Flooding – Stop to Start

Communication, Relationship Design

Editor’s Note: This post is by Simple Marriage contributor Mary Ann Crossno.
Changing behavior often begins with an end- we have to STOP a negative behavior in order to effectively START a positive behavior.

  • STOP spending in order to START saving
  • STOP eating doughnuts in order to START losing weight
  • STOP sleeping late in order to START going to the gym
  • STOP watching TV in order to START a project
  • STOP talking contemptuously to your spouse in order to START building a marriage that matters

So we STARTED the year focusing on what has to STOP by looking at the impact of the Four Horsemen, harsh start up, and body language on the state of our marriages.
Another behavior that needs to stop is emotional flooding – the fourth divorce predictor based on Dr. John Gottman’s research.
Flooding is your physiological reaction to a perceived threat. The threat can be real, it can be an old tape replaying [a pattern], or it can be imagined. Automatic, instinctive, reactive processes [emotions] rush in to protect you from threat.
You remember what being flooded feels like, don’t you?
It’s when your heart rate jumps 10, 20, or as many as 30 beats within the space of a single heartbeat and goes over 100 beats per minute, sometimes as high 165 beats per minute. Keep in mind that a typical heart rate for a 30 year old man is 76 beats per minute and for a 30 year old woman it’s 82 beats per minute.
Your blood pressure rises, giving you an instant headache. Some people start to feel nauseous, dizzy, and sometimes drowsy. Your hands begin to sweat, and your breathing becomes irregular and shallow. You feel confused and you can’t think clearly, if at all.
Being flooded is a like being instantly transported back to the cave. The most primitive part of your brain takes over and is now in full control of you. I call it my alligator brain, in deference to my Louisiana heritage. Nothing good comes out of my alligator brain. If I speak or act after getting into my alligator brain, I’ll regret it.
The experience of flooding is different for men and women.
Men flood quicker – it takes less negativity for them to perceive threat. They are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than women – that’s why the female soft start is so important. Once men get flooded, they stay flooded longer – they become hypervigilant. Since they’re usually not very good at soothing and calming themselves down, they withdraw and stonewall to protect themselves. As soon they withdraw from the threat, their heart rates drop by about ten beats per minute, bringing a sense of relief.
Women are more readily able to calm down from a flooded state within 20 minutes. Ironically, when the man uses withdrawal and stonewalling to calm himself down, the woman’s heart rate goes up!
Flooding takes on a life of its own – that’s why it’s called emotional high jacking (Daniel Goleman). The more often you get flooded, the harder it becomes to calm yourself down when you do get flooded.
How do you bail yourself out once you’re flooded?
Stop. State your condition.

“My heart is pounding, I can hardly breathe, I feel like my head is going to explode.”

“I’m flooded.”

“I’m losing it.”

“I’m upset.”

“My alligator brain has taken control of me.”

Take responsibility for yourself.

“I have to calm myself down.”

Tell how you’re going to do it.

“I’m going for a 30 minute walk.”

“I’m going to lie down in the other room and listen to some soothing music.”

“I’m going to do some stretching and breathing exercises.”

“I’m going to soak in a hot tub.”

Do it.
This is not a negotiation – you are not asking for or seeking your partner’s approval to stop and take care of your flooded state.
Guard your thoughts diligently while self-soothing. Mentally rehearsing your righteous indignation, replaying wounding words, or holding onto victim hood will keep you flooded or escalate your flooded state. This is the time to ask yourself, “What do I know that is good and true about my spouse?”
Once calm, make an effort to calm and soothe each other.

“I’m glad we stopped before we said ugly things.”

“What signals can we come up with as a warning that things are heating up too much?”

“What could I say or do to keep things calmer?”

“I’d like it if you would . . .”

“I thought about how many times you’ve been there for me . . “

Learn what triggers you into a flooded state and start looking at that issue when you’re in a non-threatening situation. Learn what triggers your partner’s flooding and take responsibility NOT to push those buttons.