Emotional Flooding: When Your Partner Becomes a Lion
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed during an argument, whether it's anger, sadness, frustration, or a mix of all three. Emotional flooding is likely to blame, and it helps to understand what and why this is happening so that you can learn how to handle it.
The Gottman Institute has done years of research on how couples interact and have identified that when people get upset during arguments, they can reach a state of being emotionally flooded.
Chances are you've felt flooded before. Picture this: your partner says something that sends you into a tailspin.
Then, your heart starts beating uncontrollably, your breathing becomes irregular, your face heats up, your palms are sweating, you can feel emotions swelling up inside, you're crying, you're yelling, you're dead silent, you can't hear what your partner is saying because you're too angry and hurt and overwhelmed. At this point your partner could apologize, they could say that they were wrong, but it wouldn't matter, because you're outraged. To make matters worse, they don't apologize or say that they're wrong, which sends you further and further into your pain.
Once you're in this heightened state, it is physiologically impossible to have a productive conversation.
Flooding triggers the fight or flight response, and while you might want to settle the argument right then and there, your body won't let you. That's because when we're flooded, we're unable to access important cognitive skills such as listening or seeing other perspectives.
Your Partner Becomes a Lion
When we're emotionally flooded, our brains instruct our bodies to go into survival mode. It's as if a lion were in the room instead of your partner (although during fights your partner may seem as dangerous as a lion). Your body gets ready to fight the lion (bad idea), or run from the lion (slightly better idea?), or freeze and hope the lion doesn't see you (no idea if this is a good idea, but probably not).
Your brain is not conserving resources so that it can help you hear the lion's perspective on why it wants to eat you, or help you share your feelings with the lion in a calm and reasonable manner about why you'd prefer not to be eaten.
How to Know if You're Flooded
You probably know when you're flooded- it's when you feel completely overwhelmed. Your emotions are strong and consuming, you feel like you can't think straight (because you can't), and you have the sense that you need to defend yourself by any means necessary.
You'll experience physiological changes, such as:
Increased heart rate (80-100 beats per minute, according to Gottman's research)
Quick or irregular breathing
Tightness in chest
Changes in vision (tunnel vision or blurriness)
You'll also experience emotional shifts, including:
Agitation and irritability
Anger and frustration
Wanting to escape the situation
Wanting to emotionally attack your partner
But... The Lion is Still There
Now you know what's happening in your body next time you get into a huge fight with your partner, and hopefully in that moment you'll be more aware that you can't talk your way through it.
However, just knowing that you're flooded doesn't get you very far when your partner is still standing in front of you, continuing to emphasize their perspective (which you think is an insane perspective) and waiting for you to respond. This is when you need to take use some strategies to make yourself... un-flooded. To make yourself drought-ed, if you will.
It's Up To You
You are responsible for bringing yourself back to your emotional baseline. I tell my clients this all the time (in both individual and couples therapy)- you are responsible for dealing with your feelings. Your partner isn't responsible for dealing with them, your parents aren't, your friends aren't, only you. And likewise, you are not responsible for their feelings.
So if you're anxious or angry, if you're flooded in a fight, then you need to address that. And in another post I'll go over some of the best strategies for doing that.