How to Handle Flooding and Have More Productive Disagreements
Summary of this post
Because half my readers want bullet points and the least time investment possible in reading my articles, and half of them will still have a million questions no matter how much I write, I will begin posting bullet-pointed summaries of my articles before the more complete and detailed stuff.
- The number one reason couples seek counseling is because of “communication problems” which basically means they are having terrible fights that suck.
- Arguments tend to become terrible because of “flooding,” where your heart rate is escalating, you go into fight/flight/freeze mode, and your judgment and reasoning are compromised (so you say things you often regret later)
- The key to having less painful disagreements is to manage your own response to flooding.
- To manage flooding: 1) Notice when you are getting flooded; 2) Call a time out-and agree on when you’ll come back to the conversation; 3) physically separate and get out of each others’ line of sight; 4) practice self-soothing techniques to lower your heart rate; 5) ask yourself how you want to be different in the conversation when you get back together to try it again.
Flooding: Why Arguments Suck and Are Often Counter-Productive
I’ve been doing couples counseling for a long time–about 25 years–and in all that time a couple has never talked to me about how much they enjoy their fights.
In fact, the number one reason couples seek couples counseling is because of “communication problems,” and I have learned when couples say they have “communication problems” this is code for, “We fight a lot, it completely sucks, and it’s ruining our relationship.”
While arguments are completely normal, even among couples who report the happiest and most connected relationships, your arguments don’t have to suck as bad as they do.
Arguments mostly suck because one or both partners are emotionally overwhelmed and are expressing themselves with increasingly negative emotional intensity. This may be yelling, crying, hostility, threats to end the relationship, expressing disdain for each others’ feelings and opinions, shutting down completely, putdowns and insults, name-calling, and sometimes even physical violence. The term we often use for this in couples counseling is flooding. Your emotions are “swamping” you, completely owning you.
Flooding is physiological. You can feel it in your body. Think about the last time you had one of your characteristic awful arguments. What did your body feel like? You may have experienced sweating, increased heartrate and respiration, heat sensations on your face or the back of your neck, shaky voice, butterflies in your stomach or feelings of nausea — the mix of symptoms is unique to each person.
Flooding starts when your heart rate is 95 bpm, and by 100 bpm you are well into the flood zone. When your heart rate gets that high, your body goes into threat mode. Blood gets diverted from your cerebral cortex, the part of your brain that makes you human, and goes to the brain stem and to your gut.
The brainstem is also called your “lizard brain” because evolutionarily speaking it is the oldest part of the human brain and is basically a reptile’s entire brain. Your brainstem controls a very primitive response system where there are only three options and they are either/or: fight, flee, freeze. (As for blood going to the gut, your brain is getting ready for battle and your gut is the soft part of you most vulnerable to injury so extra blood is diverted there when your brain thinks you are being threatened.)
Because your lizard brain and belly are getting more blood, your cerebral cortex is largely offline. Your capacity for many of the things that make you truly human is severely compromised — things such as compassion, reasoning, judgment, love, empathy, and connectedness.
How many times have you had one of your super-sucky arguments, eventually calmed down, and then wondered, “How could I (or my partner) possibly thought it was a good idea to say [such and such?] The answer: your judgement was compromised. You were in the flood zone and you couldn’t think straight.
So, if one or both partners are in the flood zone during an argument, and if being in the flood zone means your judgement is compromised, how can that argument ever result in anything but awful things being said and done, further hurt feelings, and continuing frustration that you cannot seem to have a productive disagreement?” Answer: It cannot!
Solution to the Flooding Problem: Calling Time-Outs
What do you do when a toddler is completely out of control? Put them in time-out! Why? Because they’re flooding and we know we have to remove them from the situation sit them down where there is no stimulation so they will calm down.
Who puts you in time-out when you are out of control? You have to do that for yourself! Here’s how you call a time-out effectively in an argument.
How to Call a Time-Out
Step 1: You must recognize the signs in your own body that you are flooding and the earlier you recognize them the better. Try using a smart watch or a pulse oximeter (about $30 at any drug store) to track your heart rate when you are upset. No matter how you feel, at 95 bpm, you’re starting to flood.
Step 2: When you know you are flooding, tell your partner you need a time-out. When one partner calls a time-out, the other partner must grant it! Say it in whatever way feels right to you.
- I need a time-out
- I have to take a break
- I’m at a place where I can’t do any good in this conversation
Note: Never call a time-out for your partner. If you think your partner may be flooding, you still call the time-out for yourself.
Note: Before you begin the the time-out, both partners have to agree on when they will get back together to have the conversation. This should be no less than 30 minutes because that’s how long it takes for your heartrate to go back to normal, and no more than 24 hours because you need to have the conversation reasonably close to when the problem occurred.
Step 3: Physically separate and get out of each others’ sight. Remember — control yourself. Do not slam doors and hit things as you are leaving the room.
Step 4: Once you are alone, practice self-soothing. Do something that calms you, makes you feel good. Listening to music, writing, playing a game on your phone, taking a warm bath, tinkering in the garage, do what works for you.
Step 5: When you are calm (you’ll feel it in your body), ask yourself how you want to show up differently when you get back together to talk again. Do you need to avoid yelling, eye-rolling, arguing, slamming your first on the table? Do you need to listen more, hold your partner’s hand while you are talking, try to be more open?
When you meet at your arranged time and try again, you may go right back to arguing, but there’s a good chance that just by following the steps above you’ll be more open, more approachable, and more gentle next time around.
Check out the video I posted on this topic
Credit: Most of my post-graduate training in couples counseling has been through The Gottman Institute, and many of my ideas are either taken from their work or inspired by/based on their work. I do not speak for them and, like most Gottman-based couples therapists, am not a Gottman-certified therapist but have been heavily influenced by their work.