Topic: When it's time to stop arguing: Understanding "flooding"
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!
love to hear of any additional strategies that you and your partner
may have developed for diffusing those tense moments.
pain can easily get stimulated by current interactions.
~Patricia Love & Stephen Stosny
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”.
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
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.
emotionally triggered, some individuals lash out and say things that
they regret. Others collapse into a feeling of helplessness and withdraw.
now and then, most relationships experience a conflict that is emotionally
triggering for one or both partners.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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".
flooded, things often go from bad to worse.
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.
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.
how can a couple navigate the minefield when they are "flooded"?
Here are some suggestions:
Learn to recognize the signs.
on how you can recognize "flooding" - in yourself and in your partner.
What are the signs that one or both of you is flooded?
to listen to what your partner is saying?
attacked or wanting to attack?
partner has suddenly become "the enemy"?
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.
STOP the conversation - for now.
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.
can disengage from the conversation with a phrase such as:
take a break.
think we're in a "minefield".
let's stop for awhile.
leave this for another time, when we're calmer.
your partner that you will return to the conversation when you're
both ready. This is not an excuse to permanently avoid dealing with
Take time apart to allow your physiology to return to normal.
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.
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.)
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.
Extend some soothing/reassurance to your partner.
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.
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.
Revisit the discussion when you both feel calm and ready.
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!
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.
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.
this information with your partner. Have a conversation together
about flooding - or reflect on these questions for yourself:
makes you (me) feel flooded?
you (am I) an exploder or an imploder?
tends to trigger you (me)?
there anything I can do that soothes/reassures you?
there anything you can do that soothes/reassures me?
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.
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.
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 http://shirley.vollett.com
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