Flooding is an emotional storm that happens in relationships when your partner triggers a primal feeling of danger. The arrival of these storms is often a surprise to one or both partners. When your perceptions are dangerously alarmed, you flood with a mix of powerful emotions. The sympathetic nervous system takes over and starts to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. Temperature rises, heart rate and breathing become more rapid, your stomach tightens, your field of vision narrows, muscles tense and your hearing becomes selective, scanning for threats. You are in survival mode and ready to protect yourself.
Gottman describes it as an “emotional high jacking of the rational brain”. Your mind is in “overdrive” and you are listening only for negativity, danger and blame. You lose touch with what is actually happening. You forget that this is someone you love, who loves you. Everything gets crazy. It can feel as if a tsunami has taken over your relationship and it is spiraling out of control. Often you can’t stop yourself from saying mean things. You don’t like who you become during these storms.
Why do these things happen:
There is hope for avoiding these crises or aborting them when they begin.
These storms are best avoided by communication, by eliminating criticism and learning how to make complaints from an “I” position rather leading with “the problem is you”. Learning how to ask what you want is also important.
Giving up defensiveness and accepting some responsibility helps to keep the communication from spiraling out of control. E.g. ” You are right, I should have told you I planned on us going to dinner rather than assume we would go.”
Sometimes conflict becomes a storm when one or the other partner uses contempt. Contempt is criticism from a one up position such as mocking, eye rolling, belittling, mean humor or disparagement. It is the most corrosive behavior and is the most accurate predictor of divorce according to John Gottman.
Probably the most important skill is the ability to recognize flooding in yourself or your partner and apply the following principles:
Once you have calmed down, return to your partner at the agreed time and begin by trying to figure out what the argument was about. If there is something that you would like to apologize for, you could start there. It is useful to say something loving to your partner such as “I know we are really angry with each other but I do love you and I want to work this out.”
Start by either asking your partner to make their position clear or paraphrase what you think your partner said during the emotional storm. Ask them if this is what they actually said and be prepared to listen more deeply. Try to validate something about their position such as “I can understand how you would be so upset about this”. You can validate even if you don’t agree. Your partner then should do the same with you.
The Gottman research shows that all couples develop 69% perpetual problems which never go away because they are different people. If they leave this relationship and go into another, they will run into 69% perpetual problems but they will be different problems as their new partner brings a different set of vulnerabilities that creates new dynamics. Perpetual problems become easier to live with when partners understand what is at stake for the other. Then they can learn to compromise.
Often there is something of hidden symbolic importance that is triggered in one or both partners. In the Gottman method couples therapy we teach couples how to gently and systematically discover what is at stake about the issue for themselves and their partner. We then move them into compromise while at the same time they improve their communication, by eliminating contempt, defensiveness and criticism. We teach them when they are flooded to take a break and calm down and resume the conversation when their rational mind is back on line and before they have brutalized each other emotionally and verbally.
If you experience irrational, intense arguments that are destroying your relationship, call me and let’s get to work. You will be glad you did. You probably don’t have to leave your relationship and you don’t have to continue living like this.
There is hope even for your relationship. Do come for help. You don’t need to suffering like this.