Self-control keeps our relationships running smoothly. It helps us keep initial, emotional responses to things that bother us in check, and it lets us consider what we want to say out loud and how we want to say it based on how it will affect other people.
When self-control runs thin, we have a harder time tempering out behavior in this way. We’re more likely to react impulsively when we’re frustrated or disappointed, and we’re less likely to consider the consequences of our words.
You might already be aware, from personal experience or from reading this blog, that people with ADHD tend to have a deficit in self-control. Now, a new study is out showing an effect of this deficit: it can cause relationship conflict, especially when the person with ADHD has already had their self-control depleted.
The idea behind what psychologists call self-control “depletion” is that self-control isn’t an infinite resource. However much self-control you have to begin with, you start to “use up” some of your self-control if you perform an activity that demands high self-control. Intuitively, we’re all familiar with this idea in daily life: even people with excellent self-control need a break if they perform cognitively intense tasks for an extended period of time.
Of course, if you start with low self-control, then your self-control might get used up, or “depleted,” more quickly. This is essentially what the researchers behind the new study found.
In their experiment, they had 32 couples (20 couples where at least one partner had ADHD and 12 where neither partner had ADHD) collaborate on a problem solving task. Before the task, some of the couples completed an activity that was designed to wear down their self-control.
It turned out that during the problem solving task, adults with ADHD who’d had their self-control depleted engaged in more negative communication with their partners. This wasn’t true for adults without ADHD who’d had their self-control depleted, or adults with ADHD who hadn’t had their self-control depleted.
So it seems that ADHD combined with situations that wear down the ability to self-regulate may be a recipe for relationship conflict. This is worth keeping in mind for people with ADHD and their partners.
It suggests that becoming more aware of how depleted self-control can spiral into interpersonal conflict could improve communication. Concrete ways of dealing with this problem could be identifying activities that are especially taxing of self-control and perhaps addressing topics that pose a challenge for communication at a time when self-control isn’t depleted. At the very least, it sheds some light on how the ADHD deficit associated with self-control can make people with ADHD more prone to relationship conflict.
Image: Flickr/Angelina Earley