For many reasons, ADHD-challenged relationships often brim with arguments and conflicts. But why do some people with ADHD self-medicate with argument? What does that phrase even mean — to self-medicate with arguments?
Simply, it refers to the stimulation some people get by provoking a conflict—consciously or not. If you don’t understand this phenomenon, it can spell disaster for your relationship. It can also leave you the unwitting patsy of online trolls.
I first became aware of this pattern early in my own marriage, before my husband’s diagnosis and for a few years post-diagnosis. After I started a discussion group for the partners of adults with ADHD, I realized I wasn’t alone. This was the early 2000s.
A Subconsciously Rewarding Behavior
Let me be absolutely clear: Nothing about ADHD is universal. This is an example. Many people with ADHD are, if anything, argument-averse. And certainly, you needn’t have ADHD to be an argumentative son of a gun.
But some individuals with ADHD do habitually bait others into heated disagreements. It’s typically a subconscious behavior. They’ve learned on some level that stimulation or adrenaline or…something…gives them a feeling of focus and calm. Because this dysfunctional pattern is rewarding, it gets reinforced over time.
The provocations can take place anywhere–in traffic, online, with co-workers. But these conflict-seeking behaviors can especially happen within relationships—and leave the other person feeling confused and depressed.
“I’ve never understood until now,” says Marie, “why I would be reduced into tears after one of these episodes with my husband. But he, I swear, would have a smirk on his face. As if, ‘I win.’ What a sick way to get turned on.”
It’s complicated, though. For example, when the ADHD partner has poor insight to their behaviors, they might truly feel they are the ones being treated unfairly—or provoked. They might feel “all’s fair in love and war” and strike back in response to what they feel are unwarranted attacks.
Arguments Common in ADHD Relationships
In fact, “too much fighting” was a top reason for leaving the relationship, according to ADHD Partner Survey respondents who had divorced, separated from, or stopped dating their ADHD partner.
Interestingly, one study showed 58% of divorcing couples (in the general population) stated as the reason : “too much conflict and arguing”. How many of these survey respondents were unknowingly affected by ADHD? I bet more than a few. (Check out the chart and a fantastic drove of data at the Hernorm website, linked to at the end of this post.)
There are plenty of reasons for conflict in ADHD relationships. Until both partners are on board with understanding ADHD and its treatment strategies, conflict is almost guaranteed.
But I’m talking now about a propensity solely within the adult who has ADHD.
One Type of Conflict: Provocation and Argumentation
The myriad “self-medicating with conflict” factors within an individual can include:
- Poor communication created by ADHD-related challenges in listening and remembering
- Impulsivity in responding before understanding—or from misunderstanding
- Mood dysregulation, a common trait with ADHD, manifested in short tempers, angry outbursts, and chronic irritability
- “Denial” of ADHD symptoms (with both physiological and psychological underpinnings)
- Being unaware of these factors, so tending to blame the other person for the conflict and poor communications
- A co-existing condition such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, or even anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Ignorance around all these factors, which throws fuel on the fire
Again, it’s typically not intentional behavior — though some are very aware, even proud of, their propensity to “stir the pot.”
But that doesn’t make it any less exhausting—or destructive.
As Jaclyn wrote in her “Book Club” essay, about her husband’s response to reading this part of my first book:
There was a part in Gina’s book where she mentioned that ADHD’ers have a tendency to antagonize others just for the novelty.
I recognized that behavior in myself immediately, and it brought me to tears as I finally accepted that I had ADHD and that I’d been the cause of so many arguments in so many relationships.
I resolved that if nothing else, I had to try to fix that.
ADHD Relationships & Arguments
In about 2001, I happened upon a book by psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD. It was called Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. That’s how I learned about ADHD, and it certainly did change my life—and many others’ lives after I took up this mission.
At that time, he and his clinic were in the Bay Area. From the stories I’d hear in my local discussion group, I knew him as a psychiatrist able to help people failed by a string of previous psychiatrists. When I read his description of self-medicating behavior, it validated the patterns I’ve long seen, personally and in my groups. I interviewed him for my first book.
Book Excerpt on This Phenomenon
Here’s an excerpt on the subject from Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder.
For Kimberly, here’s the hardest thing to understand about her husband. It doesn’t matter how accommodating she is, how hard she tries to avoid doing things that would make him angry. As long as he wants to be angry, he will find a reason.
Moreover, he wants to get angry a lot, and he will always find a way to make his anger her fault.
Then when he finally succeeds in provoking her anger and she loses her temper, she’ll suffer more accusations from him about her anger-management problem. Kimberly ends up feeling ashamed yet defensive because, she says, “Most people have no idea how determined some people with ADHD can be at provoking others.”
This apparent desire to be angry, and to provoke an angry response in others, can result from the ADHD partner’s biologically based need for stimulation, according to psychiatrist Daniel Amen. “Being mad, upset, angry, negative, or even oppositional immediately stimulates the brain’s frontal lobes,” he explains. “These behaviors can produce increasing amounts of adrenaline in the body, stimulating not only heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension but also brain activity. And many people with ADHD might pick on others to get a rise out of them.”
As Kimberly puts it: “My husband gets his adrenaline kick. But I just plain feel kicked.”
The chapter offers more examples, as well as tips to avoid being pulled into a “self-medicating” argument.
Don’t Take (or Dangle) The Bait!
Recognize the dysfunctional ADHD relationship pattern:
- If your loved one with ADHD displays this behavior, it’s very important to stop “taking the bait.”
- I offer suggestions in the book as to how you can begin detaching and effectively rewarding the behavior. My favorite? When your ADHD partner just won’t let up, say, “I’m very interested in hearing what you have to say but I really need to use the bathroom.” Lock yourself in the bathroom with about 20 minutes of reading material. By that time, your partner might have calmed down—or have forgotten the reason for the conflict.
- If you are the person with ADHD stuck in this pattern, recognize how destructive “dangling the bait” can be to your relationships.
- Try to understand that, because ADHD can limit self-awareness, you might not see this clearly until you try medication. As one man said to my local Adult ADHD group:
“I’ve been taking medication for 2 weeks,. It turns out: My wife is not the nasty *itch I thought she was. Instead, it was me and my ADHD interfering with my attention, making listening to her painful.”
As you both become mindful of this ADHD Relationship Argument phenomenon, you’ll soon make a discovery: Many of your “arguments” have nothing to do with legitimate issues. They spring solely from one of you subconsciously seeking stimulation—and the other taking the bait.
Self-Medicating with Other Negative Activities
For another look at this phenomenon, check Our Lost Weekend Without Meds.
Jason had not known his boyfriend before his diagnosis and medication treatment started. When his boyfriend told him that, thanks to one snag after another, he’d have to go the weekend with medication, Jason thought, “no big deal.” But it was a big deal, culminating in this excerpt from his story:
When we finally cleared the air over who was responsible for him being lost, we sat down to relax by watching TV. He chose a show about terrorist training. After all the bad news on this topic, not to mention the last three days’ tension at home, I didn’t consider that relaxing. “But it’s really good!” he insisted.
After 20 minutes of watching him “self-medicate” by seeing torture victims suffer atrocities, I said, “No, I don’t want to watch this.” He stubbornly left it on, so I left the room. He said, “If you don’t like it, change the channel!” He had forgotten that he was holding the damn thing in a death grip. Argh!
More About Marriage and Divorce Statistics:
Here is the link I mentioned earlier, to the Hernorm website: Marriage and Divorce Statistics: How Many Relationships Last? It takes a comprehensive, clear look at marriage and divorce in terms of numbers as well as marriage and divorce trends over the years.
A version of this post first appeared on April 26, 2010