Emotional Storm in Relationship

Peg Walsh APRN Depression, Grief, Mental Health, Therapy Blog

You are in survival mode and ready to protect yourself.

Relationship Issues

Grief Counseling Fort Myers

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:

Emotional Stress
  • Talking to a partner with criticism, contempt or defensiveness can begin this downward spiral

  • The relationship has been feeling too intimate and an unconscious part of you decides a fight is needed to reestablish a safe distance. This happens when we don't tell ourselves that the intimacy we have yearned for is also surprisingly scary. We are all afraid of intimacy because of the increase in vulnerability. Often this dynamic is totally out of awareness of the provocateur.
  • Memories of past trauma or wounds can be unknowingly or purposefully activated by your partner and you are back in the past. You lose touch with the present. It can feel like you are fighting for your life, again.

  • You have been drifting apart from your partner and provoking a fight is the only way your unconscious body mind can contact them. Certainly this is a very painful and destructive way to connect but at least you have engaged them intensely. Deep inside you this is somehow better than being ignored. To be ignored feels as if you don't exist or that you are worthless.
  • You are in the middle of an argument and one partner gets flooded and can't go on. They say the conversation is over and withdraw as they see no other option. We call this stonewalling. This usually leaves the other partner hanging and desperately needing to finish the conversation. This partner keeps pursuing the shutdown partner making it worse on both of them. When people stonewall, they are usually flooded and actually are correct that they can't continue. But the other partner needs to know when they will finish the conversation.

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:
  • Agree to a timeout if one or the other says they feel flooded.
  • A minimum of an hour is needed for a time out and sometimes more. It is important the conversation resume within 24 hours at an agreed upon time. If at the end of the cool off period, both are not calmer and able to resume the conversation, they can agree to extend the time out for a definite period. The person asking for the time out must find the other partner at the agreed on time. It is very important not to leave the pursuing partner waiting. Sometimes couples can cool down together by going for a run, playing a game, doing a puzzle together or sitting on the lanai and watching wild life. More often, people need to be alone to cool down. When couples part, they tell each other where they will be and what they will do, if they know.
  • Recognize that you are triggered and there is an emotional storm. Don't trust your thinking during the storm as you probably won't be thinking straight. This is not the time to problem solve or negotiate. You may not even be able to find words. This is totally normal for human beings in the middle of the storm. Have compassion for yourself and if you can, your partner.
  • Time out is like hitting the pause button and going inward. Stop trying to think or talk your way out. The rational mind is off line. Begin by taking 10 deep belly breathes. Put your hand on your belly and take such deep breathes that you hand actually moved with your belly. You can also use the progressive relaxation exercise where you tense and relax different muscle groups while deep breathing.
  • Reassure yourself that you are not in real danger despite your physiological agitation. Reassure yourself that the storm will pass and you will regain access to your rational mind. You and your partner will figure this out. (This assumes that there is no physical danger. If there is other strategies are needed.)
  • Never threaten to leave or divorce during a storm. You can say you feel hopeless, lost or out of options. If you do want to leave the relationship, bring the subject up when you are calm and have thought it through.
  • It is useful to have an image in your mind of your partner at their best, at a time when you felt safe and connected to them. This will counteract the intense negativity that has a hold of you. Realize you are going through an emotional storm and the radar readings are totally scrambled. You are flying blind. It is useful to reassure yourself that this will work out.
  • Take your time out and do something relaxing and distracting. Do not prepare your rebuttal. Go for a walk, run or swim. Clean a closet. Get in the hot tub or bath tub. In the tub try soaking in Epsom salts as magnesium is calming. Walk, play with or cuddle the dog. Color in an adult coloring book. Play a computer game. Play some music. Read a book. Go to the beach. Do yoga. Let thoughts about the conflict drift - focus on being in the here and now and calming down.

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.

Having Relationship Issues?
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.
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