Through the 45 years of continuous Gottman research, we have learned a lot about conflict and conflict management. It turns out that conflict management is not just about what and how we communicate with our partners using gentle start-ups, making repairs and accepting influence but also about what our body and brain are doing during conflict. John Gottman noticed in his research that when couples conflict escalated it was not only their words, tone, and volume that escalated it was also their heart rates and the amount of stress hormones being secreted. We call this Flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal. The research findings were compelling.
The more aroused couples were in conflict, the faster their hearts beat, the faster their blood flowed, the more they sweated, the more stress hormones were released and the more their relationships deteriorated in the next 3 years. See, what we know is that it is the escalation of conflict that builds negativity and it is this build-up of negativity that predicts relationship demise. Flooding in conflict increases negativity in a relationship.
The name flooding refers to a flood of stress hormones (such as adrenalin and cortisol) to the nervous system) that generates what is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
What happens in your body when flooded?
What happens in interaction with your partner when flooded?
When people are physiologically flooded, they have trouble in processing incoming information, meaning their capacity to listen and understand their partner is significantly impeded.
People cannot remember what they like about their partner, and it is hard for them to either give or receive affection. They do not want to be touched, and in many cases, it is even impossible to be polite and gentle with your partner.
They get tunnel vision and their perception becomes distorted so that everything seems dangerous, their partner becomes the enemy, everything said by one’s partner seems like an attack.
Alternative solutions, creative problem solving becomes difficult and people can move into what we call ‘repeat yourself syndrome’ where they repeat the same point over and over again with increasing tone and volume in a misguided belief their partner will somehow see the merits of the argument and without equivocation totally agree with everything they are saying—of course, this doesn’t occur.
What can we do about flooding?
The solution to flooding is learning to self soothe. In good relationships, couples help one another soothe, to slow down and step back from the escalation and regain a sense of calm and care in the conversation.
Develop a ritual break either through an agreed word, phrase, or hand signal to denote a timeout when one or both of you realize that flooding is occurring. For example, couples use the time out hand symbol, or they use a word that may lighten the mood such a pink elephant. What is important is that you find a symbol that works for both of you.
Once you’ve interrupted the negative interaction, you can focus on soothing. It is important that both agree on the length of the timeout—we recommend no more than one hour, allowing for you heart rate and stress hormones to reduce. After the hour it is important that you reconnect with each other and attempt a repair and discuss what both of you can do to make the conversation good a little better.
When you are on timeout it is vital to actually have timeout from the issue you were discussing and not ruminating about who was right and wrong on the scenario and rehearsing your rebuttal. Time out is about more effectively managing your flooding and looking after your relationship by not escalating conflict and negativity.
The practice of soothing can take many forms. Maybe you go for a long walk, listen to music, or read a magazine. You might also try deep breathing exercises. Getting control of your breathing is an ideal way to release tension and achieve a relaxed state of mind.
When your brain is only trained to see the danger, you’re more likely to attack or get defensive. Learning to soothe opens the door to empathy, positivity, and creativity.
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