My husband and I rarely fight. But when we do, we aren’t very good at it.
When I feel attacked by real or perceived criticism, I’ve been known to attack him right back (despite coaching my young children to do otherwise). I’ve even thrown up an obscene gesture. It’s not pretty, folks.
Equally as maladaptive, but not quite as outwardly problematic: When I feel threatened in some way, I can also withdraw into myself, shutting down. This feels like my brain going fuzzy (save for a few self-protective, distorted thoughts), my body weighing a thousand pounds.
In both extremes, I’m experiencing what psychologists call emotional flooding. My attack response is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze. I feel threatened, my body ramps up to fight.
But my bodily shutdown is more like “freeze.” It’s a physiological response to stress or fear in which metaphoric walls are built—an attempt to guard against further threat of rejection or harm. This can look and feel like stonewalling to your spouse—an intentional refusal to communicate—or like “the silent treatment” from high school days.
To be clear, my brain’s protective responses aren’t always in favor of the relationship. Sometimes it guards me above the relationship. My emotional flooding, in short, can be very counterproductive. (In case you’re wondering, research shows emotional flooding afflicts both men and women.)
See, emotional flooding amidst marital conflict is like shooting holes in a boat.
So how can you, as a couple, move past shouting or shutting down?
Do you (or your spouse) live in an emotional flood zone?
Some of us are prone to emotional flooding. We react more easily to perceived threats. We possess the “perfect storm” to an overactive fight-flight-freeze response: perhaps highly sensitive physiology compounded by a prolonged, highly volatile or stressful environment or trauma.
It can feel like we’re houses in the flood zone in New Orleans. Not only are we more prone to flooding, but the storms just seem to keep coming. It’s an exhausting way to live, especially if life currently feels like hurricane season.
Not every conflict needs to lead to devastation. Like hurricane preparedness, you can take time before the next storm to talk through vulnerabilities, work on ways to strengthen them, and come up with a plan to weather storms when they arise.
Know your forecast
Setting judgment aside, think about when you experience emotional flooding.
What happens in your body? Are you able to pinpoint what feels threatened? What are the differences between interactions with your spouse that do and do not lead to flooding?
Recognition may sound overly simplistic, but it’s a huge step to be able to recognize when your body is ramping up for a fight-flight-freeze response. Your heart rate is likely elevated; you may experience other physical symptoms akin to light-headedness or tingling sensation. If you’re able to notice, you can start implementing your preparedness plan.
To plan, think through three questions.
3 Questions to ask in conflict with emotional flooding
1. Am I safe?
In flooding, your body believes you are in danger and tries to protect you. Your job is to figure out, Am I safe?
Some of you actually may not be safe. Your body may be trying to tell you something very important: to get help. God created our bodies to be able to respond appropriately to real threats of danger, both physical and emotional, and He created marriage to be a place of safe and secure love. Please speak with a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor if you suspect your relationship is unsafe.
Some of us may also need help not necessarily because of current physical or emotional abuse, but because our bodies and/or communication styles with our spouses are stuck in unhelpful or destructive patterns. Your body may revert to hurricane mode when there’s even a drizzle of conflict. Or perhaps that drizzle of conflict contains a mist of contempt, triggering our deepest fears of unworthiness or rejection.
If your body’s response is keeping you from feeling safe in non-abusive conflict, there is likely a good amount of prep work to be done before hurricane season comes. I strongly suggest working through your story with a trained Christian counselor. Conflict with your spouse may stir up fears that don’t have much to do with your spouse at all.
You might also learn and practice healthy conflict and coping skills together (perhaps with the help of marriage counseling). Learning to banish unhealthy accusations, sarcastic or contemptuous speech, or demeaning body language is essential for felt safety for you both.
As you work on your story and healthy communication, normal conflict can start to feel like less of a crisis. Working together to be safe for each other, you can mitigate the damage conflict brings.
2. Can I be okay if my spouse isn’t okay?
Part of my story: I’ve consistently taken on a peacemaker role in the relational patterns of my family of origin. This makes it difficult for me to remain “okay” if someone in my system is not “okay.” With two highly sensitive children, I found this dynamic especially challenging in parenting. My husband is much more even-keeled, but I still notice my stress level rise in proportion to his.
I’m learning to take his frustrations less personally. He is able to express irritation at the clutter in the kitchen without me crumbling from shame that triggers a deep fear that I’ll never be able to do enough (or be enough).
With parenting, I had to learn my children’s behavior wasn’t my report card; it didn’t say anything about my worth as a person or my identity. And as I learned to separate my identity from other people and my performance, this strengthened my relationship with my husband as well.
When our identity is firm—as beloved children of God no matter how well we do, no matter how we fall short—we can receive constructive criticism from those we love about our performance (see Romans 8:31-39). We can also know that their bad day or bad behavior doesn’t dictate what we believe about ourselves.
And when we’re less concerned about protecting our ego and our standing, we’re able to use that energy to empathize with a spouse’s concerns, frustrations, and struggles.
3. How can I restore safety so it’s felt by both of us?
A large part of restoring felt safety in relational conflict happens outside of tense moments—but there are also techniques to use within stress or conflict. Like the Psalmist in 116:7 addresses his soul, we remind our souls and bodies we’re okay: “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
And because your body is giving you a physiological response to feeling unsafe, it makes sense to respond with physiological methods to restore its “safe” response. Sometimes I’ll say out loud to my family, “I need a few deep breaths,” so they know I need a moment to calm my body down.
When I first started understanding my emotional flooding, I also practiced breath prayers, used by Christians since the third century. Mine goes like this: “I breathe in God’s grace” (deep inhale in), “I breathe out God’s love” (slow exhale out).
Tell your spouse you need five minutes to walk outside; you’re not just abandoning the conversation. Feel the grass with your bare feet and listen to nature around you—helping your brain come back to the here and now.
Slowing down emotional flooding in your relationship
Be kind to yourself and your spouse as your body learns to deescalate its response. With some thoughtful preparations before the next storm, you and your spouse can come up with a plan to talk through vulnerabilities, work on ways to strengthen them, and better weather stress and conflict in your relationship.
Copyright © 2022 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Laura Way serves with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating unexpectedly a couple of years ago. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at HopeForTheSojourn.com.