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.
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.
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!
A version of this post first appeared on April 26, 2010