’d cleaned all day – if this wasn’t clean enough, what would be?!? I tried SO HARD! I was afraid I’d never be able to keep an apartment clean sufficiently that my partner felt we were sharing the load. I knew that it was because my brain was different, but I had such despair around it. Until our “ah-hah.”

By now, some of you have guessed the trick. I wish I could say how it happened. But it’s been years, and the conversation has gotten fuzzy. We probably realized that my cleaning priorities didn’t make him any happier with the state of the apartment. He probably expressed not wanting to have to manage me, and I expressed wanting to make him happy but also not knowing how to do that. We eventually must have figured out that I was doing enough cleaning… but the results didn’t impact his perception, and the effort wasn’t seen. So, he didn’t feel supported.

Enter the whiteboard. We drew a section that said, “If you get to it.” This is where we’d write things we’d noticed that were bugging us. So, if my husband were irked by the growing pile of laundry on the floor, he’d write it on the board. If the light switch covers looked grimy, I’d write it there. Then, when one of us wanted to make the other feel nice, we could start cleaning an area that was bugging the other person. Next came the question. “Hey, I’m going to do a couple of minutes of tidying up; is there anything that would be especially nice for me to get to?” Notice that neither of us is asking to be managed; it’s simply a “Can I do something nice for you while I’m at it?” sort of an ask. The third and final piece of the puzzle is the high five. “Hey! I took care of the laundry, so you’re not in danger of tripping, PLUS I sorted the glass jars and lids in the kitchen!” **High Five**.

How A Whiteboard Saved My Marriage

Notice the keys here:

  1. We could make informed choices about doing tasks that would impact our partner’s happiness.
  2. Our effort became visible (I’m going to… I did….).
  3. Mutual celebration.

It seems so apparent now as I look back. How would I have known his priorities? How would he have known how much work I was putting in? Yet it took years of stress to arrive at what now seems like a relatively simple solution.

It’s easy to assume that your partner knows what’s in your head or that they see the same things you do. But replacing that assumption with simple questions and celebrations can dramatically reduce conflict. We’ve built up a lot of our communication to make our intentions and needs clearer. In turn, this has helped us build up a rock-solid certainty that we are cared for and prioritized, so even if one of us misses the mark, we don’t leap down the path of catastrophizing; we have piles of evidence that the other person deserves the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t clean more than I used to (I don’t think). But my husband and I haven’t fought about cleaning in years because it was never really about the messes. It was about cooperation, feeling seen, feeling supported… and the magic of a whiteboard.

Mike Legett

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach

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