During a conflict with your partner you might be sprouting things you would not normally say, behaving in ways that feel out of control or feel a flight, freeze or flight response. After observing couples for decades Dr. John Gottman concluded that many individuals get emotionally “flooded”. What this means is that your heart-rate has gone anywhere between 80-100 beats per minute and up. You are likely driven by your limbic system which is the primal part of your brain, your nervous system is activated and productive conflict management is near impossible. Imagine trying to manage conflict while doing an intense cardiovascular workout or while escaping a dangerous situation. Your nervous system is overwhelmed and is responding by driving you to escape, shut down or fight the enemy. In other words your problem solving higher-self is getting hijacked by the primal part of your brain. Research shows that the central nervous system needs at least 20-30 minutes to return to a state of equilibrium. You might need more time, if you have a history of trauma or other conditions. If you have had a few drinks or used other substances, this may also get more challenging.
I have found that many couples appreciate developing an awareness around this and have found it relieving to both identify signs of emotional flooding as well as managing it as a team.
Here are some signs of emotional flooding:
- Heart-rate is over 80-100 beats per minute. Depending on how fit you are, this may be lower. You can track your heart rate by checking your own pulse and timing it with a clock or if you’re really motivated you can purchase a heart monitor.
- Shallow breathing in the chest
- Muscles tightening
- Tongue rises to top of your mouth
- Looking away from partner with a desire to leave the scene
- Tunnel vision
- Drive to flight, fight or freeze.
- Unable to hear what your partner’s saying
- Impulsive responses
- A sense of overwhelm, of losing a sense boundaries or a sense that you’ve lost control.
Some ways to un-flood:
- Deep, slow belly breaths
- A soothing distraction
- Physical activity like a walk, run, stretches etc
- Mindfulness practices
- Listening to music
- Taking space or time to yourself.
- Use of biofeedback technology. If you have a smartphone, this Heart+Coherence App is able to track your heart rate and guide you to breathe so you develop coherence. Coherence means that your breath is effectively affecting your nervous system.
Things you can do as a couple:
- Understand what the usual triggers are for yourself and your partner.
- Adjust to each other’s needs a little more. This may mean, watching your volume, tone, gestures or saying things in a gentler way by avoiding harsh start-ups around sensitive or highly contentious issues.
- Come up with a plan. It may take a couple of experiments to see what will work when one or both of you gets emotionally flooded.
- Figure out a way to communicate to each other that you are close to or are already flooded? This may be different for both of you.
- Have an agreement that you need the time to unflood and you will have different needs. Some will need space, while others need to feel your partner’s presence (this will have to be negotiated).
- Have an agreement to return to managing the conflict. This is an important piece as learning to repair or build trust after a fight are valuable skills.
Emotional flooding is a common phenomenon in many relationships. Recognizing what triggers them, when it happens and learning how to unflood will support you in having more effective conflict management.