As psychologists, we’ve studied more than 40,000 couples about to begin couples therapy.
We’ve also been happily married to each other for 35 years, so we know a thing or two about how to build a successful, long-lasting relationship. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We argue, we get frustrated, we snap at each other. We’re human.
Still, there is one thing we’ve learned to never ever do: fight when we are emotionally flooded.
What is emotional flooding?
Emotional flooding is when you feel psychologically and physically overwhelmed. It often happens when our body senses danger during a conflict, and it prevents us from having productive conversations.
We’ve found that it’s a common pattern in unhappy relationships.
Everyone has their own built-in meter that measures how much negativity and fear they can take in at a single moment. When it becomes too much, the nervous system goes into overdrive and we essentially enter “fight or flight” mode.
Here are some signs of emotional flooding:
- Your heart races and you feel out of breath.
- Your jaw or muscles clench.
- You have a hard time hearing your partner.
- You struggle to focus on anything outside of your own racing thoughts.
- You want to scream and say negative things, run away, or ignore your partner.
These behaviors can harm both your partner’s trust in you and the foundations of your relationship. You may stop communicating altogether and start to resent each other.
How to avoid flooding while fighting
It’s hard to stop yourself from acting out when you’re emotionally flooded. You might say things you don’t mean. But being mindful of your emotions and mental energy can prevent you from going too far.
When we realize we are flooded during an argument, we let each other know: “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now and need some time to myself.”
Then we walk into separate rooms and do an activity that distracts or calms us down. This is important: We don’t let ourselves stew in how upset we are. Instead, we might do a quick meditation or yoga session, read an article, or play a game on our phones.
Then we continue the conversation at an agreed upon time — when we’re feeling better. This exercise helps us remember that the end goal isn’t for one of us to “win” or have the last word. The point is to work through challenges together as a team.