What Every Couple Needs to Know About Emotional Flooding
The Escalator Goes Up…
When I first started working with 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. 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 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?
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.
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, a time-out is essential.
Perception Becomes Reality
It has been said that perception becomes reality. In the case of emotional flooding, 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. 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 Jordan M.A., LCPC, is an empathic counselor and coach who helps individuals and couples create healthy communication and connection, with greater confidence and self-knowledge. She can help you move beyond difficulties, to create meaning and life satisfaction.
WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THESE BAD DATES IN THE PANDEMIC? Late-night FaceTiming, nonstop texting — and major disappointment when you meet IRL. We’re all so thirsty, we’re seeing connections that might not actually exist…
Have you ever felt like you were walking on eggshells around your partner? Like no matter what you say, it is taken as a criticism and erupts in defensiveness or walking away? Stephanie Oliver, M.A., UKCP Family and Systemic Therapist, shares why this feeling is so common in relationships and what you and your partner can do to heal your relationship.
Healing your relationship after infidelity is a long journey – but not impossible. Dr. Rachel Merlin, online relationship coach and Florida couples therapist shares the Infidelity Recovery Stages for healing your relationship after an affair.
Being honest with yourself is a fundamental part of authentic personal growth… but it can be hard to do. Today’s podcast with therapist and life coach Josephine Marin can help you get clarity about your authentic truth so that you can move forward fearlessly.
Do you struggle to feel like you are good enough? It’s not just you: Many people — no matter how successful or accomplished — still feel like they’re not *quite* measuring up. Today’s podcast does a deep dive into HOW to feel that you’re good enough, push back against self-doubt and overcome “imposter syndrome.” Listen now!
Are you mind-reading your relationship?? Online relationship coach, Ben Jones, M.S., shares how to avoid miscommunication in relationships with these online couples counseling communication tips.
Feeling overwhelmed by it all? In this episode of the podcast with Dr. Lisa, Denver psychologist Dr. Danielle spills the beans on how to cultivate the type of “organized mindset” that reduces stress, lowers anxiety, and restores order by helping you feel more in control of your time, your stuff and your life.
Self-love for a lot of us tends to end up in the lower priority pile – but the truth is, if you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t have anything to give to others! Online therapist and Texas Life-Coach, Kaily Moore, M.S., LMFTA is sharing How to Practice Self-Love on the blog!
The explosion in Lebanon has shattered more than windows and the structures that hold them in place. It has shattered the hearts and dreams of millions all over the globe. Online therapist, Tania Chikhani, MBA, M.A., shares tips for processing and healing within.