Written By Page Rutledge
A Simple Approach to Ease Flooding
Q: When I get into fights with my wife, I get so overwhelmed that I just shut down. I know exactly what she is going to say, and I know exactly how I’m going to feel when I hear it, so I figure, what’s the point? I’ve heard it all before! Got any tips on how to deal?
A: Well yes, I do. What you are experiencing is the limbic system’s response to overwhelming input, commonly known as fight or flight. I use the term flooding.
What is flooding? What do I mean by flooding? And of course I am not talking about Katrina-type flooding, although the feeling is just as overwhelming as it was to the residents of New Orleans.
Flooding is the emotional feeling you get during a conflict when you feel like running out of the room and leaving your partner behind. You leap to the decision that the discussion is useless because, well, it is the same old circular mess. It happens on issues you get stuck in, and in fights where old hurts are dragged into the mix.
In nasty exchanges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and threatened; it is the feeling of being emotionally unsafe. Imagine a wild animal backed into the corner by a predator, with the fight, flight, or freeze response triggered. That is the picture of what emotional flooding feels like. It is a state of insecurity and helplessness.
At this point, your interests narrow down to self-preservation. Your heart rate goes up, and your ability to process incoming information with any credibility stops. According to John Gottman’s research, from his book The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (2011), in heterosexual relationships, men are more often flooded than women. Gottman also notes that contempt, a primary cause of flooding, is the number one predictor of divorce. This is when one partner assumes a one-up position over the other with a belief in their own superiority in almost any dimension.
Your physiology changes during flooding. As previously mentioned, your blood pressure increases, and if it exceeds approximately 100 beats/minute, (baseline rates differ according to physical health), the discussion will no longer be productive. In couple’s therapy, this can be detected using a simple pulse oximeter.
A SIMPLE APPROACH TO EASE FLOODING
In order to address flooding, practice self-soothing techniques. This is done by pausing the discussion and taking a break. During the break, the partners should visually separate. The flooded partner must go and do an activity that is both distracting and relaxing. Choose from any number of activities including deep breathing, self-administered progressive relaxation, listening to music, reading a magazine, working on a simple task, or taking a walk around the block, but the real point is that it must NOT be a break where you go into dress rehearsal for how you will take down your partner when the discussion resumes. You are not plotting revenge or dwelling on thoughts like “How could you?”, or the ever popular, “What is the matter with you?”. These are rhetorical questions that essentially become an attack on the other’s character, and will never be happily answered by your partner, nor will it be productive for you.
NO, YOU MAY NOT HAVE THE LAST WORD!
All of this has to do with your ability to self-regulate your emotions successfully. This can be really hard to achieve when you are both hurt and angry, hence the advised brief separation. It is extremely important that when the flooded partner asks for a break, the other may not “get in the last word” before granting it. That is a guarantee for continuation down the toilet of nastiness. The partner that signals needing a break is to be granted the request immediately.
It’s tough stuff, no doubt. But, if you have arguments that are filled with tension and repetition, try this technique.