We all know what it’s like to get carried away by some rough emotional currents when we’re arguing with our significant other. These aren’t the day-to-day flashes of anger or hurt. I’m talking about the giant, tsunami-like waves of bad feelings that completely knock you down and take any rational thought with them. This is how it usually goes: You’re in the middle of a disagreement, your partner says or does something that triggers you, and suddenly you fall down a deep, dark rabbit hole. The only emotions you register are rage, hurt, panic, and fear.
When I’m caught in one of these rip tides, I have the physical sensation of something taking hold of my body — my muscles clench, my face flushes bright red, and my stomach flip-flops. My mind goes into overdrive. I’m deaf to anything my husband is saying, and I can only hear the blame narrative rapidly evolving in my head. I become a prosecuting attorney endlessly repeating a courtroom argument. Mind you, when I’m all caught up like this, my allegations are often (ok, usually) not terribly sound. Any reasonable judge would probably toss my case right out (or at least knock the charge down from a felony to a misdemeanor). But even knowing that doesn’t dampen my prosecutorial zeal.
The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain — the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs — is shut out. Psychologist John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens — and it could be almost anything — in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your parasympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some (all?) of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, the center of higher cognition.
The stuff that works well when you’re being chased by a mastodon doesn’t work so well in the modern world. Our instinctive reactions in these moments usually make the situation worse. The fight response we’re primed for becomes a cascade of angry words that just deepen wounds. In flight, we might stalk out of the room or shut out our partner with icy silence. Basically, when we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner. And then both of you are out of control.
Here are some things I’ve learned from my personal development and mindset work, my own experiences, and from coaching my clients, that may help you and your partner avoid (or at least easily climb out of) that treacherous rabbit hole:
- Observe what’s happening. This is the key to creating some distance between yourself and the wild storm of thoughts and feelings. Mentally note that you’ve been triggered, and start to investigate what happens next. Notice what thoughts take shape in your mind, and what sensations move through your body.
- Mentally store a picture of your partner at his/her best — a moment when you experience them as loving, generous, and well-meaning. Add as much detail as you can to really capture how you experience your partner when you’re feeling loved and cared for. I like to picture my husband relaxing on our uber-comfy couch, surrounded by our adorable kitties, with a look of pure happiness on his handsome face. Try shifting your focus to this image when you get trapped in a negative story about your partner. This helps your brain move out of the reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.
- Hit the pause button on your interaction and take a deep breath. I find that before I can do anything, I need to reassure myself that I’ll be fine if I wait for this storm to pass. Like a standoff with an armed hostage-taker, I must convince myself to at least put down the gun before we can keep talking. If you accept the idea that you can’t entirely trust yourself and your perceptions when you’re in a state of total reactivity, you at least have a fighting chance of pulling yourself back from the spiral. Some part of your brain will register the notion that you probably shouldn’t be so quick to buy into whatever blame narrative or catastrophic rendering of things that your mind has come up with.
- Use images to ground the process of slowing, observing, and letting go. You might want to imagine your mind as a wheel that’s spinning furiously. With each breath, you’re able to slow down its speed until it’s barely turning. Or picture your racing thoughts as a cloud of sand that’s been kicked up in the water. Wait for the sand to sink back down to the seabed, leaving clear water. As your frantic thoughts subside, your nervous system can calm down, too. Imagine any constriction melting. Relax your hands and imagine yourself physically letting go of the story you created about what has happened with your partner.
- Take timeouts when you need to. Make a pact with your partner that if either of you gets too activated in an argument to hear the other, you’ll take a time out to avoid saying things you’ll regret. Agree to come back together and continue the discussion within a certain timeframe, but don’t delay indefinitely. Use the time to actively soothe yourself rather than obsessing over your version of what went wrong, which will just keep you activated.
And remember, don’t beat yourself up when you do get tripped up and act out. That’s what “I’m sorry” is for. But with awareness and committed practice, you’ll find yourself navigating difficult conversations with greater warmth, connection, and mutual understanding.