Is your relationship suffering from gridlocked, escalating conflict?

If so, you may be worried about the health and future of your relationship. And for good reason! Contentious, gridlocked conflict often includes criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and even contempt. These four elements have been forebodingly dubbed the “four horseman of the apocalypse” by relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute—because they erode intimacy, trust, and the core friendship that is so fundamental to relationship health.

If you are ready to break this destructive cycle, an important first step is to begin to notice when you or your partner are becoming “flooded.” Flooding is the body’s way of preparing us to respond to a perceived threat. When we are flooded, our bodies are physiologically aroused for “fight, flight, or freeze”. While this may be helpful if we need to fight, run, or hide from a saber tooth tiger, it is a major disadvantage if we wish to constructively address a potentially sensitive topic with the person we love most—or with anyone else for that matter!

Our experience of flooding, and how it shows up in our behaviors and emotions, varies depending on the individual and the situation. It can also fall under our radar: we may be unaware that it is occurring in our partner, and can even completely miss it in ourselves. For example, while flooding may be experienced more obviously as feeling very ramped up emotionally, and can include raising one’s voice and being less careful with our words, it can also be experienced as emotionally and verbally shutting down. In the latter case the individual is not aware of their emotions or their physiological arousal. You may have a tendency towards one type of response, and your reaction may also vary depending upon the situation.

When you’ve identified that you or your partner are becoming flooded, it is time to call for a time out, and to reschedule the conflict discussion. Rescheduling is different from stonewalling, which is simply withdrawing emotionally and/or physically without explicitly rescheduling the conversation. Stonewalling is harmful because it sends the implicit message that “this conversation isn’t important to me” or, even worse yet: “you aren’t important to me”. Rescheduling, on the other hand, says: “I recognize this conversation is important and I want to be present for it.”

When you’ve identified that you or your partner are becoming flooded, it is time to call for a time out, and to reschedule the conflict discussion.

Learning to recognize the signs that you or your partner are becoming flooded gives you the chance to take the break needed to self-soothe, so that your nervous system is able to settle down and you can return to the conversation with your brain and heart more fully online. The time out is not for replaying or rehearsing the argument in your mind but rather for doing something that you find relaxing and grounding. Taking a few long, slow deep breaths is usually a good start. You may already have activities that you know allow you to relax, and we can all benefit from experimenting and growing our self-soothing skills throughout life. Becoming more mindful of our bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions—and learning to navigate them more helpfully—is a lifelong practice. Activities such as taking a walk, spending time in nature, hanging out with a pet, reading a book, meditating, or engaging with another relaxing hobby are some options for taking your mind off the conflict and allowing your nervous system to settle down. The Gottmans recommend a time out of at least 20 minutes and ideally no more than 24 hours—enough time to self-soothe, but not so much time that it amounts to stonewalling.

Once you and your partner’s heightened emotions have settled, you have regained the opportunity to be more present for a hopefully more constructive and fruitful conversation. Such conversations may still be very challenging! We may have difficulty authentically describing our own experience (we may instead default to criticizing our partner), we may have difficulty taking in our partner’s different experiences (we may instead stubbornly defend our own view and/or we may be inclined to simply withdraw physically or mentally), and we may not be practiced in making and negotiating requests with our partner (we may instead imagine that they should know what we would prefer). Constructive communication skills may not be intuitive or easy, but they can be learned and developed with practice. If your conflict difficulties feel too overwhelming, you and your partner may find it helpful to enlist the help of a counselor.