If you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed during conflict, then this article is for you. We describe the psychological experience of flooding: when you white out or shut down or get hijacked by your own emotions. Usually, this happens during a fight with your spouse and it never helps resolve the issue you’re facing. In this article, we talk about what flooding is and how you can calm yourself down in order to navigate through conflict more successfully.
What is Flooding?
This is a problem that marriage researchers have been paying attention to since the 1990’s when Dr. Gottman first began describing it. It’s a common experience — typically for the withdrawer in marriage, and, since the husband is most commonly the withdrawer in a pursue-withdraw cycle, it happens the most to men. Of course, there are some wives who experience it too.
Gottman defines flooding as “the subjective sense of being overwhelmed by the partner’s negative affect, finding it to be unexpected and intense, and feeling as though one’s information processing is impaired.” In other words, in the face of your intense anger or upset I get overwhelmed and shut down. Flooding is not an emotion in itself. It’s just the experience of becoming overwhelmed and feeling like your thoughts are disorganized and you don’t know how to respond.
How to Recognize Flooding
The more obvious signs of flooding to watch for are just that sense of being overstimulated, feeling that you are overwhelmed, and mentally disorganized. It will typically prompt a fight or flight response in you so that you will want to either respond with anger or withdraw from the situation. About 80% of husbands will stonewall in this situation which looks like emotional withdrawal (shutting down) and sometimes physical withdrawal (e.g., heading to the garage) as well.
The less obvious signs of flooding are much like an intense stress response. These signs may include: increased respiration, an increased heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and perspiration. At the same time, you may notice yourself starting to have very negative or catastrophic thoughts about the relationship, for example thinking that “this is never going to work” or feeling very hopeless.
Impact of Flooding
It’s also important to notice that flooding may really compel you to want to put a stop to the situation that caused or prompted the flooding. In other words, you’ll want to shut down the argument or end the conflict, almost at any cost. It’s like you are driven to escape the situation.
The really difficult thing about flooding is that while it is something that happens to you during conflict (nobody does this intentionally to themselves) it is almost universally interpreted as you doing something to or against them! So, the more withdrawn you get as you feel overwhelmed, the more your spouse is likely to turn up the volume. In actual fact, as a result of the flooding, you may even be unable to hear what your spouse is saying.
This inability to hear your spouse is a key part of the cycle that we unpack and unravel with our marriage counseling clients as we help them find new ways to navigate conflict. In this article, we are going to talk about why this happens and how to calm yourself down.
How to Reduce Flooding During Conflict
Once again, we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. We’ve got a PDF download that shows you how to practice self-compassion as a way to reduce flooding during conflict. This exercise is an effective approach to helping you navigate conflict more successfully. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Why Do I Flood?
You may be wondering, why does this happen to me? Or perhaps it is your spouse that gets flooded and you’re asking yourself, “Why does he do that?” It’s important to be aware of this because as the intensity of conflict increases, you will reach a point where your thinking brain is shut out. The thinking part is the piece that can examine the complexities — the gray areas — of an issue and help you sort it out by considering your spouse’s point of view (the facts at hand, your own emotional state, etc.). You do really have to be on top of your mental and emotional game to navigate some marital conflict. But when you are flooded: you don’t have access to those parts of your brain which makes navigating the conflict effectively impossible.
So why does it happen to you? Here are some possible contributing factors:
- You may be more emotionally sensitive than you realize. While you are probably accused of insensitivity when flooded, it may actually be that you are more sensitive to your spouse’s emotions and so you very easily experience them as threatening or overwhelming.
- A history of intense anger. If your history includes experiencing intense anger from your spouse or in your family of origin, you may be more vulnerable to flooding.
- It’s possible that you if you grew up in a family with little to no conflict and your spouse has a volatile or assertive conflict style that this could be overwhelming for you. a history of not experiencing direct anger could be a contributing factor too getting flooded when your partner expresses anger.
- If your attachment style includes a strong fear of rejection or abandonment, you are more likely to experience flooding.
The point here, again, is that flooding is not something you are doing to your spouse. Undoubtedly, it is frustrating for your spouse. And walking away from your spouse with no explanation or suggestion to reconnect is definitely not something that will help your marriage. At the same time, some severely flooded spouses will walk away because they feel if they can just leave and the situation and calm down then the marriage will be OK. That is very sincere, and may not have any negative intentions involved, but ultimately, it’s not going to work either.
You will need to find a way to calm yourself, stay engaged, and see the issue through. At the same time, your spouse will need to learn to ask for what they need in ways that do not trigger you and make you feel overwhelmed. It has to be a cooperative effort with shared responsibility.
How to Calm Down During Flooding
Once you understand what is going on when you experience flooding, the next step is to look at what you can do to help yourself calm down when you experience it.
The first thing to do is just to become aware of when you are flooded. Self-awareness is a critical first step because you cannot respond to what you are not aware of.
Observe what is happening inside you. You will want to create some distance between yourself and the storm of thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. Even just noting to yourself that you have gotten activated and your body is starting to react is helpful.
One good strategy is to prepare ahead of time and mentally store an image of your spouse at his or her best. Picture a moment in time — a snapshot that you can wrap a frame around to keep other negative experiences out of — when you experienced your spouse as loving, generous and well-meaning. When you get flooded and if you need to take a break, you can recall this image to remind yourself of your spouse’s good will towards you.
Another image that may be useful is one you can use in the moment when you recognize you are flooded. Just picturing a large complex wheel that is spinning furiously and then you just slowly imagine slowing and slowing that wheel down. As it slows down, remind yourself to be grounded. Feel the chair you’re in, notice the comforts in the room around you of furniture or a blanket you have or a pet, and just observe and let go of some of that fear that has built up inside you as you slow that wheel down. That can be a helpful grounding technique.
How To Take A Break
Finally, it’s important to give yourself time to calm down. There are helpful and unhelpful ways of taking a break so we want to describe how to do so in a way that is helpful.
If you are in conflict with your spouse you may need a 10 to 30 minute break. During the break, try not to think about the fight or what to say to your spouse: if you keep thinking over things you will stay escalated.
Remember to do the following things before take a break:
- Before you separate, be sure to tell your spouse when you are coming back so that they do not feel abandoned or that you are just walking away. They need to know you are committed to resolving the issue with them.
- During the break, read a book or magazine or do something self-soothing. Exercise can be helpful too: a walk or run or yoga.
- Take your mind off what is happening so that when you come back to the disagreement you can have a fresh start to the conversation. Hopefully, you can also begin with a softer start to the conversation. This is a great antidote to flooding.
For the Other Spouse
As a final note for the spouse of the person who gets flooded, it’s really important to recognize that this is not something your spouse is doing to you. It may be difficult to do this if you’ve had to try hard to figure out why it happens and try to make sense of their flooding. If it has frequently felt like you were being shut out, it’s hard to not to take it personally. And it is very hard to get past that feeling of rejection.
The flooding really is something that’s happening to them. It is true that you most likely have a part to play in it too. You may not fully realize how intimidating your anger is to your spouse or how much they are afraid of losing you. Perhaps they have coupled their flooding with some bad habits or reactions that are not appropriate or acceptable for conflict. But all of these things are part of the dynamic that happens between you during conflict.
The solution does not lie in you preventing or fixing their flooding problem. It lies in changing the entire dynamic between you so that you solve issues as a team, facing the dragon of your negative cycle rather than as opponents in an arena facing one another.
This is the work we do with couples in our online counseling agency. We deliver proven, well-established approaches to couples counseling over secure video call. If you’d like more information just head on over to our website at https://www.onlyyouforever.com/.
 Heather Foran et al., “The Intimate Partner Flooding Scale,” 2017, https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.student.twu.ca/doi/pdf/10.1177/1073191118755911.
 Foran et al., 20.
 Foran et al., “The Intimate Partner Flooding Scale.”
 Julie Gottman, Julie Gottman on When Partners Get Flooded, 2016,
 Foran et al., “The Intimate Partner Flooding Scale.”
 Stephanie Manes, “Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn’t Capsize Your Relationship,” The Gottman Institute (blog), 2013, https://www.gottman.com/blog/making-sure-emotional-flooding-doesnt-capsize-your-relationship/.
 Alina Sotskova, Erica Woodin, and Lisa Gou, “Hostility, Flooding, and Relationship Satisfaction: Predicting Trajectories of Psychological Aggression Across the Transition to Parenthood,” Aggressive Behavior 41 (2014): 134–48.
 Amy Hooper et al., “Revisiting the Basics: Understanding Potential Demographic Differences With John Gottman’s Four Horsemen and Emotional Flooding,” The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 25, no. 3 (2017): 224–29, https://doi-org.ezproxy.student.twu.ca/10.1177%2F1066480717710650.
 Manes, “Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn’t Capsize Your Relationship.”
 Gottman, Julie Gottman on When Partners Get Flooded.