“Too much fighting” was a top reason for leaving the relationship, according to ADHD Partner respondents who had either divorced or separated from or who had stopped dating a partner with (untreated) ADHD. I’ll post that survey data soon, but given my recent experience at the farmer’s market (“Knowing the Facts Makes You Gaslight-Proof”) and the partison rancor in this country, the topic of “fighting as self-medication” is on my mind.
So many factors contribute to the sometimes unrelenting arguments and conflict that happen in relationships affected by undiagnosed/untreated ADHD:
- “Denial” of ADHD symptoms (which often has both physiological and psychological underpinnings)
- A co-existing condition such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder, autistic-spectrum disorder, or even anxiety and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder.
Mostly, though, it’s ignorance around these factors that fuels the fighting on both sides. 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.
Chapter 7: More Mystifying Twists and Turns (on the ADHD Roller Coaster)
Conflict as “Self-Medication”
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.”
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? That fighting can make some people feel calmer, and that they would be unaware of that fact. But believe it.
I asked support-group members for personal examples of the following self-medicating patterns. “Until I read about these behaviors,” Gail says, “my husband and I—and our therapists—had thought that much more than ADHD was going on here. Learning about this pattern of fighting and stimulation was our lifeline to sanity.”
See if you can recognize any of these self-medicating patterns:
“Let’s have a problem”
Lucy, who operates a business with her husband, sums it up this way: “Every morning, it’s as if he can’t start work until he’s put his mark on my day, the way a dog marks his territory.” He gets energized for focusing on work by negatively obsessing on imaginary business problems until Lucy’s energy gets ground down to a nub. It took years for Lucy to realize what was happening. By then he’d sabotaged their best business opportunities. Now they struggle to hold on.
“No, no way, never, you can’t make me”
Oppositional behavior—for example, disagreeing with whatever the other person says or refusing any request—can also increase adrenaline in the brain of some people with ADHD, Amen says. But again, for the partner, it’s extremely draining. Shelby says her ex-husband frequently went into “automatic no mode”: “I could ask nicely or blow my stack and it made no difference. The whole point was that he refused to do it—take out the trash, come to dinner, or something more important. I called him Mr. No.”
“I say the opposite of what you say”
You could call this a subcategory of oppositionality. Or, you could call it the weather report. That’s because even the safest of topics, like the weather, can unleash a storm. “If I just casually mentioned it’s hot outside, my husband would insist it’s not hot outside,” Madeleine says. “Then for hours he would attempt to prove me wrong.” A friend once commented that Madeleine’s husband would argue with a brick wall. “Thank God that this self-medicating behavior went away when he started legitimate medication,” she says. “He even has actual conversations now; you know, the back-and-forth kind, instead of delivering monologues.”
“Let’s call it even”
Amen calls this a game of deflection, wherein the individual with ADHD adopts the complaint someone has made about them and hurls it back at that person. This maneuver may not seem overtly self-stimulating; the adrenal kick comes with the challenge of mounting a good defense. As we’ve all heard, the best defense is a good offense.
Randi experienced this when she told her boyfriend she’d appreciate more help around the house. “You just think I don’t do anything,” he responded, “but I do things that you don’t even notice.” Asked for specifics, he said that he takes out the garbage and, oh, other things that he can’t think of right now. Then he got very worked up about it, dramatically sighing in exasperation, before launching into a lengthy lecture that “It takes two people to run a household, you know.” It’s amazing, Randi says, “because he really thinks I’ll be fooled into believing him if he’s insistent enough, and darn it, for too long I was.”
The chapter offers more examples, as well as tips to avoid being pulled into a “self-medicating” argument.
Bottom line: The more you understand these behaviors and stop “taking the bait,” the better you’ll be able to stop the “arguments” that have nothing to do with legitimate issues and everything to do with subconsciously seeking stimulation.