We all have that argument with our partner – the one that seems to go in circles and never ends. You know the one. It feels like you are spinning your wheels and can’t make any progress.
Sometimes we don’t even know what we are arguing about anymore.
Occasionally we are both saying the same thing and yet neither of us can seem to stop the speeding train of defensiveness and insults.
Arguing in our relationship is totally normal. Conflict will happen and we will fight. But here’s the thing:
If we don’t know how to stop fighting, we keep fighting.
Some of the couples I work with tell me that they feel like they’ve been fighting for years. Decades, even.
Earlier in my career, these couples made me nervous. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to help them stop their negative cycles.
I have a very different outlook now. When these couples come to me and talk about the last many years being tense and distant and they don’t know why, I feel hopeful and excited. Because I know how they got here.
I know how they lived 16 years in tense arguments. It’s called flooding.
WHAT IS FLOODING
Flooding is the physiological response of your body when you are in conflict with another human.
Basically it is our anxiety or stress response when we are feeling threatened. It is the modern day response to running from tigers and bears.
In our relationships, it happens most noticeably during and before conflicts that are heated and repetitive.
Flooding is a physical response.
It happens in the body and by the body.
When your brain recognizes signs of danger (like conflict with your partner), your body floods with adrenaline. As a result, your heart rate increases to around 100 BPM and your oxygen decreases – just like it would if you were holding your breath to hide from a tiger.
Everyone’s body does a slightly different thing under pressure. While flooding is normal and unavoidable, it’s important to do some damage control with it because otherwise it can absolutely ruin our relationships.
SIGNS OF FLOODING:
Increased heart rate
Holding your breath
Feeling warm or hot
Feeling cold or shivering
Tingling or shaking
Racing mind with lots of thoughts
Blank or numb mind
Goose bumps or rashes
Tightness of muscles in neck or back
Feeling confused or overwhelmed
The problem with flooding is that when our body is responding physiologically to the stress we are experiencing, our mind can’t keep up.
This means our comprehension plummets. It will be impossible for us to understand what our partner is saying, and even more impossible for us to put thoughts into sentences to respond in a way that makes sense – or in a way we want to respond.
In essence, we are not able to use our brain. Our cognition has checked out and we can’t think clearly.
John and Julie Gottman (of the Gottman Institute) have done a lot of research about flooding and its relationship to conflict and marital satisfaction. For more about flooding and its impact on your brain, body, and relationship watch Julie Gottman share some of the science of what happens in our bodies when partners get flooded.
HOW FLOODING RUINS OUR RELATIONSHIP
If your body has reached this point of stress, your mind will not be able to function effectively. In an argument, this means you don’t hear your partner or you can’t understand what they’re saying. You have little to no comprehension and retention. You may be listening as hard as you can but you still can’t hear them.
It only takes one person flooding to take a discussion off rails into an argument. If I become flooded while talking to you, I am not able to speak as clearly and rationally as I normally would.
You, as my partner, are trained to read my physical body language and will see that I am stressed.
The physical cues of my stress might send you into flooding instantly. Even if you somehow don’t flood, our conversation won’t be productive if I can’t think clearly or hear what you’re saying.
Once one or both of us is flooded, there is nothing we can say that will be effective.
If we can’t learn how to come down from flooding, we will stay in this heightened arousal and it will feel like we never stop fighting. Maybe even for years.
When our partner floods, we flood in response. This is actually a good thing. It means we are in tune with them and aligned to their emotions and state of being. Unfortunately, since we know that nothing we say will be effective once one or both of us are flooded, we need to stop this train wreck in its tracks and find a way to calm ourselves back down.
We need to self-soothe…
But here is where we find the true problem.
The problem isn’t flooding. Every person will flood and every relationship will have perpetual conflicts where we spin our wheels and never get anywhere. These can be annoying but they won’t necessarily destroy our partnership.
The problem is that if we don’t learn how to self-soothe and recover from our conflicts, our body never comes back down from its heightened arousal state. If we don’t learn how to self-soothe, our body stays flooded.
You know this one. You’re fighting with your partner and you have some time apart to cool off. But when you come back together, you aren’t cool. You never did cool. You spent that time apart fuming or devastated, replaying the conflict in your head. This sends you instantly into another fight.
Or maybe you’ve distracted yourself and you feel calm and collected but as soon as you see your partner again or the topic re-emerges, you’re transported back to the same anger or confusion you felt before.
Or maybe you or your partner were so afraid to walk away without a resolution that you didn’t take a break at all.
Experts tell us it takes at least 20 minutes to calm back down after our body has started flooding – and this short time is only if we are actively working to relax and soothe. It doesn’t work if we keep ruminating or are simply distracting ourselves.
So when it comes to those partners who feel like their fights are never-ending, the ones who tell me the last five years have felt like one big tense argument and they don’t know how to talk without fighting anymore, it’s because they aren’t taking the time to calm themselves down.
HOW TO MANAGE FLOODING
1. Identify your own signs of flooding. Try to notice the next few times your body floods and see what is happening with it. The more cues you can notice, the more you can do to prevent the potential damage flooding can cause to your relationship.
2. Identify your trigger points. There are likely specific topics that send you into flooding almost instantly. We all have these. Sometimes they make a lot of sense to us and sometimes they don’t. Usually if we don’t understand why we are getting so angry or feeling so overwhelmed, it’s because we feel like our partner isn’t hearing us, respecting us, or valuing what we value. More on this one later.
3. Talk with your partner about flooding and share your own personal flooding cues with each other. Remember that you’re on a team and flooding is the big bad guy. You are both experiencing the same things even if they are presenting differently in your physical bodies. If you’re having a hard time talking about flooding at home, a couples therapist can help you communicate respectfully with each other about your flooding experiences and how it impacts the relationship.
4. Decide on a way to communicate flooding. When you are NOT in a heightened flooded headspace, agree together on some terminology and hand signals that you can each use to communicate when you are flooded.
Never tell your partner they are flooded. Always claim it for yourself or the relationship. If you tell your partner that they are flooded when they already aren’t thinking clearly and feel like you are against them, they won’t be able to recognize that you are waving a peace flag. Instead, they’ll fight even harder.
Examples to communicate flooding: I am flooding, We are spinning, I’m feeling…
Find a word or phrase to express how you’re feeling that is accessible and natural to you but that feels different from how you normally talk. You can also talk about your physical cues.
Examples to communicate feelings: Confused, overwhelmed, tapped out, tired, mind is racing
Agree on a hand signal that can help get your attention. When our body is flooded, our mind isn’t thinking clearly and we can’t hear our partner. This means that words alone don’t always work if we are trying to make peace. Decide on a respectful hand gesture that will work for each of you that will indicate flooding.
Remember that many people don’t want any physical contact while they are flooded. Be respectful of this, even if you know physical contact would calm you down.
Examples of hand signals: Raising your hand, hand to your heart, hands to a “T” for time out, touching your partner gently
Gently and lovingly remind your partner why you are going to pause the conversation. In practicing these techniques with countless couples, I’ve noticed that even when agreed upon in advance, the intent of these signals can be perceived as malicious. This especially goes for couples who have been flooded for an extended period of time.
I now help clients eventually work to the point of being able to reassure their partner while they are communicating that they are flooded. Be aware this is extremely challenging without a lot of practice and feels impossible if you’re the flooded one.
Examples of being more gentle: What you’re saying is really important to me and I want to hear you but I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to take a break so I can hear you better.
5. Pause the conversation. Get out of each other’s space. Give the conflict some room to breathe. Know that you will both be coming back together later. Maybe even agree on a time or place to reunite and try again.
6. Make a state change! I often hear clients tell me they tried “controlling their thoughts” or “calming their mind” in order to recover from flooding. But since flooding is a body response, it requires a body solution. You can’t just think your way out of it.
The most effective way to start calming your body is to change the state of your body. This means changing the experience that your body is having at that moment. We’re talking sensory things here, like temperature changes, moving to a new environment, or trying a different activity.
Personally, I think temperatures (and specifically cold temperatures) are the best ways to jolt your body out of flooding. Most of my clients tell me this is true for them, too. Try putting a cool washcloth on your forehead, holding an ice cube, or going for a walk around the yard in the winter (no coat, but definitely shoes).
You could also try going for a run, taking a bath, playing some music, or giving yourself a foot massage. Whatever. Do something that will physiologically relax you — or at least shock your body out of its current threatened survival mode.
Place a cool washcloth on your forehead or back of your neck
Wash your face
Soak or wash your feet
Hold an ice cube
Go for a walk outside (especially when it’s cold)
Take a shower
Sing, dance, or hum
Meditate or breathe deeply (with long exhales)
Give yourself a foot massage
Go for a drive
7. Distract and relax. Yes, I said distract. If you are really flooded, you probably need to find a way to first get your mind off the conflict so you aren’t just ruminating on it. Try pairing the distraction with a state change. Then do something relaxing. This can be anything that feels relaxing to you, just make sure you know the difference between distracting and relaxing. TV, video games, and podcasts are probably distractions. Hobbies, nature, or calming sensory experiences (like a bubble bath) usually fall in the relax category.
8. Reflect. Once you have calmed your body with a state change (or three), distracted your mind to take it off the rumination spiral, and engaged in something relaxing to feel calmed and at ease again, do some reflection. Need some help in knowing what to reflect on? Try these prompts to take you in the right direction:
- What were we even arguing about? (Usually, partners don’t come up with the same answer for this one… which tells us something, doesn’t it?)
- What was I trying to say? (Consider ways in which your message might have been confusing, critical, or contradictory – none of which would help you be heard.)
- What was my partner trying to say? (Try thinking of things from their perspective. Hint: If they kept repeating the same thing, what was it?)
- What did my partner try saying/doing to help the conversation? (‘A’ for effort here. Even if it didn’t go well, they gave it their best shot. Maybe they tried a joke that didn’t fly, attempted to hold your hand, or acknowledged something about themselves or you that was an attempt to help. This step is about acknowledging and appreciating your partner, even if they didn’t get it perfectly right.)
- What did I say/do that was harmful to my partner or the conversation? (While intention was all that mattered in the last question, disregard intention here. Even if you meant to be helpful, perhaps it came out hurtful instead. This step is about acknowledging and taking responsibility for your part so you don’t end up polarized and blaming.)
- What was something I could have said or done differently to help my partner feel loved and respected? ( Think about ways you could show them you’re on their side and you’ve got their back — even if you don’t understand it. As humans, we like to know how to improve ourselves and continue growing… except when it comes to our relationship. Then we want our partner to just fix their own stuff and “it’ll all be better.” But it’s rarely ever this one-sided and even if it was, you can’t control them or influence them in future conversations. Focusing on yourself will feel empowering.)
The point of reflecting is to jolt you out of your own perspective. Just like a state change shifts your body’s physiological response, reflecting shifts your mind’s response. Try to put on a different pair of glasses or take a step in your partner’s shoes. And get curious about yourself, too! Dig a little deeper and learn what was happening for you and why you went from 0 to 60.
9. Agree to come back together. Reconnecting after a conflict is so essential… but few people know how to recover after a fight.
In order to come back to a conversation after we have paused it due to flooding, it’s important we are respectful to our partner and check to make sure we are both ready to talk again. If we step back into a trigger point before we are fully soothed, we will flood even faster than before.
My favorite way to know when to come back to addressing the conflict is to ask for consent. “Are you able and willing to try talking about this again?” If one of you is not consenting to the conversation, leave it for another time.
Sometimes, we might feel like there is never another time when we aren’t flooded for a particular topic of conversation. That’s okay and normal – but it still doesn’t mean we should ignore and dismiss the topic. Flooding tells us that there is an important message to be heard.
Remember that this reciprocal flooding cycle is a hard one to break – and is on the list of top 13 times to start couples therapy. If you’re frequently flooded or are noticing that topics are becoming “off limits” due to flooding, don’t be afraid to start looking for a relationship therapist who can help support you in hearing each other.
THERE IS NO WINNER
When I explain flooding to a couple who feels like their fights never end, they are relieved. They recognize the cycle and they feel optimistic that there’s a reason. They are eager to step into a solution.
But here’s where it gets sticky:
Not every couple wants to learn how to stop fighting because the first thing I’ll tell them is that they’re going to have to let go of winning. As soon as we position ourselves to win and our partner to lose, the entire relationship loses.
If you can each learn to self-soothe through your flooding and respect your partner’s stress response as well, you’ll likely both win in the end. It’s much easier to agree with someone when we can hear them and understand them. They’re also more likely to want to hear us if we are hearing them.
Change is hard so this process of learning to manage flooding will take lots of time, practice, and patience. Know that you are in it together. Work as a team and share what self-soothing techniques are working for each of you. Collaborate. Be respectful.
Oh, and if you need help, ask for it! Find a marriage therapist who can support you both as you learn how to manage your flooding more effectively. And if even the process of finding a counselor feels daunting (or even makes you flood), my article about how to choose the right therapist will walk you through finding a good fit.
Set up a counseling appointment with Kelsey.