It can seem like we are battling and swimming against strong emotional currents when we are in conflict with our partner. These aren’t the day-to-day flashes of anger or hurt. I am talking about the giant waves of bad feelings that completely flatten you and take any rational thought with them. This is how it usually goes:-
a) You are in the middle of an argument or disagreement;
b) Your partner says or does something, and suddenly you fall down a deep dark rabbit hole.
c) The only notes you register are rage, hurt, panic and fear.
When I’ve been caught in one of these tsunami tides in the past, I have the physical sensation of something taking hold of my body — my muscles clench, my temperature skyrockets and my stomach does cartwheels. My mind goes into overdrive. I became unable to listen to anything my mate was saying and could only hear the blame narrative rapidly evolving in my head. I became a prosecuting attorney endlessly repeating a courtroom argument and seeking to justify myself. Mind you, when I’m all caught up like this, my allegations are not exactly sound. Any reasonable judge would probably toss my case right out (or at least knock the charge down from a felony to minor one!).
The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain (i.e. the part that can take in grey areas, consider other sides, keep things in proportion to the event, stay aware, etc) is shut out. Psychologist John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens — and it could be almost anything — in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your parasympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, being the centre of higher cognition.
Our instinctive reactions in these moments usually make the situation worse. The fight response we are primed for becomes a cascade of angry words that just deepen wounds. In flight, we might stalk out of the room or shut out our mate with icy silence. Basically, when we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner. And then both people in the room are out of control.
Here are some things I have learned along the way from my own experiences, and from counselling other couples, which may help you and your partner find your way when either of you gets derailed by emotional flooding:
• Make a commitment to try self-soothing the next time you find yourself caught up in a heavy emotion over this or that with your partner. The reality is that it is not easy to hold back from acting out when we are completely enraged or feeling utterly devastated. But if you have essentially accepted the idea that you can’t entirely trust yourself and your perceptions when you are in a state of total reactivity, you at least have a fighting chance of pulling yourself back from the spiral. Some part of you will have registered the notion that you probably shouldn’t be so quick to buy whatever blame narrative or catastrophic rendering of things that your mind has come up with.
• Mentally store a picture of your partner at their best. Picture a moment when you experience your partner as loving, generous and well-meaning. Add as much detail as you can to really capture how you experience your partner when you are feeling loved and cared for. You might picture your partner standing at the top of the stairs waiting to greet me at the end of day with a look of pure happiness. Try shifting your focus to this image when you get trapped in a negative story about them. This helps your brain move out of the reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.
• When you do get flooded, you need to hit the pause button on your interaction and turn your attention inward. I find that before I can do anything, I need to reassure myself that I will be fine if I wait for this storm to pass. Like a standoff with an armed hostage-taker, I have to convince her to at least put down the gun before we can keep talking. May be put your hand lightly on your heart for some physical reassurance and tell yourself “I will be fine”.
• Observe what’s happening. This is the key to creating some distance between yourself and the storm of thoughts and feelings. Mentally note that you have become activated. Start to investigate what happens when you get emotionally flooded. Notice what thoughts take shape in your mind and what sensations move through your body.
• Use images to ground the process of slowing, observing and letting go. You might want to imagine your mind as a wheel that was suddenly spinning furiously. With each breath, you are able to slow down its speed until it is barely turning. Or picture your racing thoughts as a cloud of sand that has been kicked up in the water. Wait for the sand to sink back down to the seabed, leaving clear water. As your frantic thoughts subside, your nervous system can calm down, too. Imagine any constriction melting. Relax your hands, imagining yourself physically letting go of the story you created about what has happened.
• Take timeouts when you need to. Sometimes you can self-soothe on the spot. At other times, you may need to take a break from the interaction. Make a plan with your partner that if either of you gets too activated in an argument to hear the other — to avoid saying things you will regret — you will take a time out. Agree to come back together to continue the discussion within a certain period of time, but don’t delay indefinitely. Use the time to actively soothe yourself rather than obsessing over your version of what went wrong, which will just keep you activated. The point here is to disengage with your reaction so you can re-engage with your partner.
Don’t get down on yourself when you do get tripped up and act out. That’s what “I’m sorry” is for.