As psychologists, we have studied more than 40,000 couples about to start couples therapy.
We’ve also been happily married for 35 years, so we know a thing or two about building a successful and lasting relationship. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We argue, we get frustrated, we argue. We are human.
Yet there is one thing we have learned never to do: fight when we are emotionally overwhelmed.
Emotional flooding occurs when you feel psychologically and physically overwhelmed. This often happens when our body senses danger during conflict and it prevents us from having productive conversations.
We have found that this is a common pattern in unhappy relationships.
Everyone has their own built-in meter that measures how much negativity and fear they can absorb at any given time. When this becomes too much, the nervous system goes into overdrive and we essentially go into “fight or flight” mode.
Here are some signs of emotional flooding:
- Your heart races and you feel short of breath.
- Your jaw or muscles twitch.
- You have trouble hearing your partner.
- You find it difficult to focus on anything outside of your own racing thoughts.
- You want to yell 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 can stop communicating completely and start resenting yourself.
It’s hard to stop yourself from taking action when you’re emotionally overwhelmed. You might say things you don’t mean. But being aware of your emotions and your mental energy can keep you from going too far.
When we realize we’re overwhelmed in an argument, we let ourselves know, “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now and need some time for myself.”
Then we go into separate rooms and do some activity that distracts or calms us down. This is important: we don’t let ourselves be cooked 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 time – when we feel better. This exercise helps us remember that the end goal is not for one of us to “win” or have the last word. The goal is to take on challenges as a team.