Oppositional Defiance in Adults

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples used are composites derived from multiple cases.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a disorder of childhood. Children with ODD are uncooperative and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. The condition often begins when children are toddlers, and may reflect problems with becoming independent from a parent or caregiver – anyone to whom they are emotionally attached. Conflicted between independence and dependence, they become more and more resentful of rules and restrictions on their behavior.

Although not typically diagnosed in adults as a disorder, oppositional defiance can be expressed as a chronic adult behavior pattern. Habitual actions would include temper tantrums; arguing; refusing requests; preoccupation with self and pathological narcissism; questioning rules and refusing to follow them; purposely doing things to annoy or upset others; being easily annoyed by others; speaking harshly or unkindly; seeking revenge or being vindictive. Of course, at any given point in time, anyone could exhibit some of these behaviors, but many occur habitually, we can characterize the individual as being an oppositional defiant type.

The adult pattern could have its roots in childhood. For instance, the victim might have unresolved anger toward a parent. This anger would be released when conflict with other adults – particularly authority figures – occurs. The authority represents the parent. Unresolved anger from childhood could also be turned inward, and the victim blames him/herself for the childhood conflict. Such blame could lead to instability in interpersonal relationships, especially when dealing with a spouse, significant other, boss, or co-worker. Whatever the case, the ODD adult is not pleasant to be with.

Felicia is an extreme example of the ODD pattern, and her case shows the influence of unresolved childhood anger toward a parent. Felicia had a lot of emotional upheaval in childhood. Her parents divorced when she was six and she lived with her father to escape her alcoholic mother. Her father eventually remarried, and he was overly controlling and dictatorial toward both his wife and Felicia. She harbored anger toward her dad but was unable to express it, fearing retaliation. When she was 16, her boyfriend raped her. They were “making out” but he escalated the situation despite her pleas of, “No, stop! I don’t want to.” She kept the episode a secret, and was eventually able to end the relationship. The episode, however, intensified her mostly unconscious anger toward men, anger she didn’t know how to resolve.

Ironically, as she grew older, Felicia only felt comfortable with abusive, confrontational, angry men. They were a part of her “father comfort zone,” meaning she was used to confrontational interactions with men and felt a sense of predictability and control. On the other hand, when a man showered Felicia with warmth, support, consideration, and understanding, she experienced anxiety because she didn’t know how to handle those gestures. She didn’t know how to return affection and it’s no wonder her multiple marriages were a bust.

Felicia’s third husband, Kurt, was much like her, and their arguments were monumental; she was finally symbolically confronting her dad and releasing years of pent-up anger and frustration. Physical and emotional abuse from both Felicia and Kurt resulted in multiple calls to the police, and their home life was, at best, chaotic. At one point they tried marital counseling, and over several years one or both of them had therapy sessions. They tried psychiatrists and different medications; they tried psychologists and different types of treatment strategies. Soon they found that going to sessions together was a mistake because issues that came up would just provide fuel for arguing later. The counseling and medications did not really lessen their personal insecurities or their anger with one another – and for Felicia, her anger toward her dad. Neither she nor Kurt could be intimate with the other, nor refrain from lashing out at the other. Even on rare “pleasant” days, eventually something would come up that would cause stress and tension, and they would once again fight like two rams locked in battle. Will they stay together unhappily until death?  “You’ve heard of soul mates?” says Felicia. “I guess we’re devil mates!”

Do you know someone who fits the ODD pattern? A co-worker, partner, acquaintance, spouse? Obviously, their coping abilities are terrible; they do not solve problems, they create them. Their actions are designed to help them avoid the inner turmoil tormenting and terrifying them – the repressed, never-resolved emotional conflicts that require them to maintain a pathological character armor to protect them from having to face who they are, and sabotage their life in the process. They are perfect models of ineffective coping.

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