Hello, my dear friends! We are one day past Valentine’s Day, and my heart is filled knowing that so many of you took the work we did in this month’s Marriage Masterclass and used it to create the first Valentine’s Day that felt good in years. We enjoyed a day of love on Sunday with quite a few tears for me because one year ago, on February 13, I suddenly lost my pup Zeta, so Valentine’s Day now holds an even more special place in my heart. A whole different type of emotional flooding than we are talking about today, so with that, let’s move into today’s topic! This week I’m going to elaborate on a concept I have brought up in several previous episodes, including last week’s, where we discussed stonewalling (Stonewalling To A Disengaged Marriage), John Gottman’s fourth horsemen. This concept is Gottman’s third sign divorce is in your future; let’s answer the question: does flooding have your marriage underwater?
Get your note app or your notebook ready so that if something sounds familiar to you, you can jot it down and pay attention to how it might come up in your marriage. I’m going to start with helping you understand what emotional flooding is to better recognize it in yourself and/or your partner and then help discover why it might be happening for either of you. Then we’ll look at both sides of the relationship to determine how each of you can best navigate this dynamic and bring your marriage back to shore and dry ground.
What exactly is flooding?
In short, flooding is what happens when you perceive danger. It is the “breaking point” of what you can handle emotionally, and when you reach this point, your body and mind react as if it is in danger. Your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that can rationalize what is happening, shuts down, and your primitive brain kicks in. Basically, our nervous system has kicked into overdrive flashing “danger,” and we go into primitive brain thinking: we do whatever it takes to feel better, avoid pain and conserve every bit of energy that is flooding out into our body. This could look like running or shutting down-stonewalling (flight) or an angry explosion (fight).
There are times when what on the outside appears to be a minimal problem escalates into flooding; some would use the term “trigger” to describe what happens or even the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” An example could be your spouse disappearing right when the meal is ready to be served. This may have been happening for quite a while. One day your reaction is to get mad at him and tell him how disrespectful he is for hanging around and watching the meal get made and then disappearing when the food is served and that you would really like it if he could be kind enough to be ready to eat when the meal is served so you can have a meal together. First, there is more going on here because this was a lingering problem for the partner getting mad, and they neglected to bring this up in conversation when things were calmer, and now it’s a blown-up argument. In contrast, the other partner is taken by such a surprise that they shut down and maybe leave or lash back out over something as “simple as” not being at the dinner table when dinner is served.
Why does flooding happen?
What is happening is our sympathetic nervous system or our involuntary nervous system detects danger and reacts to avoid the danger. It doesn’t know that there is no wild animal in the room wanting to eat you for a snack; it defaults to fight or flight. We want to recognize that what feels threatening is different for each of us; it might be part of a habitual defense mechanism developed in early childhood around feelings of rejection or abandonment. Extreme emotional flooding experienced consistently is most likely stemming from your brain seeing similarities to past trauma and then repeating whatever response you adopted to protect yourself from the emotions you weren’t ready to experience.
In other cases, it could be less complex where negative life circumstances have you in a more easily aggravated place; lack of sleep, sickness, bad news at work, or any combination of these unresolved life circumstances.
How flooding affects your marriage
If flooding is a response, people have to conflict well; guess what, it will affect any relationship that contains conflict, which is true of all marriages. All marriages will contain conflict and disagreement; it’s normal if each partner is open and honest, not hiding and people-pleasing. It takes deliberate steps to resolve conflict, and if one or both partners get flooded, they are no longer able to think rationally and hear the other person’s perspective. No solutions or compromises are being worked out, and often the flooding escalates into an argument that leaves both partners frustrated and unresolved, making moving forward more and more difficult.
What to do when your spouse is the one getting flooding
I recommend you start by paying attention to what happens when a difficult conversation is initiated. Be curious about what you see and don’t react. Then during a quieter time, bring the subject up in conversation, and it could look like you expressing concern around how they react when you want to have discussions.
Secondly, I would like you to go back and listen to Ep 45, where I talked about creating better marital communication by considering the start-up of your conversation. How you start the conversation will impact your spouse’s reaction, allowing them to stay in the conversation longer. When you can sit down with your partner, express your concern and share how you are working on changing your start-up, if necessary, you both have awareness around this situation and can start working on it. During this conversation, you can come up with your signal that one is approaching the line of flooding or has already crossed it and that you both need a time out.
Lastly, this one is so important for all of us to practice. When we decide it’s time to have a conversation around something that might present some conflict, check-in with each other. You don’t have to say, “Hey, I have some difficult stuff to talk about, are you up for it?” because that right there can put the other immediately on the defensive and already closed down before the topic is even presented. Instead, start with a light conversation, “How are you feeling today?” “What type of day did you have? Do you feel rested from work stress, or do you need some downtime?” Maybe even transition into something you want to share about your day and make sure that you have come up with a way to bring up your discussion without criticism, contempt, or defensiveness. Share how you are feeling about whatever you want to discuss and why you are feeling this way, keep the focus on you and then share what resolution might look like for you. Also, I want to suggest that if you know your partner struggles with flooding, you can share that all you are doing right now is sharing your perspective and what you are struggling with and that they don’t even need to have the discussion now, that you are empathetic and understanding enough that you want to work on resolving your conflict differences. Let them decide what they want to do and come up with a day and time to revisit the topic. I suggest you post a reminder somewhere where you will see it, so you both continue to process, prepare, and show up for each other at your set time.
What to do when it is us who is getting flooded
First and foremost, understand that flooding isn’t something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about; it is an instinctual reaction to needing to feel safe. Understanding this will help you see that there is a different way and that it might take some time to change, and you can ask your partner to help you with this. You can start to understand a bit more about yourself and why you react the way you do, exploring what you really need and how you might start setting up boundaries to protect yourself from getting to the state of flooding. You might need to use your sign that you came up with your partner in Ep 35 Emotional Regulation when they start a conversation in a way that triggers you to become overwhelmed.
Second, start paying attention to what happens in your body when you are triggered. Pay attention to your heart rate, tensing of muscles, zoning out, or tuning out your partner. You are responsible for yourself; remember that defensiveness (Ep 51 How Defensiveness Hurts Our Marriage) and blaming your partner aren’t tactics for good conflict management. Start getting familiar with your responses so you can start to see them coming. Then start paying attention to actions and words your partner might say that trigger your flooding response so that you can recognize them as they come and later share these discoveries with your partner, which is part of getting to know each other.
Third, start taking better care of yourself. 80% of the people flooding are men, and I don’t mean to generalize, but from my experience, there is no scientific data here, but men, in general, seem to be less into their self-care routine than women. So start considering your sleep hygiene, stress management protocol, diet, and exercise. An episode to re-visit would be Ep 38, Self-Soothe To A Happier Marriage. This is also where another tactic comes in: learning how to set boundaries for yourself. Boundaries might look like saying no and potentially disappointing someone else. It might look like questioning your “need” to do something you think is expected of you versus standing up for what is right for you and your value system.
Fourth, take intentional time to process and journal about what happens when flooding occurs. Look at the before, during, and after and then commit to a time to come back and re-visit the conversation.
Fifth, learn how to disengage from familiar protective styles by learning where your style came from and understanding that this is an old pattern. Recognizing that you are actually safe where you are, learning how to be present, and seeing that you aren’t actually in any danger.
Sixth, working with a therapist might be a necessary step and a loving action for yourself, your spouse, and the future of your relationship.
This information is important to understand and share; it could be the difference between staying married and developing your relationship into something beautiful or divorced. Because both flooding and stonewalling are so dominant in the male culture and with women who tend to live more in their masculine energy, this information needs to be shared with them to recognize and choose something different. Our men and a lot of us women need to hear this information and understand that there is a better way and that this better way will lead to so much more than a happy marriage; it will lead to a healthier life, a longer life, and more than likely a promotion!
I want to share that this episode and the stonewalling episode are dear to my heart because I see this dynamic repeatedly when I work with couples through their conflict styles and help them manage so that they can actually hear and understand each other. I’d love to hear how this might resonate with you and what you learned while listening and how I can help you work through what might be coming up for you. I have been weaving couples coaching into my practice and would love to have either you or both book a call to talk about your struggles within your marriage and how my program might help you. A happy household, a happy community, and a happy world start with you and your marriage.
I am a life coach who works with women and couples struggling with how their lives and marriage feel through awakening their true selves. My process isn’t about changing your partner; it’s about discovering who you are so that you can AwakenYou in your life and marriage, which by the way, will have you see how your partner is magically changing too. If you’re ready to take yourself to a place where you can fall back in love with your life and your spouse, then schedule your program inquiry call today and let’s talk about your next steps to a brand new life you are crazy in love with!