First and Foremost (Part Two)
This piece is so critical, I cannot overstate it: managing our emotions well when we become physiologically agitated can make a huge difference in our relationship. When we become overly aroused with a strong emotion such as anxiety, anger or fear, it sets off a chain reaction in our brain and body that we call flooding or diffuse physiological arousal.
Engaging frequently with our partner when flooded is the first step on the Distance and Isolation Cascade, leading to emotional disengagement, loneliness, and potentially divorce.
Why is this important in relationship?
Through his 40+ years of extensive research with over 3000 couples, John Gottman discovered that in ailing relationships there is often heightened physiological arousal for both men and women. This can create a feeling of unmanageable stress. Diffuse Physiological Arousal, or DPA, also known as flooding, is our body’s general alarm mechanism, inherited through evolutionary means. The purpose of flooding is to mobilize oneself so that we can effectively cope with crises or emergencies.
Whenever we perceive a threat (and this perception is instantaneous, requiring very little complex or cortical thought), a series of processes automatically happen in the body, preparing one for an emergency. Our instinctual reaction is to fight or flee. The heart races, adrenaline courses through our bloodstream, the more complicated process of reasoning shuts down, and we prepare to act—in self-defense.
Thousands of years ago, it was the saber-tooth tiger that threatened us; now it’s our partner.
What does flooding look like?
Oftentimes, it is someone becoming very upset or agitated, and yelling. But a person who withdraws and stonewalls is also flooded – meaning their heart is racing, their breathing is shallow, they are wanting to flee. When flooded, you may find yourself repeating yourself, almost hoping if you say it just one more time, your spouse will finally hear you and go, “Oh! That makes sense!”
Consider these facts:
- All people experience flooding.
- For physiological reasons, when we are flooded we are unable to communicate effectively. (I do mean unable.)
- We hear and see signals of danger, nothing else.
- Trying to communicate when flooded is damaging to any relationship.
Talking to anyone we care about—spouse, children, siblings, co-workers—when flooded is destructive. When flooded, we are incapable of listening well. We are simply waiting for the other person in front of us—who just won’t stop talking!—to pause long enough so we can dive in and set him/her straight on what the true situation is. We are out to convince or to conquer, not engage in meaningful, give-and-take dialogue.
To have fruitful dialogue, we have to be open to hearing our partner’s point of view; to take it in and hold it dear. This is simply not possible while flooded.
All effective communication skills will be for naught if you continue to engage in the negativity that arises once you’re flooded.
If you are a couple who has fallen into a habit of engaging when flooded, this process will feel awkward at first. It can even feel like your spouse uses the time-out signal simply to stop you from talking! Again, the person who gives the time-out signal is responsible for returning – when calm! – and arranging a time to talk about the issue at hand.
After several times of stopping the negative interaction, so that you both can return to the table ready to listen, you’ll begin to see the wisdom of this approach.
It is a practice… and a very important one.
Making it a relational commitment and a habit to not engage when flooded, will increase your ability to manage intense emotions, saving your energies for investing in more deeply hearing and understanding one another.