What's Emotional Flooding In A Relationship And How Can You Avoid It?

Learning to do conflict right in a relationship is an ever-evolving process, and sometimes it can feel like you're very far from getting it right. 

If you or your partner experience emotional flooding during a serious conversation, it might leave you feeling defeated or frustrated. Relationship researchers and psychologists Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman have studied emotional flooding at length. They describe the experience as something that "happens when our body senses danger during a conflict, and it prevents us from having productive conversations" (via CNBC). Basically, you're overwhelmed by the negativity of the conversation or the argument itself so you become defensive and/or reactive, or you just completely shut down. Your heart might begin to race and your palms might get sweaty. You may even find it difficult to concentrate on or even hear what your partner is saying because your thoughts are going a mile a minute.

If you have a partner who does this (or you yourself are prone to doing this), this might sound familiar to you. Think about that time when your significant other stopped communicating with you mid-argument. Or, maybe they just started saying defensive things that didn't even relate to the conversation at hand. "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," wrote John and Julie Gottman. Emotional flooding can look and feel different to different people, but it's definitely one of those things we do to sabotage our relationships. Here's the effect it might be having on your partnership.

You may end up hurting your partner and the relationship

Emotional flooding might not seem like a big deal once the moment has passed, but you could end up saying or doing things you don't mean when it happens and in turn, hurt your partner. At times when your significant other or you shut down during conflict, the other person in the equation can feel ignored, unheard, and frustrated. If the pattern continues during most, if not all, serious conversations, a sense of hopelessness could pervade the relationship. Nothing is worse than feeling like there's no way around having conversations that matter with your significant other.  

Therapist Zach Brittle told Huff Post that emotional flooding hinders effective problem-solving too. For the person who's experiencing the flooding, it could also feel like a losing battle. As Brittle shared, "If I know what the pattern's going to do, I'm going to avoid conflict, I'm going to go around you or I'm going to skip to the end where I automatically escalate right away. I'm not going to have as much patience to stay in it with you if I already know how it's going to end."

The key to a successful relationship is in understanding that both parties can be affected by emotional flooding, even if the person experiencing the flooding may feel like all they can think about or focus on are their own racing thoughts and overwhelming feelings. Navigating emotional flooding, therefore, becomes a matter of mutual effort. 

How to avoid emotional flooding

For the person who gets flooded, you could start off by asking yourself what about the conversations usually makes it all go downhill for you. You may have to do this when some time has passed and you're in a state of mind to reflect calmly. Is it your partner's tone of voice? Are they being too critical? Are they raising their voice and is that causing fear or anxiety? Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Emma McAdam shared in a YouTube video that it's also important to recognize "the physiological symptoms and the behaviors you start to engage in when you're stressed out and flooded." 

Taking a timed break with the intention of coming back to the conversation afterward is a good next step. John and Julie Gottman suggest going into separate rooms and engaging in an activity that makes you think about something other than the argument. "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," they explained. 

For the person who isn't experiencing flooding, understand that you won't get far trying to continue a conversation when your partner is feeling overwhelmed. Respect their need for space and use that time to relax too. It is better to pick up the conversation when both parties are able to contribute constructively instead of going around in circles.