Tough marriage conflicts can turn into a perfect storm.
They can flood the streets of love with the sewage of personal attacks. From what I’ve learned, beating up a loved one is never a fair fight. You know their deepest vulnerabilities, their most important values. This gives you the power to structure what you say in a way that cuts them down with a machete of words.
Have you ever wondered why we do this? Why we intentionally hurt the one we love? Have you ever wondered why we shut down and become “emotionally unavailable” to our partners when they confront us on something that could improve our marriage?
The problem with intense conversations is that they confront the beliefs we hold about our relationship, ourselves, and our partners.
So when something threatens to contradict the beliefs we hold about how things are, our bodies flood with chemicals that increase our heart rate. Our bodies prime to run away or fight and defend our point.
This Happens in Three Stages
Stage 1: We feel shocked by our partner’s comments, actions, or lack thereof. Maybe they are blaming us or accusing us of doing something we didn’t. Either way, our bodies become tense as we experience something we didn’t expect.
Stage 2: We can’t calm down. As our insides flood, we become anxious. We feel as if our life is at stake. The more flooded we feel, the more likely we turn into a reptile. Emotionally flooded people and reptiles have two characteristics: they lack a sense of humor, and they eat each other.
Our heart rate skyrockets and our automatic instinctive reactive emotions take control of our thoughts and actions. The notion of “choosing” is erroneous because the section of our brain that chooses, our neocortex, is no longer in control. The idea of fighting fair is abandoned because reptiles never fight fair.
As we are emotionally hijacked, we become deaf to any positive things our partner may be saying. The narrator of our minds may take on a negative story of us. We blame our partners for the problem. We find flaws in everything they say or do.
And we tell them so.
Stage 3: Emotional Shutdown. If we continue to become flooded without resolve, we eventually become numb to our hurt. It becomes so overwhelming that we block it out completely. According to John Gottman’s research, men tend to become emotionally hijacked easier and stay flooded longer. Since we struggle to soothe ourselves and calm down, we withdraw and go ice-cold to protect ourselves.
From my own experiences, doing so has brought a sense of relief in the heat of a fight. The only problem is that shutting down only makes my partner’s heart rate increase, causing them to flood more. This only escalates the conflict.
Emotional flooding is a major reason why humans suck at tough relationship conversations. In fact, John Gottman’s research indicates that repeated flooding in marriages is a predictor of divorce. Flooding again and again, changes The Story of Us, causing us to start to see our partners in a negative light. That light guides us towards the path of betrayal or singlehood.
So, how can not lose it during relationship conflicts? Here are the six steps I use and teach my clients:
The Marriage Conflicts Peace Treaty
Step 1: Awareness. I become aware that I feel like I am under attack by my partner. Sometimes I use the Instant Heart Rate iPhone App to notice how elevated my heart rate is. During emotional flooding, our heart rate can jump up to 20 or 30 beats per minute. My average heart rate is 65 BPM, so if my heart rate jumps to the 80’s while I am sitting down and having a conversation, I know my body feels like it is in a war zone.
You can also feel this in your body. You’ll feel overwhelmed. Anxious. You might desire to attack your partner. Be aware of how your body feels.
Step 2: Assert my Flooding. Once I have the awareness I am flooded, I tell my partner that we have to stop talking because I feel like I am going to start attacking her. This isn’t easy to do, but it prevents me from eating her vulnerabilities alive. You can say things like, “I’m losing it.” “I’m flooded and want to attack you.” “I’m getting upset.”
Step 3: Schedule a time to continue the conversation. This is vital if my partner brought up the argument. When I first learned to assert my flooding, I would get the space I need, but I would avoid the conversation next time I saw my partner. Over the following weeks, she would stew over her unresolved problem and tension between us would increase until we fought about it again.
Committing to your partner to continue the conversation allows them to calm down and realize that you can’t control your emotions in the present moment. But they know when you can, you want to solve the problem at hand.
Step 4: Non-negotiated distance. It’s your responsibility to calm yourself down and take care of your flooded state. This is non-negotiable with your partner. You need your space, otherwise your words and actions are going to nuke the love right out of the relationship. John Gottman’s research states that we should take a 20 minute break and emotionally distance ourselves from the conflict.
I go on a 25-minute walk while listening to my favorite songs. Other people play video games or find challenging tasks that consumes their cognitive awareness.
During this time, it’s vital that you think good thoughts about your partner. It’s very easy to stay in your defensive state and stew over feeling righteous, replaying wounding words your partner said, or allow yourself to feel like a victim. The problem is this only escalates flooding. Instead, ask yourself what is good and true about your significant other. Focusing on the good will not only soothe your emotions, you’ll also realize that they are not out to eat you alive!
Step 5: Note triggers. Ask yourself what caused yourself to turn into a reptile. Was it a word your partner said? A way your partner moved? By noting the triggers that cause your flooding, you can help them learn how to discuss uncomfortable topics without drowning you in your own emotions.
FYI – If you know your partner’s triggers, it’s your responsibility to not be a dick. Don’t push those buttons.
Step 6: Soothe each other. Before you bring up the topic of discussion, talk with your partner about what caused you to flood. Thank them for allowing you to take space to keep the relationship intact.
“I’m thankful you let me stop before I said things I regretted.”
“I felt triggered when you mentioned that you needed more space. I think I fear being abandoned by you.”
Battling and becoming aware of our instinctual reactions that cause a perfect storm in love is not easy, but the more times you practice the six steps above, the easier it will become. The healthier and happier your relationship will become. Remember, when emotions become tense, love becomes nonsense. If you want your marriage to last, give it the space it needs to breathe when the fire gets too hot.