The Key to Cooling Relationship Conflict: Never Fight When You’re Flooded

Managing relationship conflict with self-soothing

Flooding refers to the set of emotional, physical, and mental changes you experience when you’re feeling overwhelmed.  When couples argue, their intense feelings often quickly escalate to the point of flooding.  One moment you’re complaining about something as simple as cleaning the kitchen sink when a harsh comment or recall of an old fight suddenly causes a rise in emotion that’s about something much bigger than dirty dishes. A small argument can quickly spiral out of control.-

Feelings Commonly Associated with Emotional Flooding:

  • Anger
  • Hurt
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Abandonment
  • Anxiety

When a person becomes emotionally flooded, this triggers a cascade of changes within the brain.  Several neurochemicals are released including cortisol and endorphins.  These cause the physical sensations of flooding which are similar to the Fight-Flight-Flee response of the sympathetic nervous system.

Physical Signs of Flooding:

  • Muscle tension
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Flushed or red face
  • Raised voice

There are also mental changes during this flooding experience which completely cloud the ability to have a productive conversation.  When flooded, you develop “tunnel vision” as the eyes and ears focus only on signs of potential danger and stop seeing the big picture.  And this means any further communication will be ineffective until the flooding resolves.

Mental Changes Associated with Flooding:

  • Reduced ability to reason
  • Difficulty problem solving
  • Inability to understand another’s emotions or point of view
  • Problems taking in & processing information accurately
  • No longer a good listener

Common & Unhelpful Responses to Flooding

Stonewalling:  Some people respond to flooding during conflict by wanting to run or escape.  This person may become silent or withdrawn and appears disengaged.  He/She refuses to talk, shutting down the partner’s attempts to continue engaging.  This silence may feel very rejecting to the partner but is often an attempt to control the emotional upset and avoid saying potentially hurtful things.

Attacking:  Other people respond to flooding by pursing the partner and insisting on addressing the conflict with ongoing intense emotional expression.  This person will continue to argue and may express a need to be heard and validated in the moment, focusing on WINNING or SOLVING the argument.  During such attacks the speaker runs the risk of saying something that might later be regretted.  It also may lead to verbally abusive language or harm.

Helpful Response to Flooding

Self-Soothing:  Once both partners understand and agree that continuing discussions during flooding is ineffective and potentially damaging, you must then allow each other time and space to self-soothe.  The specific strategies for self-soothing will vary by person and situation.  However, the goal is always to allow yourself an opportunity cool off and think more clearly.  The opposite of the Fight-Flight-Flee response is the Relaxation Response.  This is when the mind, body, and heart achieve a sense of calm.  Emotions reduce in intensity as the body releases tension.  In this state of calm, the mind is again able to take in information so each person can listen and remain emotionally attuned to his/her partner.  This provides a safe environment for discussing difficult topics.  While emotions will still be experienced along with some physical tension, it does not reach that overwhelming point of flooding.

Tips for Self-Soothing:

  • Alert your partner when you feel flooded
  • Check in with your partner if he/she appears to be flooded during conversations
  • Allow each other a pause in the discussion with a commitment to return when calm
  • Take a break of at least 20 minutes and at most 1 day
  • Do something relaxing
    • Take deep breaths
    • Practice a relaxation or meditation exercise
    • Go for a walk
    • Call a friend
    • Exercise
    • Read a book
    • Listen to soothing music
  • Return to the discussion with an open mind and heart

Learning to manage conflict in your relationship with a focus on understanding and respect rather than solving or winning will actually increase your relationship intimacy and satisfaction.  The key to having a meaningful conflict discussion is knowing when to pause.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. at Linden BP based on research from The Gottman Institute. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.  If you are interested in scheduling an appointment for individual or couples therapy with Dr. Smith, contact LindenBP at 440-250-9880.