New Issue!

Spring 2017 Issue ADDitude magazine Read the 'ADHD Therapies That Work' issue now!

The New ADDitude Forums Are Live!

Reach our full community by posting to ADDitude's discussion forums here

Couples With One ADHD Partner

No Consequences for Bad Behavior?

I just read this article on ADDitude Mag about a mother who doesn’t punish her 10-year-old son for screaming mean things at her because he can’t help it:

As I was reading this, I thought about how my ADHD husband says whenever I ask him to change his awful behavior (screaming, swearing, etc.), it’s like asking a paraplegic to walk. What are people’s thoughts about this?

The other issue is the lack of apology.  There is never an apology after the awful behavior.  He just blames me.  I might be able to endure the awful behavior if there was an attempt at repair, but there never is.  He says asking him to apologize is like asking him to apologize for who he is.  And he says he’ll NEVER do that.

Clearly, the punitive consequences don’t work for ADHD kids, so I understand they won’t work for the ADHD adult either.  But how to “set up his environment for success” without compromising my own needs and boundaries is the gazillion-dollar question.


“set up his environment for success” - what do You mean by that? He already thinks he is ‘successful’ in that he can say and do whatever he wants and there are no consequences.

Posted by CullyRay on Apr 07, 2014 at 11:03pm

Does he scream and yell and swear at his boss?  When he has been stopped by a cop, did he scream, yell and swear at the cop? How many people in his life does he scream, yell and swear at besides you?  If he only does this to you and maybe family, then he knows what is right and wrong and he CAN control himself.  He probably does not exhibit this bad behavior to his boss or the police because he knows that their will be a very negative consequence. Negative consequences do work for ADHDers.  Next time he starts in on you, walk away.  Before I do anything around the house to help my hubby, I tell him exactly how I expect him to treat me (He use to scream and yell at me.) and tell him that if he starts in then I will put my end down (of what ever I am helping him with) and walk away.  He has not raised his voice to me since I started this.

Posted by Abner on Apr 07, 2014 at 11:23pm

Did anybody read the article?  I ask because I have found that marriage to my ADHD husband is a lot like parenting. I’m not advocating for “accepting” the abusive behavior, and I am just asking the question of how to let this behavior bother me less, the way the mother in the article does for her son. She discovered that not punishing her son for the bad behavior actually led to better behavior, less screaming, etc.

I’m not sure what “setting up his environment for success” looks like in an ADHD marriage, but I suspect it may be something like setting clear expectations for a task.  I like how Abner made expectations clear and told her husband she would walk away if he started screaming and yelling.  To me, that sounds productive.

To be clear, I do not “accept” my husband’s bad behavior and I do not want to give the impression that I’m a pushover.  I actually separated from my husband for 6 months and we both worked very hard at figuring out our marriage.  I give him—and myself—credit for that. 

I ask the above question in an effort understand the ADHD brain better, not to excuse bad behavior. If someone with insight into the ADHD brain can offer an opinion, that would be helpful.  I would like this discussion to have productive strategies of how to work with the ADHD brain, not to bash it. Thanks.

Posted by trying2be hopeful on Apr 07, 2014 at 11:57pm

I once read something about apologies that has stuck with me for years. “Apologizing does not mean you are wrong and the other person is right.  It simply means you value your relationship with that person more than you value your own ego.” 

My having ADHD is not an excuse for me to hurt my husband with my behavior without consequences.  Keeping a leash on my symptoms can be a challenge, and I fail miserably sometimes, and I lash out at everyone around me.  But the people I love are not to blame for my ADHD.  Apologizing for my actions is not apologizing for “who I am,” and with all due respect to your husband, he’s using that as a cop-out excuse so he never has to be “wrong”. I know, because I used to do it.  If I apologize, it’s never for being who I am; I would never do that, and he would never ask me to.  I’m saying, “I lost it for a while, I got mad/frustrated at myself, and I took it out on you, and I shouldn’t have.”  Every spouse needs to say that once in a while, ADHD or not; we’re not all perfect, we all have off days. 

If he won’t work on his ADHD, then ask him to work on your marriage.  Because whether you stay or not, at some point he will have to make the choice between his marriage and his ego.

Posted by CombatTVgirl on Apr 08, 2014 at 12:15am

If he is so disabled that he can’t behave then he needs to be put in a home for people who can’t take care of themselves.

Posted by YellaRyan on Apr 08, 2014 at 5:49am

I have read and have heard from mothers to try the “Love Language” technique. There are 5 of them, service, affection, time together, gifts and terms of endearment. If we figure out what their language of love is (what makes them feel loved) then take time, to show love the way they need it, they will be more loving back, cooperative, helpful. For example my ADHD daughter needs time with me(it could be as simple as coloring together, she does not even need to talk, or play a quick game..) and her attitude is better and she is more helpful etc. She also likes to be given projects to do like baking, or plan for a B-day party for her sister, I say I need help and give her a big hug (she loves that I think she is stronger than me and I need her to help around the house or fix something. She has her dad’s engineering brain and loves crafts so I try to set the atmosphere where she can succeed)giving her projects takes away time for her to get her own ideas that will usually get her into trouble like tear apart a flower arrangement, reorganize my house(not as good as you would think), do a project and leave a terrible mess, pick on her sisters. Anyway, I think you got the idea. This does not mean everyday is great because I am human and have other children(home school) and have little patience to cater to her and like all ADHD kids they are unpredictable(routine does not work with her, but it does help for her to know what is happening through the day at the beginning of the day). She never apologized until lately (she is twelve now) instead she would try to make up for her “mistakes(?)” with gifts or being super sweet to me…but I kept telling her I need her to use the words of apology, and it took years of telling her this. I told her I teach her manners/proper way of speaking etc. because that is what the world will expect from her and I want her to have friends etc. And I also get mad when she tries to make it my fault for her behavior, lying, taking, denying…she gets angry she is caught and mad at me for confronting her. I tell her straight out her thinking (she is mad she made a mistake, and wants me to let it go, instead of owning that mistake and apologizing and hopefully learning from it and not doing it again)I do apologize for yelling at her but not for helping her be aware of how she is feeling and acting. Just because she has ADHD I do not let that be an excuse, she needs to be honest with herself and others. She can learn to explain and others will understand and forgive her. Your husband has hurtful past issues and I am guessing no one has helped him love himself through the years (probably because ADHD was not really known, and no one knew what to do back then. Look we are still confused on how to live with our ADHD family so we all get along) No one has taught him he is not his ADHD, no one has shown him the positives of ADHD…we all tend to react and it is usually negative ( I am guilty of this) Has he gone to counseling just for ADHD and support groups? ADHD people have a hard time examining their feelings and never know why they burst out with impulsive, sometimes mean words and behavior. I am guessing he does not know the feelings and does not want to go there(to those feeling/thoughts. The regular man does not like to examine feelings. Next time do not talk about feelings (Men react poorly to that word) ask what he is thinking. My daughter wont know, so suggesting ideas of what may be going on in their head may help them learn the words for their thoughts. SHe also gets really confused and afraid (and angry) because reality is different from her memory. Does this sound familiar to you? For us if it is school we have to go back and prove the facts. If it is life she accuses me of lying or breaking a promise. I keep telling myself I am going to start writing things down and have her sign it but I forget in conversation to do this until it is too late. so I have my other daughters confirm my comments. It is really hard to know what is ADHD or personality, but everyone can learn to be nice. I learned in counseling school, if it can be learned it can be unlearned. The stress of teaching both your son and husband is on you, it is heavy for you, and you are tiered but supposedly being a good example works. I have found if I am having a bad day everyone has a bad day. I wish everyone could have a good day even if I am not but it does not work that way. I hope some of this was helpful, sorry I vented a little of my own life.

Posted by sarafina on Apr 09, 2014 at 10:31pm

First of all, I feel your pain. I am a retired teacher with a Master’s in ED specializing in the Emotionally Handicapped. I have 2 sons, both of which are ADHD. The two of them got it from somewhere. I know I have struggled with it my entire life and my husband says he has also. However, we are both of the age that it was not labeled back then. I feel your frustration.
Do not let your spouse take advantage of you. Parenting and being in a marriage are 2 separate things. If he needs a mother then he needs to move home with his. If he is willing to work on his behavior that is great. But if he can’t even apologize it sounds as though he is just abusing you. I have lost my temper plenty of times in my life. After I cool off I apologize even if I still feel I was in the right. I apologize for handling the situation poorly. If it is with my spouse or children I make an effort to work on not losing my temper. My husband does the same, as do my children. People have to know the boundaries. I assume he knows the boundaries with everyone else or he would be in prison. List the behaviors that trigger the outburst and make an appointment with him to sit down and talk when both of you are well rested. Also has he seen a doctor. There may be something else going on such as Bi-Polar or Oppositional disorder. Is he depressed. All these issues can sometimes be masked with ADHD or he could have been misdiagnosed. I know in the school system kids were over diagnosed as ADHD when really it was something else. I wish you well and commend you for doing the research to work on your marriage.

Posted by cmeteach on Apr 09, 2014 at 10:53pm

sorry! I reread your top paragraph and thought you had a son too! so ignore the kids stuff grin But the giving your husband success projects may work to build him up since he has had a life of everyone noticing his failures. My 12 year old can keep her hurtful words to herself so can your husband. Everyone can learn to take a minute to breath before talking. Maybe have some signal to give him when you notice something is building up In him and you think some hurtful things are going to come tumbling out. I can not agree with the article completely. I took about a year off from punishing my daughter and she got worse and she admitted she did things knowing she would not get in trouble. SO the consequence has to fit the crime. This is difficult with a husband, I would say he is taking his frustrations out on you and when he cools down (and maybe you too) discuss alternatives for his frustrating day. Sports, punching bag, diary, walk…and when he cools down he can talk to you like you deserve to be talked too. I think what the others are trying to say is that your husband may have ADHD, but he also may have learned in life to react to situations that are abusive to you. If he did not have ADHD he would still treat you this way because this is a different part of the brain and as he says,” this is who I am” is a scary for us to hear. Because if he does not understand this is a learned behavior, just like learning a bad word and using it all the time, he is not going to be able to treat you better.(the impulsivity is ADHD not the behavior) A person can not say mean bad things unless he has heard them somewhere else. For example my kids never say they wish me dead, or they hate me… because they have never heard such comments before so it does not occur to them to use these phrases or words. Your husband learned them and if he choses he can unlearn them. He needs to know he is loving and loving, honest people own their bad responses or behavior. Sometimes I let Sara vent to me because I understand something is bothering her. But out of no where attitude is not acceptable and she has a consequence. I think you will have to judge for yourself if your husband is having a bad day and just let his comments slide off of you. If there is no rhyme or reason for his outburst then it is abuse and there is nothing you can do to change him or give him opportunities to succeed.

Posted by sarafina on Apr 09, 2014 at 11:35pm

Two more things, 1) this mother in the article may have been the reason this boy spoke out the way he did because she was spoke out poorly when she was angry with him. Now that she is behaving better so is he. The role model changed so he changed. Your husband is grown and has learned his ways. 2) Does your husband hang around with people who reinforce his behavior and belief system? I know when my husband has been around people who curse and raise their children differently than we do he comes home and is preaching a different life and curse words slip out etc.

Posted by sarafina on Apr 10, 2014 at 12:10am

My husband and I are doing (or attempting) to do Melissa Orlov’s “ADHD Marriage Self-Study”.  She talks about setting boundaries to take care of yourself first, and also allowing natural consequences happen to your spouse.  I have ADHD and anxiety, so it’s sometimes hard to not “enable” my husband when he does those same things (angry, very cutting words). I have set the boundary of “I need a few minutes to be quiet right now, I’ll come back when we’re both calm and able to talk”. “Learning conversations” are also suggested to prevent escalating arguments. I’m sure you could google guidelines for what that looks like. I’m definitely not “cleaning up” after my husband’s “messes”, and allowing natural consequences to occur instead of me punishing him. It’s been hard…but I’m taking little baby steps and doing much better.  It’s not great every day, but it helps.  There will be a point when you have to decide that if he’s not committed to working on your issues, then you may need to decide your next step. Don’t “hide” or “cover up” his issues as well…it only hurts you and protects him from the natural consequences. Stay strong and take care of yourself first!

Posted by helene15 on Apr 10, 2014 at 4:39am

Oh and yes…I read the article.  Using positive and encouraging words when he’s behaving well (Love Languages work too!), and withholding your attention when he’s behaving badly is a very effective strategy…which is what the mother was doing.  If you get into the battle with them…it just escalates.  Think about a flame…if you take away it’s oxygen, it goes out. It’s not a “manipulating” thing…it’s just you have set clear boundaries…when he does something good…pay lots of attention to that…and Don’t when he does something inappropriate…and let natural consequences (eg. boss getting upset with him, late for work, etc) happen.

Posted by helene15 on Apr 10, 2014 at 4:44am

I work with couples in Maryland where one or both have ADHD, and I can tell you that all the “tough love” suggestions above are probably not going to help.

First, you don’t mention if he’s on medication or not, and second, I don’t know where he is on the “impulsivity” scale. Some ADHD people, especially some guys, have a very very hard time reining in their impulses. You say that you’ve both worked hard on your marriage, so you must feel like he really has a lot of redeeming qualities.

People with ADHD get angry and lose control when they feel 1) overwhelmed 2) totally stressed or 3) hurt, criticized or rejected (which to their nervous system are all the same thing). In any case, they’re feeling deep distress, even though it may look to others like they’re just being deliberately hurtful and that they have no good reason to be so distressed. Second, it really really isn’t registering in him at that moment that his screaming and yelling and swearing are hurting you. It’s a total blind spot. In his mind, YOU are the one who hurt him FIRST, in some way.

My guess is that he already secretly feels that you are the totally competent one and he is the total f***-up who doesn’t deserve you, and anything that happens that reminds him of that feeling sets him off. Maybe you say something that sounds (to him) critical or judgmental of him, then he gets upset at you for saying it, then you react to his angry words and voice and either withdraw or get angry or critical back, then he feels more rejected, and he gets worse, and it spirals more and more.

So here are some ideas. First when he gets into swearing or hollering, don’t withdraw or fight. Look straight at him, come fairly close but not too close, keep your voice low, and say, “I know you’re upset, but it’s too upsetting to me when you yell or scream like that. I’ll listen to you, but only if you talk to me without saying those awful things.” Repeat if necessary two or three times.

As for apology, you want to find a way to engage his empathy for how you feel. If you put him in a one-down position, he will defend himself because one-down is how he always feels. Instead, some time when you’re both feeling fairly calm and close, tell him how bad and scary it is for you when he yells and how you feel hurt, sad, unloved—whatever it is. But say it at a time when you truly know in your heart that it’s not the way he really wants to be toward you. If you show him your vulnerability (at a calm moment), he will realize you’re not the indestructible person he’s created in his mind, and he’ll be more likely to want to protect you from anything that might hurt you—including himself.

This is a slow process. You’ll have to say these things to him many times until it fully sinks in and becomes a new pattern. See if the two of you can talk calmly sometime about what triggers him. That will help. And don’t withdraw unless you really really have to, and only after giving him a lot of warning—because not responding to someone when they’re angry because they’re hurt feels like rejection and can lead to a panic reaction that results in a truly awful escalation.

Most of all, in your everyday life, remember to show each other a lot of love. The more convinced you both become of the other’s love, the less likely fights will spiral out of control.

Posted by Larry Letich, LCSW on Apr 10, 2014 at 7:48am

Sounds like verbal abuse to me. My 13 y/o ADHD kid can get nasty when he is not awake but always always apologizes once he is awake and I always always name it - Don’t be rude - don’t cuss at me.

Recommend a book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Patricia Evans. Very enlightening with some great idea on how to protect yourself.

Posted by susabcats42 on Apr 10, 2014 at 11:23am

There are different kinds of “verbally abusive” behavior. If you feel as though most of the time he loves you and then he “loses control” when he’s triggered by the things I’ve written above, then that’s workable. If he treats you almost all of the time with contempt, but he’s charming to the rest of the world, that’s an entirely different and much more difficult problem.

Posted by Larry Letich, LCSW on Apr 10, 2014 at 3:08pm

“Does he scream and yell and swear at his boss?  When he has been stopped by a cop, did he scream, yell and swear at the cop? How many people in his life does he scream, yell and swear at besides you?  If he only does this to you and maybe family, then he knows what is right and wrong and he CAN control himself.”

I’d like to point out that this isn’t necessarily true. For one thing, the emotions tend to be a lot more intense when a loved one is involved. Also, it may be that he can only control himself for so long, and trying to control his behavior in one setting erodes his control in another setting. (Many parents notice an inverse relationship between behavior at home and behavior at school for this reason.)

ADHD isn’t about having *no* control over your behavior. It’s about control being more difficult, taking more energy and effort. It can be like running a marathon every day, only to come home and find your family asking you to run another one for them.

Posted by Ettina on Apr 11, 2014 at 2:58am

Thank you, everyone, for your responses.  I appreciate you all taking the time to write and offer insight.

Larry Letich, your response opened a new perspective into my husband’s brain.  You described our dynamic perfectly; it often does spiral out of control.  Before he was diagnosed with ADHD (at age 40), I felt like he constantly screamed at me.  Then he was put on Ritalin and things got better.  He seemed to have more control over his emotions and was much less irritable.  But as of a month ago, he decided to stop Ritalin because getting the prescription filled was too much of a hassle.  I have offered to try to help him with this, but he refuses to accept my offer.  Last week, we had an awful fight that ended with him screaming and swearing at me in front of our 4-year-old son.  It had been over a year since we fought like that.

I know my husband is not an awful person, but sometimes his behavior is just awful.  I understand what people are saying about abusive behavior and—believe me—I’ve tried to get him to see this.  But, as Larry pointed out in his post, he accuses ME of hurting him FIRST.  It’s been so painful and he can’t see how much he’s hurting me.  That’s why I left him for a while.

We’ve been working with a marriage counselor who specializes in ADHD and he’s been helping us work on our destructive dynamic.  I can totally see how “tough love” has never worked on my husband and I felt at a loss on how to deal with his bad behavior.  I can see, from Larry’s post, how his own deep shame prevents him from seeing his behavior clearly.  That makes total sense.  He has had deep shame for his whole life.

I hadn’t thought that he felt like he doesn’t deserve me, but that is probably true.  I am the breadwinner of the family, I have multiple advanced degrees, many friends, well-traveled and speak multiple languages.  He is a brilliant and gifted man, but struggled through school (with undiagnosed ADHD) and dropped out of college twice before barely finishing his degree at age 32.  None of his life “failures” have ever bothered me or prevented me from seeing his potential as a human being.  It’s the screaming and swearing that make me want to run away.

For the record, I have told him my boundary: that if he screams and swears at me in front our son again, I will leave again until he gets back on meds.  I will hold to my boundary, but I don’t think that will motivate him to change his behavior.  I can see how the threats feel like control to him, which triggers more shame.  So the question is: how do I get him back on his meds without triggering his shame?

Call me naive, but I believe people are drawn together because we have similar wounds.  If we can figure out this marriage thing—as impossible as it seems—there is potential for healing for both of us.  As well as for our little boy.

Still trying2be hopeful!

Posted by trying2be hopeful on Apr 11, 2014 at 9:40am

Thank you, Ettina and thank you, Larry. THESE are the words that every loved one of an ADDer needs to read.

Posted by frankcesca on May 08, 2014 at 1:26pm

Reply to this thread

You must be logged in to reply. To log in, click here.
Not a member? Join ADDConnect today. It's free and easy!

Not a member yet? Join here »

Search the ADDConnect Group Discussions