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Step 4: Emotional flooding

Imagine you’re sitting in your living room, talking on the phone to a friend. You’re laughing and having a fun time. You feel safe and relaxed.

Then all of a sudden water starts flooding in your window, ceiling, and doorway.

What do you do?

You panic. All you can do is focus on the situation. Your heart is pounding, you can’t hear your friend on the phone asking you if you’re okay, and you forget about your ability to communicate. You think, “I have to get out of here.”

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This is the same experience people feel in nasty cycles of conflict.

Since you feel under attack, you emotionally shut down, or you ramp up and attack in an even worse way.

When we are flooded, the caveman inside of us comes out. It doesn’t care about your partner, it cares about your survival. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, calls this part of the brain the “primitives” because it’s an old brain whose goal is to keep you safe at all cost.

How it works:

  1. Alarm system goes off when something appears threatening.
  2. It prepares the body to fight, flee, or freeze to protect you.
  3. You attack or run.

When your primitives are activated, they respond by smashing your partner with a verbal club (attack: criticism, contempt, defensiveness) or run away (stonewalling).

Flooding makes it impossible to listen, respond calmly, engage, or resolve conflict.

Repeated experiences of flooding make partners feel incredibly distressed in the presence of each other, heightening the risk of flooding the next time a couple is around each other and much harder to resolve conflict.4

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