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Conflict as a Form of Self-Medication

Understanding Why Your ADHD Partner Thrives on Anger
Relationships always take work but being in a relationship with someone who has ADHD can take even more effort. One of the top reasons people list on why they end a relationship with an ADHD partner is too much fighting. In ADHD this is known as “conflict as a form of self-medication”. This is often perpetuated when symptoms are ignored or denied by the partner afflicted with the disorder. Today’s question will attempt to begin to uncover and demystify this phenomenon.
Kicked to the Curb
Kaylee and Kirk are newlyweds living in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the hardest aspects to their relationship that they have not been able to overcome according to Kaylee is how her husband how he seems to “like getting angry”.

Kaylee’s Question:

Help, I think my ADHD husband actually likes, needs, or has to find something to be upset about. It seems like no matter how accommodating I am, or how much I try to tip toe around things or not bring up potentially upsetting topics, he still seems to look for any reason to be upset. If he is in the mood to be upset (which is a lot of the time), he will find something to be angry about, and to make things worse; he will inevitably turn it around on me and say it is my fault he is so upset. I try and keep my cool, but he will keep on with things until I have finally lost my temper, then he accuses me of having an anger management problem. Once he has gotten his “fix” of making me upset, he walks away feeling like he is right and goes on with his day. Meanwhile, I am left feeling wrecked. I am at my wits end, and just don’t understand why he treats me like this. I don’t think I am a terrible wife, but I feel both ashamed of how I blow up, but I feel justified in my response to his relentless behavior. Help, I feel trapped, upset, worried, and don’t know what to do.

Our Reply:

Kaylee, our heart goes out to you and you are not alone. Like so many partners of people with ADHD it can seem absolutely mystifying how someone who says they love you can behave so terribly on a regular basis. The good news is that believe it or not, your husbands need to be angry, upset, and always picking fights can be caused by your ADHD partner’s biological craving for stimulation.
We see this all the time in our work with couples. According to psychiatrist and ADHD researcher, 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.” We found a quote online that says it best “My husband gets his adrenaline kick, but I just plain feel kicked.”
It is hard to believe that people with ADHD often connect through conflict or that fighting and arguing can actually help some people with ADHD feel clearer, calmer, and more productive. What is even harder to swallow is that most of the time the ADHD partner is totally unaware of what they are doing.
It is critical that both partners become very clear about what is going on here and believe it!
Couples often come to us with tons of examples of this type of self-medicating behavior. Until couples become aware this type of behavior pattern they often think that there is something bigger than ADHD in the picture. Once we are able to make both partners aware of this pattern of fighting and stimulation seeking they often feel like they are not doomed to a life of negativity.
What Can We Do?
It is important to seek therapy and treatment for the ADHD symptoms. Even more important is educating yourself and your partner on the lesser known symptoms such as using conflict as self-medication. Often we find that couples separate because they think they may just be incompatible when in fact, there is a bigger issue at hand that can be dealt with. ADHD affects many adults which in turn end up affecting their relationships. However, we are confident that with the right toolkit filled with knowledge, coping skills, and treatment, even this obstacle can be overcome.