For many reasons, ADHD-challenged relationships tend to teem with arguments and conflicts. Apart from that, why do some people with ADHD self-medicate with argument? What does that phrase even mean?
Simply, it refers to the stimulation some people get by provoking a conflict—consciously or not. Getting angry and arguing can release adrenaline and thus focus. If you don’t understand this phenomenon, it can spell disaster for your life and relationship. Even when you do understand it, it’s no way to live. Understanding paves the path to solutions.
I wrote about this type of self-medicating in my first book, published in 2008. ADHD Roller Coaster readers found the first version of this article in 2010.
A decade later, tons of websites have discovered the popularity of the term. Now you see it a lot. On one level, that’s good. This bewildering behavior has a rational explanation—and, with any luck, we can learn to de-escalate.
On another hand, many sites apply “self-medicating with argument” to issues that have nothing to do with this phenomenon. Or they imply that all ADHD-related challenges result from “self-medicating with that dopamine hit.” That risks staying stuck in dysfunction.
Poorly managed or unrecognized ADHD creates all manner of dysfunction and misinterpretation —until you figure out what’s going on and take steps to clear the confusion.
In This Post:
In revising this popular post, I touch upon these topics:
- Overview: The self-medicating with argument behavior—rewarding, conscious or not
- Too Much Fighting — common reason for leaving ADHD-challenged relationships
- Remember: Other causes of conflict abound in ADHD-challenged relationships
- It happens in dual-ADHD relationships, too!
- The pre-cursor: Saturday Morning Fight Syndrome™
- Validation in research and reading
- Book excerpt and tips, briefly
1. Overview: A Rewarding Behavior—Conscious or Not
Let me be absolutely clear: Nothing about ADHD is universal. “Self-medicating” with argument is a prime 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.
Yet, some individuals with ADHD do habitually bait others into heated disagreements. It’s typically a subconscious behavior, though sometimes they will admit to “loving a good argument.” On some level, they’ve learned on some level that stimulation or adrenaline or…something…gives them a feeling of focus and calm. That is a welcome but fleeting feeling. And it can leave a mess in its wake.
“I’ve never understood until now,” says Marie. “why I would be reduced into tears after one of these episodes with my husband. Meanwhile he, I swear, would have a smirk on his face. As if, ‘I win.’ What a sick way to get turned on.”
Behavior Can Start as a Survival Instinct
For some, the behavior starts small. Think class clown or, later in life, provoking a political argument at the holiday dinner table. It might be the only way they can participate in conversations that are too complex to follow, due to distractibility. Instead of participate, though, it’s more like dominate.
Because this dysfunctional pattern can be rewarding, it gets reinforced over time and morphs into other forms.
Provocations can take place anywhere–in traffic, online, at family holiday dinners, with co-workers. As with Marie, above, these conflicts tend leave the other person feeling confused and depressed. As in, “What just happened?” and “Was that really my fault?”
Low Insight Complicates Things
Are the “provokers” aware? Not often, it seems. If the person has low insight to their own ADHD challenges (“denial”), they might be full of self-righteous animosity or victimhood.
For example, say the person easily bored and has difficulty paying attention—but doesn’t realize the nature of these challenges. The rationale for creating at ruckus at the family dinner table might be, “They deserve to be upset if they can’t produce more interesting conversations!”
Put another way, they might truly feel they are the ones being treated unfairly—or provoked. Yes, even feeling bored can anger some folks with ADHD, leading them to see the other person willfullly inflicting boredom as a type of punishment. Again, the truth is, some people with ADHD find some conversations or events boring for one reason only: They cannot pay attention.
Lacking objectivity to the situation, they might feel “all’s fair in love and war”. They might strike back in response to what they feel are offensive, unwarranted attacks. It might not make sense to most of us. But when your brain is constantly “noisy” as you struggle to focus, the slightest interference can feel like a direct attack.
2. “Too Much Fighting” — 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 general-population study showed 58% of divorcing couples 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.)
Bottom line: We find plenty of reasons for conflict in ADHD relationships. Until both partners get on board with understanding ADHD and its treatment strategies, conflict is almost guaranteed.
3. Conflict Exists Beyond”Self-medicating” with Argument
Attributing these common factors simply to “self-medicating with argument” is a huge mistake:
- Poor communication created by ADHD-related challenges in listening and remembering
- “Memory holes” that leave the ADHD adult feeling certain you never conveyed important information (when you did)—or the opposite, feeling certain they conveyed important information (when they didn’t)
- Impulsivity in responding before understanding—or from misunderstanding
- Mood dysregulation, a common trait with ADHD, manifesting in short tempers, angry outbursts, and chronic irritability
- “Denial” of ADHD symptoms (with both physiological and psychological underpinnings, covered at length in my first book)
- Being unaware of these factors, thus blaming 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. Let’s be honest, though: Some are very aware—even proud of—their propensity to “stir the pot.”
Simply becoming aware of the pattern doesn’t make it any less exhausting—or destructive. That changes only when the person sees self-damaging consequences and accepts the need for change.
4. It Happens in Dual-ADHD Couples, Too!
Jaclyn Paul at The ADHD Homestead wrote about a guest post for me on this topic. Specifically, she described 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.
To read Jaclyn’s full essay: How Can Medication Help ADHD Relationships?
5. Precursor: Saturday Morning Fight Syndrome™
Picture it. San Francisco. 1996. The dot-com boom was just taking off. My then-fiancee and I had just moved to the Bay Area from San Diego.
The dot-com boom was just taking off. Starbucks was proliferating. We were all on our way to becoming a bunch of over-caffeinated, over-connected nervous wrecks. But that would take a few years.
Meanwhile, I eagerly anticipated fun weekends exploring all the Bay Area has to offer! He claimed he was, too. But his actions told another story. What story was that, you ask? It took me a while to figure out.
All I Knew Was This:
Every Saturday morning, I’d be excited to think about the day’s adventures. But Dr. Goat (aka, my husband) was scowling, huffing and puffing. Soon, coming out of nowhere, an argument would ensue. Bewildered, I took his complaints or criticisms at face value. So, I’d defend, surprised and angry that yet another potentially lovely day had turned to mess.
It was exhausting. It was crazy-making. What was happening?
Sometimes we’d just go our separate ways. Sometimes, we’d get in the car and set out to previously discussed destination. But there was no conversation in the car. Why? That might start an argument! Instead, Dr. Goat would crank his car seat back as far as possible, close his eyes, and snooze. I felt like an ambulance driver carrying a patient. What the…..
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the pattern. All was fine during the work week. But things always blew up on Saturday. I finally said to my husband, “Have you noticed that we always have a blow-up on Saturday morning?” He said, “Well, yes, I thought it was your period.” I stared at him, incredulous: “Every Saturday???? What do you think I am, a rabbit? For petesake, you’re a biologist.”
I came to call it Saturday Morning Fight Syndrome™.
In my conference presentations over the ensuing years, whenever I say, “Saturday Morning Fight Syndrome”—chuckles of recognition break out. When they hear about the weekly periods, audiences laugh out loud. But some scratched their heads at my husband’s bizarre conclusion. I say it clearly illustrates one critical point: When we don’t know what is causing a phenomenon, we will latch onto anything, especially if we can blame someone else!”
6. Validation From Research and Reading
Around the time I named Saturday Morning Fight Syndrome™, I happened upon an ADHD research paper that seemed relevant. Children with ADHD, it said, reported feeling more stressed on the weekend than on school days! One possibility suggested: Facing unstructured time created anxiety.
Ah-ha. This phenomenon was bigger than my husband and me. I asked other partners of adults with ADHD if they could relate. “Absolutely!” many said. Though some said it happened on Sunday. The issue wasn’t particular to Saturday or Sunday. It involved any day that we out of routine, with unstructured time, and expectations for “fun.”
By about 2001, I happened upon a book by psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD: Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. That’s how I learned about ADHD. It certainly did change my life—and many others’ lives after I took up this mission. One chapter touched upon these issues, so I interviewed Dr. Amen for the book.
7. Book Excerpt on Self-Medicating with Argument
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. (Note, ADD was the term in 2008, not ADHD. All else about the book remains relevant and up-to-date. I wrote it to be “evergreen.”)
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.”
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 entering a “self-medicating” argument. A taste follows.
Don’t Take (or Dangle) The Bait!
Recognize the dysfunctional ADHD relationship pattern and take steps to de-escalate:
- 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.” Then, 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 self-medicating with argument phenomenon, you should soon make a discovery. That is: 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. Again and again. And again.
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