When ADHD Leads to “Self-Medicating” With Arguments

adhd relationship argument

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.

First, nothing about ADHD is universal, and 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 or conflict-seeking behaviors can take place anywhere–in traffic, online, with co-workers, supervisors, spouses, and children.

Conflict Is 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.

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.

A Particular Type of Couple Conflict

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 and 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. But that doesn’t make it any less exhausting—or destructive—for everyone involved.

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.

Conflict as “Self-Medication”

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.ADHD arguing

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.

As you both become mindful of this 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.

Self-Medicating with Other Negative (But Stimulating) 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:

“Self-Medicating” ADHD By Watching Atrocities?

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!

Peace out,

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

11 thoughts on “When ADHD Leads to “Self-Medicating” With Arguments”

  1. 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.


  2. 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.

  3. 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.


    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.


      Good luck!

  4. 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.


  5. 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.

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