When ADHD Leads to “Self-Medicating” With Argument

adhd relationship argument

For many reasons, ADHD-challenged relationships often are full of arguments and conflicts.  But why do some people with ADHD self-medicate with argumentWhat 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.

First, 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 treated unfairly. 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 stated as the reason : “too much conflict and arguing”.  How many of them are 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
  • “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

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.

adhd relationship 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.

gina pera adult adhd course

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.

adhd relationship argument

Peace out,

Gina Pera
A version of this post first appeared on April 26, 2010

21 thoughts on “When ADHD Leads to “Self-Medicating” With Argument”

  1. Hey, I really liked this article. I’m not sure if kids are supposed to comment here, but I figured I’d do it anyway. I just had a question. I have a tendency to argue with my parents, strangers on the internet, and generally anyone who dislikes me, or gives me criticism.

    I can handle constructive criticism, I like it actually, but any opposition I have, I tend to provoke. Like you explained, it makes me feel better. I wouldn’t describe it as an adrenaline rush, I’d describe it as… it’s like I need to channel my energy into something that I can be aggressively passionate about.

    And when you’re a gay, politically averse, athiest, and (not to toot my own horn) extremely smart child with 70 year old, adoptive, republican, and Christian parents who believe the world is going to hell with the new generation, I’m sure you can imagine the environment.

    Despite that, I tend to get along with my parents most of the time. But that isn’t the point, and here I am going a little off topic. My point is, I don’t just argue. I insult people a little, sure, but nothing harsh. I debate. I wait my turn to speak, then destroy my opponent with small put downs, while I bring up facts and figures, explain the small minded reasoning behind things they believe in, and it drives them nuts.

    My friends praise me for my ability to always have the right comeback, and to always make intelligent arguments. And it feels good. But, it’s obviously not healthy. So my question is this: Would joining the debate club at school be beneficial, or harmful? I’m going to try to become a lawyer, that’s been decided, but I need to know if I should. The way I argue indicates I’d be a great lawyer, since I follow the rules of debating. But is it worth it? It’s just so conflicting. Any advice?

    1. Hi Braxton,

      Of course “kids” are welcome here!

      Thanks for your interesting, well-articulated question.

      In fact, it’s a little spooky, as if you read my mind.

      Just last night, I remembered I was supposed to write an article on this theme — but regarding children with ADHD —for CHADD’s Attention magazine when I had time. Well, I haven’t had time, but I still have the material. So why not add a bit to this article.

      And there you are!

      But if you aren’t starting the argument — if instead, you are reacting to criticism directed at you — that’s not really the same thing, is it? The fact that you mostly get along well with parents having the affiliations you describe seems to indicate that you aren’t always “looking for an argument.” Or it’s that you are emotionally connected to your parents and don’t want to hurt them.

      I find what you describe healthier than “grin and bear it.” But healthier still might be….ignoring it, not taking your critics’ bait. But then…. maybe you can evolve to that in a few years.

      It’s funny….halfway through, I thought….maybe Braxton would make a good attorney. 🙂

      The downside of legal work, of course, is the many tedious details, which seem the overwhelming part of the job unless you get to be an F. Lee Bailey. A household name years before he got involved with the OJ Simpson case.

      I come from a family of people with witty and acerbic rapid-fire comebacks. Especially at the holiday dinner table, with all 25 of us. I prided myself on it into my young adult years. I liked that it especially seemed to take aback people who had perceived me as just another pretty face, a well-mannered Southern girl. 🙂 haha. That was fun.

      Of course over the years, I came to see that not everyone prized this ability. Plus, it no longer suited my personality and values.

      It’s funny you mention you are gay, because my very good friend, a gay male, loves to zap me with the witty criticisms and putdowns. I take it in good fun. But sometimes it felt over the top. I protested a few times, but he’s always said, “But, Gina, you know I love you. It’s just what we do in the gay male culture.”

      As to your question about joining the debating club, I would say go for it. Channel that quick mind into something more disciplined and potentially useful to you other than being the master of the bon mot at parties. 🙂

      My friends who were school debaters saw it as an incredibly valuable activity. I think it’s served them well throughout life, with parsing complex issues, with seeing other points of view, etc.. Seems wholly worthwhile to me!

      Thanks for dropping in,

      g

  2. Hi, I have a daughter who’s seventeen and a senior in HS she just got diagnosed during this year with ADHD, over the last few months she has got more and more argumentative over everything! I’m exhausted and feeling so drained I don’t know what to do. I can never reason with her about anything, it’s like she has her mind set and as irrational as her idea maybe she won’t back down at all. My daughter gets along well with her friends and others but at home she goes from this sweet caring kid to all of a sudden bursting into these crazy blown out arguements with my husband, her sister and I. It’s just seems to be getting worse and worse. I do t know what to do.

    1. Hi Lorraine,

      Is there something missing from your story? You say she got diagnosed but you don’t mention if she’s started medication.

      If she has, I’d say that is the likely culprit — the wrong medication for her or the wrong dosage. Read my book to understand how the medication process should go — but seldom does.

      If the issue isn’t one of medication, well, this year has been an obviously hard one for millions of people. And she’s 17, a senior, and about to “launch”. That can bring a lot of anxiety.

      I hope this helps,
      g

  3. Dear Gina
    I am late diagnose at 32 with ADHD and now I am 34 with ADHD and frankly meds Does wonders. I am fortunately to have been born with high IQ and on top have identifyed and retrospectively applied many ADHD friendly productivity tools and self awareness methods to actually obtain and maintain near health relationships and career. Meds helps alot through and I often Wonder how I ever did get anything done berfore.

    I Stumpled upon your article and have a few follow-up questions regarding ADHD and conflicts.

    First of I have an ill and unintended tendency to inspire conflicts, anger and frustration in others. Ofte with No awareness to what behavior may have caused those both externalised or passive agrressive outburst towards me.

    What I find to be even worse and invilidating is, that the se conflicts tends to spiral in My head as self initiated simulation of feeling and respons scenarios. It’s especially these internal simulation spiral, that Are invilidating to me. I have a patient wife and 3 wonderfull small Boys, but these internal simulation and following negative emotions is not Nice to bring Home and to be stock in.

    Themost frustration conflicts Are worrelated and happens most ofte. When one of the following things happens:

    1) I’m relaying information that I have covered through verious experts or research. I oftem get alot of push back in these situations. I do not understand why as I am not trying to push Any agenda other than presenting what I have learned.

    2) When I ask for permissions to act on something, take initiative to get things done, bring up ideas or respons to the ideas and input of others.

    At the moment I try to avoid and leave those situations and roles that has historically has set meup for conflicts spirals, to save myself and my Family for the subsequent pain.

    As My one of my main long term goals is to be concidered constructive and supportive in professional collaboration and interaction I would love som input on how to achieve this and at the same time rid My self of the invalidating internal conflicts simulations.

    Hope you have som inputs

    1. Hi Jep,

      Hurrah for you. It seems you’ve made some remarkably positive changes in your life with diagnosis, medication, and awareness.

      I’m not sure I exactly understand your “frustration conflicts” and the scenarios in which they arise.

      For example, when you “ask for permissions to act on something,” are you wanting an answer RIGHT NOW? 🙂

      ADHD-fueled impatience can be a bit over-bearing in that regard. Most folks in supervisory positions like to think over a team member’s suggestion before giving the green light. And they don’t like feeling pressured, especially verbally. Putting some of these ideas in writing (succinctly) might be a better option.

      As for when you are “relaying information,” I might have experienced that myself. 🙂 What I’ve learned is that everyone isn’t like me–they don’t like to research an issue to a faretheewell and they especially don’t like it second-hand. 🙂

      Is it possible that you could frankly chat with one of your team members? One that you are friendly with and feel confident won’t mock you, etc.? It would be helpful to know more from someone in these situations with you. You could just say, “I wonder if you could be a sounding board for a minute. I’ve noticed that when I share pertinent research to an issue we’re discussing, I get push back, as if I’m trying to sell these ideas instead of simply sharing research. Do you know what I mean? Could you shed some light on how I might be coming across?”

      With any luck, the person might say, “You bring up great information, but unfortunately, we work with a lot of chuckleheads.” 🙂

      Or maybe you will get really useful information, “You bring up great information, but it’s just too much and in the wrong context. No offense, buddy, but you come off as a know-it-all.”

      Either way, data is always helpful!

      There’s a really great book on Adult ADHD and social situations by an ADHD expert, Michele Novotni, PhD. It’s out of print now but you could buy a used copy. Maybe there is a chapter devoted to work situations.

      Maybe check it out: https://amzn.to/3oUPCK7

      ONE MORE THING: It just might be that your medication regimen could use tweaking. There might be times during the day and into the evening where the medication is wearing off and symptoms are returning, without your noticing. It might also be that you’re taking a stimulant — Adderall, for example — that is known, for some people, to create an “overfocus” or “tunnel vision” mindset. Ask your wife for feedback. Ask her to work with you on fine-tuning the Rx, if that’s an issue.

      I hope this helps!
      g

      https://amzn.to/3oUPCK7

  4. I recognized a couple years back that my now 60 year old female, former best friend with adhd was antagonizing me routinely for the stimulation and chemical rush. She was often contrary and oppositional, but her absolute favorite tactic is mind numbing, incessant blabbering about nothing. She goes on for hours and it is nonsense and impossible to understand. She would do it to the point of putting me into a 4F trauma response, and I know she did it consciously and deliberately after learning what a power trip this gave her.

    I consider it a disgusting display of malignant narcissism. It is hurtful manipulation for self gratification, no matter how much she wants to excuse it as a benign adhd symptom. I even suggested she be evaluated for bipolar spectrum disorder because her behavior would be insane as well as driving me insane. I have often wondered if stimulant meds were a part of the pattern. She said she wasn’t taking them anymore, but I don’t really believe her because she acted like a complete a** yet I swear she thought she was clever and amusing. I will never speak to her again. The torture went on for years.

    1. Hi Lisbeth,

      That sounds awful. This behavior is never a “benign ADHD symptom.”

      There are many possible explanations, including those you include.

      ADHD often gets worse over time, especially with/after menopause.

      I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.

      Gina

  5. Here’s another thought. Try paying attention to when the angry outbursts happen. If they are limited to evenings, what is being described could be ADHD rebound effect. Basically, it’s a return in ADHD symptoms as the ADHD medication is wearing off or has worn off. What was well controlled during the day starts to rear its ugly head again at night when the ADHD med. has worn off.

    I would also be on the lookout for depression and anxiety. It’s a very common sidecar of ADHD. Anger can be part of depression or feelings of overwhelm due to functional challenges associated with ADHD.

    An adjustment in medication or timing of medication or talking to a professional may be needed?

    1. Hi Gwen

      Thanks for pointing out the hazards of “rebounding.”

      Definitely this type of behavior can resurface at those times. Medication strategies should definitely be revisited. Most prescribing that I hear about is done very poorly, with little regard for rebound or treating the full range of symptoms.

      And I did mention comorbids.

      My point with this article, though, is that it can be ADHD itself. As Dr. Amen explains, this can happen with many frontal-lobe conditions.

      Cheers,
      G

    2. Yes, I wondered if it was adderall rebound or something, but she had said she wasn’t taking it anymore. The thing that tipped the scale all the way for good was how pleased with herself she would be…just completely blown up like a balloon with self satisfaction (and dopamine, in all likelihood); and smirking and mocking my distress. I could clearly see it. I would be shaking uncontrollably. There is something else going on. Anyway thank you Gwen and Gina, I appreciate your replies.

    3. You are welcome, Lisbeth. It’s very important to understand these patterns, lest they do you in.

      Mental illness is no joke. “Denial” is no joke. Destructive pathology can follow in its wake.

      take care of yourself,
      g

  6. WOW! This information explains SOOO much! It needs to be taught to all therapists, psychologists, counselors, etc… Many therapists really do not understand ADHD and it’s common companion ‘conflict seeking behavior’.

    1. HI Betsy,

      So true. Many learned about it in my first book, though, and some will learn from my new book: Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.
      g

  7. Kathleen Petrie

    Interesting concept that ADHDers get an adrenaline rush out of arguing. My husband has full blown ADHD and was tested at the Clark (now CAMH). He often uses “the world is falling apart and everything is going to pot”. He has managed to make people burst out crying because of his relentless negative focus on the economy falling apart, etc. Maybe this gives him an adrenaline rush.

    His anger is usually in the form of paranoia. Everyone is out to get him and we are all conspiring against him. In his eyes, I have turned my children against him. Meanwhile , they have had to deal with his uncontrollable verbal diarrhea ,sporadic anger and embarrassing comments especially when around their friends for years and are now at the age where they do not understand why he has not matured and does not know how to control these things.. They feel like they are surpassing him in maturity. They are so angry with him but he thinks it is because I have turned them against him.

    Thanks for this info!

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks for your comment. It is one I’ve heard variations on for years now, unfortunately.

      Yes, “looking for disaster on the horizon” is one way to self-medicate.

      Your second paragraph, I fear, describes a large chunk of the American population right now. They were spending like there was no tomorrow in the 80s, 90s, and this past decade. They thought jobs would always be plentiful and the stock market would stay up up up. So would the houses. Now, the “bubble” has burst and they are surprised and eagerly looking for someone to blame–other than themselves, of course.

      Talking about seeing disaster on the horizon, I’ve seen this coming for many years now. lol! My mother, who came of age during the Great Depression, warned me of the signs, and there they all were.

      I hope you can find a way to encourage your husband to seek mental health treatment — for him, you, and the children.

      g

    2. Kathleen, I feel like you wrote my own response! I knew for years my ex was self-medicating with conflict and paranoia, and, yes, no matter what, he found a way to get me to respond to him, usually by scaring or mistreating the children. I finally got a restraining order against him, and have been able to live peacefully, except for the ongoing legal issues he causes. In court, his side is trying to make this a “mutual marital issue”, where we were both to blame for “fighting”. Any idea how to show this phenomena legally, to prove that he was the aggressor the entire time?

    3. I hope Kathleen responds to you, BigSisterMama.

      Until then, I hope you can find any documentation you might have to support your case.

      Also, you might familiarize yourself with the work of Bill Eddy and the High Conflict Institute.

      I quoted him in my book, about dealing with such persons in family court.

      http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/

      Good luck!
      g

  8. Hi Dr. Parker,

    “May Denial” is fascinating. I completely understand; our local Adult ADHD discussion group often attracts young people who’ve gotten to college and completely flopped thanks to unrecognized ADHD symptoms or “denial” about their severity.

    Even if they had been treated for ADHD in high school, some say that they never really believed it was a problem, that it was mainly in their parent’s imagination. So, when they left home, they stopped all thought of ADHD, stopped medication, etc.

    It’s easy to see how this “deflection” response presents itself in so many areas of unacknowledged conditions.

    As for the military, I was just speaking to a friend about that this week, saying I get so frustrated hearing news reports about the “difficult transition” that soldiers have in returning to civilian life–with never a mention that some chose the military because they could not function well in unstructured civilian life. So there’s no “return” about it!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with us.

    g

  9. Gina,
    We see this phenomenon especially with kids here in the April, May time frame, near the end of school. In our office we call it *May Denial* – it is the end of deflection.

    Juniors, and often Seniors in HS or college, are approaching the end of the year’s grading period, and they are suddenly facing the fact that the deteriorating grades will prove they:

    1. Have not been taking their meds
    2. Do have an ADHD problem, and, though smart, are tanking with irresponsibility
    3. Did create the conflicts all spring with their parents over marijuana, boys, or girls, or study rules
    4. Are unable to rule the world
    5. Can no longer dodge and run

    During these weeks unresolved pressures clearly originate as their own problem, and the denial is broken – so they come rushing with considerable pressure into the office requesting a med fix, can become suicidal, or dangerous.

    In adults it becomes *Transition Denial* seen even with bright senior officers in the military who have mastered the military system, created a safe mastery of structure and now have to move into the unknown multiple variables of civilian live. They can become dangerous [it’s the wife’s fault], have affairs, and create all kinds of mayhem until they actually enter that new civilian reality. This is a great time for coaching with ADHD coaches and would be a great specialty for any coach near military bases.

    The *End of Deflection?*

    Thanks for bringing this interesting phenomenon back to us.
    cp

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