Why Don’t You Put Your Shit Away?!: ADHD-Related Inattentional Blindness

My husband returned from a business trip Monday evening. It is now Friday, and his luggage is still sitting, inexplicably, open and spread out on the sofa. He appears to be living out of it? He just grabs things out as needed, as though he’s living in a hotel instead of his home.

It didn’t start out on the sofa. When he got home from his trip, he brought it to the bedroom and left it standing, upright, in the corner. But I guess, at some point, he needed to get into it and the sofa seemed like the most accessible place to spread it out. And now, there it sits.

My husband has ADHD. He often refers to his ADHD as his superpower, and in many ways it is. Some of my most favorite things about him stem from his ADHD. But unlike some social media influencers who depict it as perpetually quirky and hilarious, there are many aspects of ADHD that make life incredibly challenging. Especially if a person’s loved ones aren’t informed about, and attuned to, how ADHD impacts their brains.

I’m far from an expert on ADHD. I’m just a non-ADHD woman living in a home with a husband and a son who have it. I’ve had to learn on my feet, and I haven’t always been graceful about it.

I’m ashamed to say that, for the first many years of our marriage, I ardently refused to acknowledge his ADHD as the source of some things about him that drove me crazy. I insisted that his forgetfulness, his inattentiveness, his tendency to scatter his belongings all over the house and leave them there for days, were a result of him being inconsiderate of me. Plain and simple.

It was difficult to digest that ADHD could be the cause. After all, everyone, ADHD or not, forgets things sometimes, or can be prone to making messes they don’t want to clean up. And since our marriage was struggling with other, non-ADHD related issues, I was not in the mood to charitably interpret anything he did that upset me.

Thankfully, through therapy and a much needed separation that gave us time to work on ourselves and gain perspective, we are in a very healthy place in our marriage. One of the things that has brought peace and harmony in our relationship has been me understanding how his ADHD impacts his life, and how it will, in turn, affect mine.

So, about the luggage.

People with ADHD sometimes experience something called inattentional blindness. It’s a phenomenon where things that are in plain sight, specifically things that are unexpected or don’t belong there, simply become invisible.

This luggage isn’t supposed to be on the sofa. Yes, he put it there. But that was almost a week ago. Since it doesn’t belong there, his brain has mentally erased it.

For a neurotypical person, this sounds absurd. It leads spouses of folks with ADHD to accuse their partners of lying because it makes absolutely no goddamn sense. However, when it comes to ADHD, we don’t get to pretend that things don’t exist just because we don’t understand them.

My husband notices things that he expects to be there. He loads the laundry when the hamper is full, sweeps the floor when it’s dirty, unloads the dishwasher. He shows up in every way possible as an equitable partner in our household labor—because he knows those tasks need done and keeps an eye out for them.

But these unexpected things simply disappear.

Part of keeping our marriage happy and fulfilling for us both has meant: (1) my husband doing his best to overcome challenges presented by his ADHD that can have an impact on my life, and (2) me learning things about his ADHD and extending grace, understanding, and even humor when things about his ADHD affect me.

His ADHD doesn’t give him a pass to be an inconsiderate partner (just like my anxiety doesn’t give me a pass to be difficult to get along with). When living in relationship with others, we must take whatever steps possible to overcome personal challenges that impact other people. At the same time, it’s important that we all try our best to be educated about the challenges our loved ones have, and to respond in loving and understanding ways.

For us, navigating his inattentional blindness looks like this:

— if something he’s left in a weird place isn’t in my way or inconveniencing me, I don’t say anything about it. I give him time and space to move it when he’s ready.

— if it is in my way and I need it moved immediately, I move it myself.

— if it’s in my way and I don’t need it moved immediately, I ask him to move it when he gets a chance, giving him gentle reminders about it if necessary.

Most importantly, I’ve learned not to take things personally. His occasional inattentional blindness has nothing to do with me. He isn’t being inconsiderate or rude. He simply doesn’t see things sometimes. I still ask him to clean things up that he’s gone blind to. I just ask gently these days, without the assumptions or accusations I used to make.

And sometimes, I decide to let myself go blind to things, too. It’s freeing to let yourself not worry over little messes that aren’t harming anybody.

Not the luggage, though. The luggage has to go.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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