By Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW
Many of the couples I counsel find that they fall into cyclical and unhealthy patterns when conflict arises. Fights occur and reoccur that concern the same issues, and often play out in the same ways, with this unfortunate dynamic causing one or both partners to make regrettable comments.
For instance, Holly, age 48, has been married to Josh, 50, for twenty years and they sought counseling because they often bicker about day-to-day issues such as errands, chores, and who will choose weekend activities.
Holly put it like this: “The day our son, Conner, graduated from middle school should have been a joyous occasion but it was stressful because Josh insisted on picking a restaurant that was crowded and not family friendly. My elderly parents and our three kids didn’t have a good time. But he wouldn’t listen to reason and when I tried to discuss it with him, he raised his voice, and accused me of being stubborn.”
Having the same fight over and over again with the same result is a relatable problem, but in a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, therapist Kari Rusnak, writes about the ways in which we’re internally programmed to engage in these routines. Known as “flooding,” our bodies are physiologically programmed to respond to threats — like a disagreement with our partner — with a fight or flight response.
The physical and mental manifestation of the fight or flight reflex in us shows itself in myriad ways, from a rush of adrenaline, to increased heart rate and blood pressure, to quickened breathing. And while these are natural chemical responses to a perceived threat, Rusnak argues that understanding what’s happening in our minds and bodies in these moments can help unlock our ability to diffuse conflict and resolve fights more quickly and successfully.
As with so many tools that can help us improve our relationship, awareness is the first key step toward progress. Rusnak writes that when we fail to recognize signs of flooding, “adrenaline builds up without release, you feel anxious and stressed, and you can’t focus to listen or speak clearly.
In fact, many of the couples I meet with find that if they’re in the middle of a conflict with their partner, flooding can derail what the problem is and create more problems. It’s common to say things you don’t mean when flooded, and this can cause a new conflict.
Signs of flooding include not feeling heard by your partner, saying things you don’t mean in the midst of a conflict, feeling defensive, and raising your voice. In the moment, any of these could cause you to shut down, or alternately, to ramp up a fight. In either case, the outcome will lead to further issues and can cement the kind of hamster wheel effect caused by flooding.
However, if you can be in tune with our physical and emotional response, and identify flooding when it occurs, there are a set of strategies at our fingertips that will nip relationship turmoil in the bud. First, Rusnak suggest coming up with a “key phrase or word to initiate a flooding time-out.” Simply establish a sort of code word that means something in this context to only you and your partner.
When you or your partners invokes the word or phrase, take a break, or time out, from the conflict. Give yourself and your partner time to calm down, process the response to flooding, and do something calming. As Rusnak writes, “don’t stew. This is not a time to replay the argument or think about how you would like to respond once the time out is over. Redirect your thoughts to calming and soothing your body and mind.”
Steps to dealing effectively with flooding and conflict in intimate relationships:
- Do not blame, criticize, or show contempt for your partner. Talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking him or her. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t tell me about spending money on new clothes. We agreed to be open with each other and money is tight right now.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?” Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.). Starting conversations with a soft and curious tone such as, “Could I ask you something?” will lessen your partner’s defensiveness.
- Avoid character assassinations. Don’t attack your partner’s character, values, or core beliefs. Remember that anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so stop and reflect on your own emotions. Listen to our partner’s side of the story instead of focusing on your counterargument. Validate their perspective first – then share your viewpoint. When you feel like attacking your partner, ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish?
- Don’t make threats or issue ultimatums. Avoid saying things you will regret later. You may have created a psychological armor since childhood due to being hurt or judged but this might not serve you well as an adult. Be assertive yet open in your attempts to negotiate for what you want from your partner. Both individuals in a relationship deserve to get some (not all) of their needs met.
- Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement. Listen to your partner’s requests and ask for clarification on issues than are unclear. Discuss expectations to avoid misunderstandings. Engage in a conversation with your partner that is productive rather than shutting down. Sometimes couples can benefit from a short break before doing this.
- Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements that tend to come across as blameful – such as “I felt hurt when purchased the car without discussing it with me” rather than “You’re so selfish; you never think of what I need.”
- Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded. This will give you both time to calm down and collect your thoughts so you can have a more meaningful dialogue with your partner. Author David Akiva encourages couples to develop a Hurt-Free Zone Policy which is a period when criticism is not allowed between partners (2 days).
- Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Instead of focusing on your partner’s flaws and looking to blame him or her, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Avoid building a case against your partner. Instead, express positive feelings and gestures of love often and become skilled at demonstrating acceptance and gratitude in your words and actions.
- Practice having a recovery conversation after an argument. Daniel B. Wile, Ph.D. believes that your focus needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building intimacy, and restoring safety and good will. A recovery conversation can reveal information about your relationship, lead to a resolution of the fight, and restore intimacy. Be careful not to rekindle the fight and be respectful of each other (following the guidelines in points 1 to 7 of this list). Both individuals in a relationship deserve to get some (not all) of their needs met.
Once you’ve learned to manage and resolve conflicts effectively, it becomes much easier to repair disputes and to get back on track. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what is on your mind. Starting with an “I” statement, such as “I feel upset right now, are you free to talk?” will meet with more success than a “You” statement such as “You’re not listening to me.”
If you are in the middle of a conflict with your partner, pause and use an “I” statement to change the direction of the conversation. For instance, say something like “I feel flooded right now. Can you hold me or tell me you love me? I feel like attacking you but I don’t want to do that.” Most of the time, you’ll restore intimacy by being honest and open with your partner during times of high conflict or distress. It takes time and patience!
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.