Issue #19| October 2010

Today’s Topic: When it's time to stop arguing: Understanding "flooding"

Dear friends,

This newsletter tackles the hot topic of arguments -- and what to do when they escalate to the point that both parties are emotionally reactivated and upset. We've all been there!

I'd love to hear of any additional strategies that you and your partner may have developed for diffusing those tense moments.

Warmest regards,

Something to think about

Old pain can easily get stimulated by current interactions.

~Patricia Love & Stephen Stosny

Triggered feelings

I am often asked by clients how they can better deal with their emotional reactivity with a loved one. They aren’t talking about minor irritations with a partner. They mean those times when a conversation suddenly “goes ballistic” – and they feel like their partner has become “the enemy”.

It may happen during a conversation that starts out calmly and blows up unexpectedly. Or it may be a discussion that begins testily and goes downhill from there.

Usually they are knocked for a loop by something that their partner says or does - and they find themselves upset and triggered into intense feelings of fear, shame, anger or hurt. Or maybe they don't even know what emotions they're feeling. They just know that they're upset. And all of a sudden, their loving partner feels exceedingly unsafe to be around.

Once emotionally triggered, some individuals lash out and say things that they regret. Others collapse into a feeling of helplessness and withdraw.

Sound familiar?

Every now and then, most relationships experience a conflict that is emotionally triggering for one or both partners.

So my clients' questions are important ones. How can we more constructively deal with our emotional reactivity? How can we prevent our conflicts from escalating when we are emotionally triggered? How do we know when to continue an intense conversation - and when to give it a rest?

Through some trial and error over the years, my husband and I have developed some strategies that help us navigate these difficult conversations. When I learned about the concept of "flooding" from relationship expert John Gottman, I realized WHY our strategies worked.

The idea of "flooding" provides a physiological understanding of what is going on at those times, why it is so hard to resolve things, why tensions seem to escalate and what is needed to diffuse the situation. I'd like to share that information with you.

Watch where you step!

My husband and I think of this condition - when both of us are emotionally triggered - as "the minefield". The more we try to pick our way out of it, the worse it gets. As we continue to react defensively, bombs go off everywhere we step.

So over the years, we have learned that the best response when in a minefield is to STOP. Otherwise we will continue to do emotional damage to each other.

At those times of emotional triggering, we are unable to successfully resolve our conflicts because of what Gottman refers to as "flooding". Flooding refers to a physiological response, which is very primitive in nature. Our heart rate speeds up, our blood pressure mounts and adrenaline is secreted, creating the "fight or flight" response.

Our fear reaction is akin to that experienced by our cave-dwelling ancestors. Says Gottman, the human body responds to fear the same way, "whether you're facing a saber-toothed tiger or a contemptuous spouse demanding to know why you can never remember to put the toilet seat back down".

Once flooded, things often go from bad to worse.

When you're flooded, your ability to process information is reduced. It's harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying and your ability to creatively problem solve disappears.

Once flooded, you're left with the options of fight (act critical, contemptuous or defensive) or flight (tuning your partner out or stonewalling). Resolving the issue is highly unlikely and continued conversation will probably worsen the situation and result in additional wounding of each other.

So how can a couple navigate the minefield when they are "flooded"? Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn to recognize the signs.

Reflect on how you can recognize "flooding" - in yourself and in your partner. What are the signs that one or both of you is flooded?

  • Feeling defensive?
  • Sweating?
  • Holding your breath?
  • Heart racing?
  • Confused?
  • Unable to listen to what your partner is saying?
  • Feeling shell-shocked?
  • Feeling attacked or wanting to attack?
  • Your partner has suddenly become "the enemy"?

You and your partner can help each other to recognize when one or both of you has crossed the line and reasonable problem-solving is no longer an option.

2) STOP the conversation - for now.

It's impossible to work out a conflict when one or both partners is flooded. So don't try. If you keep going, you may end up exploding at your spouse or imploding (shutting down). Either of these options will just make things worse. You may end up doing or saying something that is not easy to repair or forget.

You can disengage from the conversation with a phrase such as:

  • Let's take a break.
  • I think we're in a "minefield".
  • Please, let's stop for awhile.
  • I'm feeling flooded.
  • Let's leave this for another time, when we're calmer.

Assure your partner that you will return to the conversation when you're both ready. This is not an excuse to permanently avoid dealing with the issue.

3) Take time apart to allow your physiology to return to normal.

You will need a minimum of 20 minutes for your body to return to normal. (Typically, the male cardiovascular system is more reactive than the female system -- and also slower to recover from stress. So it's important to WAIT until your partner is ready to re-engage.)

Do something soothing or calming, like exercising, listening to music, or whatever works for you. Gottman recommends refraining from thoughts of righteous indignation ("I don't have to take this anymore.") or innocent victimhood ("Why is she always picking on me?"). Just focus on calming down.

Later it may be helpful to debrief the situation with a trusted friend or journal about what happened. Don't seek to garner agreement about who is right and who is wrong. The purpose of speaking to another or writing is merely to clarify and take greater ownership of your own triggered feelings - rather than blame your partner. Most triggers have deep roots in the past - and the current situation is only a small percentage of the "emotional charge" you are experiencing.

4) Extend some soothing/reassurance to your partner.

Once you have calmed yourself, it can be very healing to extend some physical touch or a reassuring word to your partner. Perhaps you can discuss in advance what sort of overture would be soothing to your partner (and vice-versa) when flooding has occurred.

My husband and I coined the phrase "hands across the chasm" to describe our intention to remain connected, even when we are too upset or angry to be close. For us, that phrase can be a soothing olive branch in the midst of a stormy interaction. Humour is also a great tension-reliever.

5) Revisit the discussion when you both feel calm and ready.

You may be ready to resume your conversation in an hour - or you may need several days or longer before you're ready to resume. Hopefully by then, you'll have gained some awareness of what feelings and interpretations the conversation triggered for you - and be able to share that with your partner. You may have identified some "hot buttons" from your past that got pressed. Discuss what you each need to keep the conversation feeling safe. If flooding occurs again, you'll know what to do!

Most relationships experience some incidents of flooding. However if it is a recurrent, constant theme in your relationship - and issues are not resolved -- I urge you to get some professional help to get your communication onto a more positive footing.

Take heart!

You and your partner are bound to be triggered from time to time. You will heal and grow in the process of working through these sensitive issues. However, when flooded, do your best to disengage and calm yourself. When your partner stops looking like the enemy to you, you'll have a much easier time creatively working things out.

Invitation to action

Share this information with your partner. Have a conversation together about flooding - or reflect on these questions for yourself:

  • What makes you (me) feel flooded?
  • Are you (am I) an exploder or an imploder?
  • What tends to trigger you (me)?
  • Is there anything I can do that soothes/reassures you?
  • Is there anything you can do that soothes/reassures me?
  • What signals or code words can we develop for letting the other know when we're flooded and we need to take a break?

    And the next time you're flooded, or you sense your partner is: Gently take a break.

Shirley’s Update:

I love to coach single and divorced men and women, who may feel discouraged in their quest to find a partner. Call or email today to take advantage of my complimentary introductory session. Find out how I can help you build a foundation for relationship success, avoid pitfalls from the past, and create a game plan for finding lasting love.

Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 20 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work/business and their relationships. Her clients appreciate her ability to listen deeply, her compassionate wisdom and her support in staying focused. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Click on a link below or visit her website at
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