Flooding Psychology. Why Your Partner Doesn’t Communicate Effectively.

By Dr Alice Boyes |

This post covers ONE of the most common reasons for relationship communication failure, and includes HOW TO advice at the bottom.

Flooding Psychology

- Psychological flooding is one of the biggest things that gets in the way of couples having healthy compromise discussions.

- When people reach a certain level of emotional arousal they can’t process information or communicate effectively. Relationships psychology PhDs call this becoming “psychologically flooded”.

- Psychological flooding can occur very quickly (sometimes instantly).

- People in relationships need to pay attention to when they themselves or their partner might be emotionally flooded because it may not be immediately obvious.

- If a person has had lots of past experiences of becoming psychologically flooded in interpersonal discussions, they may get flooded in response to what seems like a very small trigger.

- People can become flooded at the start of conversations or midway.

- Psychological flooding is something that happens during discussions – people are not permanently flooded. You can’t use it as an excuse for why you can never talk about something.

Escape, Attack, or Freeze

- When someone is psychologically flooded their instinct is usually to do anything necessary to escape. Escape can mean physical escape but more commonly it means escaping emotions the person can’t deal with – their own emotions or whatever emotions their partner is expressing.

- As ways of escaping, people sometimes tune out their partner, make inappropriate jokes, or attack as a form of defense.

- Shame, anxiety, or both, are probably the most common emotion triggers for someone becoming flooded. However, flooding also becomes “conditioned” which means that if similar conversations have produced shame/anxiety in the past, then the person might jump straight to flooded without subjectively feeling those emotions.

- Useful compromise discussions don’t happen when one or both people is “psychologically flooded” because useful compromise discussions require partners to be able to stay cognitively flexible (think flexibly) during the discussion and be open to being influenced by each other.

Becoming psychologically flooded is not a character flaw!

Partners need to take a practical approach rather than judging the individual for becoming flooded.

Flooding Psychology Tips – What You Can Do

- Couples need to figure out a way of communicating the following to each other in a Matter-Of-Fact way rather than a judgmental way…

“I’m flooded. We need to stop now and make a plan to revisit this discussion later.”

And

“Are you flooded? Would it be better for us to revisit this discussion later?”

Other Flooding Psychology tips –

- Allow your partner ways to keep their self respect in whatever conversation you are having.

- Studies have shown that discussions between partners tend to end on the same tone they began with. Use a “soft start up” to compromise discussions to help prevent emotional flooding.

One idea for a soft start up is to say

“I’m wanting to talk about… when do you think would be a good time to talk about it?”

rather than launching into a conversation whenever you feel like it. Launching into a conversation whenever you feel like it isn’t ok.

- Get creative. It might be easier to have a particular compromise discussion while going for a walk together (the walking can dissipate some of the escape/attack/freeze response). Therapy is an obvious solution because you and your partner can have your conversation during the session and the therapist can help each of you not become flooded and/or experiment with what to do when it happens.

- The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by Relationships Expert and psychology PhD Dr John Gottman is the book I would recommend you get if you only ever read one relationships book. It contains great info about the types of issues I’ve written about here. The word “marriage” in the title is stupid since it applies to all committed relationships.

A client recently told me about “The Book Depository” which is a book website (like Amazon) that has FREE SHIPPING to most major countries, including free shipping to New Zealand on orders of any amount.

The Book Depository UK Site

The Book Depository US Site

Amazon.com Homepage

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About The Author

is the author of an upcoming book about anxiety for PenguinRandomHouse. She writes for Psychology Today, GOOD magazine, and is the Emotions Expert for Women's Health Australia. She lives in NYC and is originally from New Zealand.

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