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Emotional Flooding: How do we Stop the Conflict?

Posted Apr 23 2009 5:25pm

What’s the first thing to do when you and your partner are locking horns?  I’m talking about situations where you each believe that your partner just needs to wake up and see the light and you  feel that you keep having the same argument over and over and nothing gets resolved.

This is the kind of situation the noted psychologist and couples’ expert John Gottman terms “emotional flooding.”  This term refers to relationships where aggressive and defensive reflexes have become a way of life.

These relexes are triggered by a combination of frustrations, accumulated resentments and misunderstandings.The very first step in stopping the destructive cycle is to take a time out.  We need to let the limbic system, the location of our reptilian, or old brain, calm down.  When anger and frustration rev up our nervous system, we can’t expect logic to prevail.  Our subconscious, as well as conscious, emotions are running the show.  A good technique for taking  time out to calm down is to establish a signal that indicate when one partner is feeling emotionally flooded.  Some couples use a humerous signal that gets their partner laughing, even in the midst of conflict.  It doesn’t matter what the signal is as long as you each agree and neither of you find it offensive.

The next step is to engage in dialogue - a specific method of communication that allows each partner to feel heard and acknowledged.  One of the primary tools in “Imago” therapy is teaching couples a specific way of talking.  The technique is used in situation where emotions would inflame the conversation and result in increased conflict.  With the dialogue process each partner can feel a sense of saftey and this further calms the limbic system.

We’ll explain more about the dialogue process in future posts.  For now, you and your partner can agree on a mutual signal that communicates “I need a time out.”  With this agreement you’ve already taken a step forward in breaking the old patterns that weren’t working.

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