Emotional Flooding in Relationships
When I first started working with marriage counseling couples who sought to improve their communication and relationship satisfaction, I noticed a pattern in their descriptions of conflict. It centered around escalations in arguments and power struggles within the relationship. They would describe a situation where the more verbal and communicative partner wanted to “get to the bottom” of a disagreement, and the other more pragmatic, “laid back” personality retreated in direct proportion to the escalating frustration of their partner.
Many couples are unaware that this escalation is even taking place. The psychologist John Gottman, who several decades ago pioneered groundbreaking couples research, shares a wealth of knowledge that now informs our understanding.
What is really happening when one half of the couple retreats in the face of escalating emotion? The term for this is “flooding”: it’s a nervous system that’s kicked into overdrive. Gottman defines emotional flooding in relationships as “a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving conversation.”
Where’s the Danger of Emotional Flooding?
This biological reactivity was at one time adaptive and necessary for our very survival. But that was millions of years ago when our main concern centered around escaping the jaws of a hungry saber-toothed tiger.
The stress reactions that enable us to fight or flee, in our modern world, can wreak havoc on our sense of well-being. Familiar and repetitive disagreements morph into something else entirely.
The danger here is that when we experience emotional flooding in relationships – we react in a way that is often chaotic and desperate (in order to “save” our relationship). This can look like one partner reaching desperately to the other, and the other partner reacting to what feels chaotic and uncomfortable and then shutting down or withdrawing from the situation altogether.
A Disappearing Act
Most couples wouldn’t imagine that chemistry has anything to do with their partner’s disappearance, but it really does. And knowing this can help to defuse the escalation. Stress hormones are racing, and without a predator to escape from, the brain is essentially confused by the lack of “real” danger. It quickly appoints a new target as the perceived threat: the emotional attack.
Throw in a few cognitive distortions (“He never cares what I’m feeling, he’s just punishing me by running away, again!” and “She is always on my back about something, I can’t get a word in edgewise, and I can’t think straight”)…and the die is cast.
For the one left behind doing the yelling, it feels like deliberate abandonment, meant to punish. For the one who walked away or shut down and refused to engage, a retreat to a quieter safer space seems like the only choice to make.
It comes as a surprise to the person who was on the attack that, far from being a deliberate punishment, the retreater cannot hear any more. They feel overwhelmed, and both partners’ sympathetic nervous systems have essentially shorted out. In order to reverse the emotional flooding in relationships, a time-out is essential.
Perception Becomes Reality in Emotional Flooding
It has been said that perception becomes reality. In the case of emotional flooding in relationships, this is clearly the case. If you believe your partner’s behaviors are purposeful acts meant to upset you or shut you down, your own reactions are going to be driven by those convictions. But what if your partner may not be able to handle another round of argument because their heart is pounding, their pulse is elevated, and they’re not processing the conversation anymore?
If we take a moment to suspend the doubt about the other’s intention, to open up a space for the possibility that what we think we are seeing may not be accurate…then what other ways might we be able to engage during times of conflict?
A flood does not need to become a tsunami; you can learn to equip yourself with the tools to avert that disaster every. single. time.
Tips for Breaking the Emotional Flooding Cycle
As a Couples Counselor and Marriage Therapist I work with my clients through these cycles of emotional flooding in relationships. I want to share with you tips for breaking this cycle and moving forward into a healthier, happier relationship and life.
- At a time when you and your partner are calm and communicating easily, make a plan for how you will call a time-out in the future when conflict is becoming heated. Decide how long the break will last. Then stick to the plan. As with all relationship growth, commitment and trust are essential ingredients.
- Challenge and question the catastrophic narrative that is taking over your mind. Focus on self-awareness in the moment; become a friendly person who is sitting next to you, observing all your reactions and behaviors. What would you say to the you that is sitting next to you? Offer your best advice on how to calm down.
- Create your own defusing routine. Mine is to count backwards by 7’s from 100; yours can be whatever mildly challenging cognitive task will distract you from focusing on your emotions.
- Do some mindful breathing or a short meditation to break the flooding response. Make a commitment to try self-soothing…whether you are the retreater or the pursuer of conflict.
- Turn your attention to your five senses: what do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? These are neutral (as opposed to positive or negative) focal points, and will allow your sympathetic nervous system some time to recover.
- As you become increasingly aware of the cycle, stop as soon as you notice your elevated heart rate or blood pressure. If an apology is called for, offer it. Start again. Remember that all couples have conflict, and you don’t have to do it perfectly to make it better.
A Last Note About the “Time-Out”
A final thought about time-outs during conflict: the time spent away from your partner should not be spent planning your next responses, or fuming over what has transpired. A true time-out is meant to quiet the nervous system and return you to a place of peace, where you are ready to re-engage with your loved one.
You will find once you understand the dynamics of emotional flooding, you will be far less likely to end up in that heightened emotional standoff in the first place. This will make it much easier to reconnect with your loved one after a disagreement. You can use your new anti-flooding superpower to create a more secure bond and know more about what your partner needs from you.
Wishing you all the best,
Lisa J., MA, LCPC
Meet Lisa: an empathic couples therapist, individual therapist, and life coach with years of experience. Lisa helps individuals and couples create healthy communication and connection by increasing confidence and self-knowledge. She can help you heal your heart after loss, move beyond difficulties and feel empowered to create meaning, joy, and life satisfaction.
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