Relationships

Why We Crave the Drama That Sabotages Relationships

ADHD brains crave stimulation, and they just might chase relationship drama to get it. Next time you catch yourself (or your partner) falling into these common traps — outlined here by Dr. Daniel Amen — take a step back and re-evaluate.

Marriage is a partnership in which two people depend on each other for support, intimacy, and companionship. A person with ADHD can be undependable and unpredictable, which complicates this partnership but hardly makes it impossible. When you understand what goes on in the mind of an ADHDer, you are better able to develop systems for healthy functioning — together. That’s when you can enjoy the thrilling, scary, fun roller coaster ride of loving a person with ADHD. 
Marriage is a partnership in which two people depend on each other for support, intimacy, and companionship. A person with ADHD can be undependable and unpredictable, which complicates this partnership but hardly makes it impossible. When you understand what goes on in the mind of an ADHDer, you are better able to develop systems for healthy functioning — together. That’s when you can enjoy the thrilling, scary, fun roller coaster ride of loving a person with ADHD. 

Many people with attention deficit disorder unnecessarily create too much drama in their lives as a way to boost adrenaline and stimulate their frontal lobes. These interpersonal “games” are not engaged in willingly; they are driven by the needs of the ADHD brain. Most deny that they engage in such behaviors, but I’ve heard about them from many patients with all 7 types of ADD.

Let’s look at these games, so you can catch yourself when you are “playing” them.

“Let’s Have a Problem”

Many people with ADHD pick on others to get a rise out of them, to get them upset, to make them crazy. Family members of my patients say, “I’m tired of fighting with my brother (sister, mother, son). He (she) always has to have a problem.”

There is a reason why people with ADHD play this game: When the ADHD brain doesn’t have enough stimulation, it looks for ways to increase its activity. Being angry or negative has an immediate stimulating effect on the brain. When you get upset, your body produces increased amounts of adrenaline, raising the heart rate and brain activity.

“I Bet I Can Get You to Yell at Me”

Many with ADHD are masters at getting others to scream and yell. Such behaviors give an adrenaline rush to the individual with ADHD, but they may lead to serious consequences, such as divorce, fights at school, or being fired from a job. This game is not planned. The individual with ADHD senses vulnerability in others and works on them until something gives.

[Free Download: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship]

When I teach parents, siblings, and spouses to become less reactive, the individual with ADHD may step up the bad behavior. It seems that the they go through withdrawal as others become more tolerant. When he can no longer get the adrenaline-anger rush, he goes after it full force.

“I Like to Say the First Thing That Comes to Mind”

A number of my patients have said to me, “I am brutally honest.” They wear the trait like a badge. I reply that “brutal” honesty is not helpful. Relationships require tact. When you say the first thing that comes to mind, you may hurt someone’s feelings or give away secrets that were entrusted to you.

“It’s Your Fault”

This may be the most dangerous ADHD game of all. Here, the person with ADHD reasons that he or she is not responsible for the problems in his or her life. Everything is someone else’s fault. People who play this game do not perform properly at school, on the job, or at home because of the lousy boss, the ineffective teacher, or the mean brother or sister. Playing this game too much can ruin a life. When you blame someone else for your problems, you become a victim of that other person, and you give up the power to change anything.

Opposition seems to increase adrenaline in the ADHD brain. Some people with ADHD are argumentative and oppositional with all the people in their lives. This game has one rule: The first reaction to any request is “no, no way, never.” I often ask my patients, “How many times, out of 10, when your mother (father, teacher, boss) asks you to do something, will you do it the first time without arguing or fighting?” Many of them say, “Maybe two or three times out of 10.”

[Sick of Arguing? It Might Be Time For a Smarter Compromise]

“I Say the Opposite of What You Say”

People who play this game take the opposite position of the other person in the conversation, whether they believe the opposite or not. If your spouse complains that you do not listen to him, you deny it and say that he doesn’t listen to you. If a parent tells a child to clean his messy room, he says that his room isn’t messy. The need to oppose seems more important than the truth.

“My Thoughts Are More Terrible Than Your Thoughts”

Many people with ADHD are experts at finding negative thoughts and focusing on them for long periods of time. They need the negativity to generate the mental energy to get work done. If 10 good things and one bad thing happen, this person focuses on the bad thing. Brain imaging specialist Mark S. George, M.D., demonstrated that negative thoughts have a stimulating effect on the brain and positive thoughts cooled overall brain activity.

“Let’s Call It Even”

Whenever someone has a complaint or criticism, the player of this game takes on the complaint as his own. If a husband is unhappy because the house isn’t clean, the wife complains that he doesn’t help enough. If a wife complains that her husband doesn’t listen enough, the husband complains about the same thing.

“Fighting as Foreplay”

Many couples have described this fascinating game: There is an intense fight, then a period of making up, which includes making love. The swing of emotions is quick and dramatic. One minute you are fighting, ready to leave the relationship, the next, you are making love and feeling blissful.

The first step in eliminating these behaviors is to notice that you engage in them. The way to take control is to get the best treatment for your ADD, whether that be medication, counseling, or coaching.

Excerpted from Healing ADD: The Break-Through Program that Allows You to See and Heal the 7 types of ADD, by Daniel G. Amen, M.D. Copyright 2013

[Is ADHD Threatening Your Relationship?]

Updated on July 28, 2020

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  1. I have a daughter with fairly severe ADHD. How we we, as parents, coach our kids through these behaviors? It feels like anything I do simply escalates the issue.

  2. I recognise this may well be true from some ( and the article does indeed use the word some in fairness to it) and I think I might have even witnessed in some, thought I can’t deem to indisputably know the inner working and motivates behind another person, I would merely say that that yes that could seem like a possible and plausible explanation for what is going on.
    However, At the risk of seeming argumentative or “I say to opposite of what you say” . I feel it is a bit of a cruel circular argument and trap to posit that if you feel you don’t do that the response can be “well you would say that people like you are not aware.”

    I do not thrive on arguments but I force myself to speak out not only for myself but for others who can’t but the black lash to do so is extremely painful. I would love people to be persuaded by my perspective, I would feel more relief than disappointment. I wouldn’t then scrabble around to find something else until I hit on something that would create a drama. Drama distresses me greatly and as an adult who is lucky enough to live in a free enough country and culture that I can isolate and keep myself to myself to some degree if need be and avoid too much interaction. As I heard someone say once “the only time you can really be yourself is when you are alone.“
    I find ordinary conversations that people strike up generally really horrible and unbearable as they often involve gossiping and defaming others, prejudices or complaining that someone doesn’t know their place and isn’t under their thumb, like an offspring or a daughter in law because they do things differently or have different values and perspectives. I am unable to be fake and just agree and tell them what they want to hear so try to avoid people and conversations as much as possible but if I’m caught up in it I have to challenge ( as persuasively and respectfully as possible) but it is never liked and that upsets me makes doubt my own judgment and feel like I’m a bad person because I should be able to see that emperor is wearing new cloths; it doesn’t stimulate me.
    If someone is being purely being racist, with any out nuances, which has become more and more the norm in the current climate it seems, then I can’t just sigh to myself and say “ yeah your right.” Unfortunately for I feel obligated and sense of responsibility to try and change people’s hearts and minds.

    My parents were from my point of view extreme snobs, I did not share their view that I must not develop a local accent , which I did despite constant “ correction” anger and pressure and shaming and guilt tripping from parents as various methods to bring me in line, I felt in nothing more than classist and competitive keeping up appearances that I must not live a warm and relaxed life by doing anything that could be seen as “common “ . We lived in a predominantly working class area where most were perfectly pleasant people, with their own ignorances and prejudice about other things no doubt, but just people . But we were meant to be better. My father viewed anyone who did not dress “smartly” and have Received Pronunciation with extreme disdain. As children we are told what to think, feel, say and wear.
    I was never simply guided in defining who I was purely by unthinkingly choosing whatever might be the opposite of them, i just was different to them and it was authentic to what I truly felt believe and often had thought about. However from their point of view it would have been see as deliberate, awkward and “ rebellious “ for its own sake. I would have loved it if being me was acceptable to them. I wouldn’t have ripped off my bohemian/ “hippie” garb that was a genuine joyful free expression of my tastes, creativity and what I related to /identified with, if they had said, “ oh you look nice”. It would have made me feel safe and happy. Yet we are meant to repress our true selfs in exchange for acceptance, approval and attachment. I tried that for a while when I got older and it made me ill. Yet my parents would have read this article and felt vindicated. That individuation is an act of spite opposition and seeking drama and argument for stimulation and its own sake. Yes I was dramatic and extreme in my objections as a child and teenager etc because I felt so overwhelmed by the constant criticism and control and the forcing of others will on me. I used to complain I wasn’t a robot merely be programmed and worked with a remote control. I still can not cope that even as an adult people do not respect boundaries and it makes me feel like a powerless child again. Though some people , often more open minded and educated people find me, if unconventional or passionate about “ injustices “ as I see them, as kind and that I have integrity and some like the artsy way I dress and some thank for speaking out or highlighting a curtain point. Because I have been conditioned to see myself as wrong and bad and perhaps Indeed assumed to be in many ways the way this article describes and for the reasons it describes, and which Is then suggest to deny and feel that not how I intuitively feel about my inner self or that believe that I do have quite at lot of self awareness can be taken as further proof because that be typical to feel or say that. Is it no surprise that a counsellor would observe that I appear to have a lot of self doubt and do not trust my own judgement.

    New thinking has suggested that children and adults who were perceived as Oppositional defiant have been found to be willing cooperative and open if the tone is changed. Many people in society are more thick skinned and accept being spoken to , or down to, harshly abruptly officiously authoritarian and impatiently by those who are granted or feel they have superior status. Many people on the AD(h)D spectrum have a strong sense of fairness and appear to also experience humiliation and shame more acutely.
    Children if AD( h) D hear a much higher percentage of negative statements than thier peers though out their lives. Children with ADHD know they are “different,” which is rarely experienced as a good thing. “They may develop low self-esteem because they realize they fail to get engaged and finish what they start, and because children make no distinction between what you do and who you are. Shame can become a dominant emotion into adulthood as harsh internal dialogues, or criticism from others, becomes ingrained.” https://www.additudemag.com/symptoms-of-add-hyperarousal-rejection-sensitivity/. Is hard to understand that in defense of their stigmatised ego they might “ call it even”. It seems to be a common, if not always help response, with “normies“ too plus people are often highly hypocritical and that can make it harder to take despite aspirations to be self possessed and mature. Yes it might be irrelevant at the time to the point being made but if a less than perfect or self aware person is constantly riding you it might be an understandable defence in anyone. Some that are seen to be symptomatic may actually just normal responses from anyone under the similar pressures and circumstances. We seem to pathologise anything that doesn’t conform or deviates from a majority pressect. Many people in history who lateR caused “ progression “ In some area would have judged and treated in a similar away. How outrageous were those who fought for women to vote when most believed it to be wrong or the abolition of slavery. How families considered their off spring to be insane and defiant to suggest such things.

    I am aware that this will come across to many as the extremely lengthy rambling of mad woman who has done nothing more than prove th articles point. But someone somewhere might be glad that someone said what they felt and taught and be relieved they are not the only one and that’s why I not so it will have a stimulating effect on my brain. I maybe a maverick in AD(h)D circles but I prefer peace but my integrity will not always allow myself to that easy option.

  3. Eza, thank you so much for your reply! I feel very similarly.

    This article does not ring true to my experience in life. Furthermore, I fear it may lead neurotypical people searching for a better understanding of a person with an attention problem in their lives to discount and delegitimize that person’s experience and perspective. Which is a deeply harmful pattern those of us with ADD/ADHD are perpetually subjected to.

    It appears this article was published six years ago, I think it may be time to remove it from the website. I think it perpetuates illegitimately blaming people with ADHD and misrepresents their motivations, challenges, and abilities.

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