Spending most hours of the day under the same roof with a group of people (probably your family), is likely to bring out some feelings of irritation, annoyance and anger. They’re too messy, too loud, say the wrong thing, look at you the wrong way, don’t cooperate the way you would like them to, or are simply in your space. Next to this brewing anger, most of us are experiencing some sense of anxiety, hopelessness and despair. The uncertainty of not knowing when this corona situation is going to end, fills us with worry. This combination of anger and hopelessness is a perfect breeding ground for explosive arguments. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol easily flood your system, you lose control over the rational part of your brain and your fight-flight system is activated.
When you go into fight-flight, your heart rate goes up, the blood flow to non-essential organs slows down, and your body gets ready to either fight your perceived danger, run away from it, or freeze. These fight-flight responses are essential when dealing with actual physical dangers, such as a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes. But when faced with your partner or child leaving a dish in the sink, it is your system overreacting. You may yell, name call, threaten or even physically lash out at them.
To avoid this, you need to have a plan in place for when your system gets flooded. As Gottman Couples Therapists we call this a Flooding Plan. It is the one way to deal with such moments: to stop the interaction and take a break. You need to lower your heart rate and calm down before you can have an effective conversation.
Consider this: in his laboratory, relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman had couples sit in a room to discuss a problem in their relationship, while monitoring their heart rates with pulse oximeters. When either partner’s heart rate exceeded 100 beats per minute (which can happen when one becomes angry and powerless in an argument with a loved one), he would walk into the room, stop their interaction by telling them that the equipment was malfunctioning and ask them to read a magazine while they fixed the equipment. Meanwhile, the heart rate monitors kept working perfectly and could register when heart rates were back to normal. He then asked partners to reengage in their argument and lo and behold, they were able to have a much calmer and effective conversation. Conversely, the arguments of couples who were not stopped (the control group) all had negative outcomes.
So back to the Flooding Plan.
In order to create a good plan, sit down with your partner at a calm time and discuss how you will handle it when one of you gets really overwhelmed and starts to lash out at others in the household (fight), withdraws (flight) or becomes non responsive (freeze). There are five steps that are part of any solid Flooding Plan:
- Indicate you need a break. Agree on a signal, word or sentence that indicates that you need to take a break. You can use the time-out hand signal, say “I need a break”, “time out”, “I feel overwhelmed and need to talk about this later”, or anything that works for you.
- Disengage immediately. Your partner needs to honor this signal or word(s) and must promise to disengage immediately. Do not try to get the last word in. Your partner is feeling overwhelmed and cannot take in information anyway.
- Take a break. Take an effective break, which means doing something that calms you down: reading a book, taking a walk, meditating, listening to music, or whatever strategy works for you. Do not ruminate on your argument. This is not easy, because we humans are excellent ruminators. If you notice yourself thinking about the argument, try to refocus your attention on your calming activity.
- Decide on a time to continue the conversation. After 30 minutes, reconvene and discuss when you will get back to the conversation. Your conversation can be then and there, or at the most after 24 hours. If you have children, make sure that this is after they are in bed or when they are not present.
- Get back to your conversation. This is essential. At the agreed time, make sure you are calm, sit down and discuss the issue you were upset about earlier. If you do not get back to the topic, your partner will feel abandoned and as if their needs are not important to you. This would be a perfect way to build resentment, so please avoid it.
We are all going through a difficult time right now. Arguments are prone to happen more frequently because we are spending more time together. Therefore, use the Flooding Plan only when you are truly flooded, when you feel your heart pounding and adrenaline surging. Do not manipulate the plan to get out of an argument, because that will backfire. This is really just meant for when arguments get out of hand. If you notice your plan is helping, consider using the same technique when you see your child getting overwhelmed. Don’t continue arguing with them, because they may enter deeper and deeper into fight-flight, and they won’t be able to absorb what you are saying anyway. Allow them to take a break instead. If you notice after an argument that you could have used a Flooding Plan but didn’t, resolve to try it next time. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in one day, and changing conflict patterns takes time, patience and practice.