Mary's Blog


Every therapist has a stock bit of wisdom that they use to dazzle a client at the first session; something that they say which leaves the perspective client thinking, "Wow! S/He really understands me!" When I'm seeing a couple for the first time, I bring up flooding .

Flooding (or medically known as diffuse physiological arousal ) is something that most of us have experienced during arguments with our loved ones. However, very few people have heard the term, much less realize that it may have happened to them. This is what it looks like:

You're in the middle of an argument and you're stressing out. You start feeling increasingly anxious. Your heart is beating faster. Suddenly, you can't think clearly. You can't concentrate on what your partner is saying. As it gets worse, you begin to lose your ability to be rational. Then BAM! You are saying or doing things you never would do normally when you're calm.

Everyone can flood given enough emotional anxiety. And everyone has a flooding style. Some people will blow up and get angry. When this happens, it can range from yelling or raging to threatening or assaulting someone physically. Another style is fleeing. Some people will feel as if they HAVE TO GET AWAY IMMEDIATELY! They may suddenly leave the room, or the house, when they flood. Others flee in more subtle ways, such as by trying to distract themselves or their partner during the fight; these are the people who may suddenly find it absolutely necessary to check email on their phone when their loved one is trying to share hurt feelings with them. Finally, some people will freeze in place with deer-caught-in-the-headlight stares. They may not be able to respond to their partner without great difficulty (if at all).

Once flooding starts, you can't stop it or think your way out of it. That's because it is an involuntary physical response to relational anxiety. It actually shuts down the part of the brain that thinks rationally. If one or both people flood, the only thing that can be done to stop it is to withdraw from the argument and take a time out for a minimum of 20 minutes (although it can take longer -- I've known people who have taken hours or even days before the flooding resolves). The more you can relax and stop thinking about your argument, the easier it is for your brain to go back to fully functioning. Taking a walk helps. So does watching television or reading a book. Even holding an icy cold damp cloth to your forehead can help shut down a flooding response.

While everyone has the capacity to flood, the tendency to flood differs from person to person. Some people will flood so easily that all they have to do is hear an angry tone in their partner's voice, while others can go for hours in a full blown argument without flooding. Men generally flood more easily than women. People who experienced chronic stress or trauma in childhood flood more easily.

If you or your partner flood when you get into conflict, here are some helpful hints:
  • Talk to your partner about flooding at a time when you are calm so you both understand it and can work cooperatively to deal with it.
  • Never argue for longer than 10 minutes maximum. No matter what the argument is about, you can always set up a time to return to it.
  • Learn to recognize the signs of flooding in yourself and your partner. Watch for it, especially if one or both of you flood easily.
  • At the first sign of flooding (confusion, difficulty thinking clearly, pounding heart, seeing "red", feeling like you need to run away), tell your partner that you have begun to flood and that you need to step away. Immediately set up a time to finish the discussion so your partner knows you are not trying to ignore or avoid them.

If you continue to have problems with flooding, communication, or managing conflict, please feel free to call me for a free 20 minute one-time consultation for couple therapy and individual psychotherapy in the Seattle area.

(February 26, 2016)


(This couple's story is based on a composite of many couples I have seen over the years.)

I’d been seeing Jen and her husband Gregg for a few weeks. They’d started couple therapy because their fights were getting worse. They had begun to make some progress in our sessions, but then a fight spiraled out of control. Maybe it was because they both were getting over the flu—feeling lousy can mess up how you react during the best of times—but this time when Jen launched into Gregg, he did something different. He dropped the D bomb.

“I can’t take this anymore! I can’t take YOU anymore! You are never going to change! I want a divorce , Jen.”

That was two nights ago. This morning I’m sitting with Jen in my office, and she is frantic. And terrified. She loves Gregg with her whole heart. She thought he loved her. When they are doing well, they are incredible together. But she can tell from the tone of his voice that he has one foot out the door. Divorce? This can’t be happening to us! He wouldn’t answer her texts yesterday. She tried to talk with him last night, but he went into the guest room and slammed the door. He avoided her this morning and wouldn’t listen to her no matter how she tried to reason with him. The more she tries to convince him that everything will be okay, that they can fix this, the more she feels him move away from her. It seems like everything she does or says right now drives him further away.

She desperately wants to fix this. That’s all she can think about: what she could say or do to make Gregg change his mind. She can’t think clearly—who could, with so little sleep, a racing mind, and such a heavy heart? When she thinks of divorce, she has trouble catching her breath. Her hands are cold, and her chest is tight. What can she do?

Times like this call for emergency first aid. And the best first aid right now is: Slow down .

When a couple has reached a crisis like this during a period of very high emotion, it is not unusual for one to say, “I’m leaving.” Sometimes that is a way of escaping from the intensity of what is going on at that moment. If given a chance to calm down, the person will often rethink the threat of divorce and return to the marriage. But for partners like Jen, the opposite is happening. They hear “divorce,” go into a deep panic, and frantically try to engage with their spouse to “fix” the situation. And the more they try to “fix” it, the more their partner withdraws to get away from the emotional intensity. Pursue…withdraw. Pursue more…withdraw more. The couple begins to spiral out of control.

I see a lot of couples at different places in that spiral. With some who are early in the spiral (like Jen and Gregg), I do couple therapy to help them slow the process down and reverse it . With some who are closer to divorce, I do an intervention called Discernment Counseling to help them find clarity before they take irrevocable steps. But for all of them, it is absolutely essential to stop one partner from chasing the other.

This is easier said than done. When you are in a panic because you fear your beloved is leaving you, it is hard to think clearly, much less figure out what to do or not do. That’s why it helps to see someone who is an expert in helping couples get through difficult times. In the meantime, here are some brief steps that will help you right away:

  1. Breathe. Inhale to a slow count of four. Exhale to a slow count of four. If you feel breathless, change the count to three. Or two. If your breathing becomes easier, lengthen the count just a little bit . Do this until your body begins to relax and your thoughts slow down.
  2. Focus on the present moment. Are you divorced at this very moment? If the answer is No, then you are not divorced. The worst has not happened yet, and it may never happen. Keep reminding yourself of this. Stay in the present moment as much as you can. The present is much safer than the what you fear will happen in the future.
  3. Soothe yourself. What calms you down? What makes you feel good? For right now, go for it as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, and as long as it doesn’t make your situation worse. Ice cream? If you’re not diabetic, do it. A favorite movie? Yes. A walk? Time with your best friend? A hug from your child? A long hot shower? Go for it. One caveat: do not use drugs or alcohol to soothe yourself. You need your wits about you. This is NOT the time to lose them.
  4. Briefly speak your heart. Once you are calm, go to your beloved and say the following words quietly: Things got out of hand last night and I regret what happened between us. I want you to know that I love you. I want things to change. How you feel is important to me. Would you consider taking some time to think about how you feel and what we could do to fix this? When you are ready to talk, let me know. Don’t say any more than that. Brevity is of the utmost importance right now. So is lowering emotional intensity.
  5. Then, wait. Don’t chase your beloved. Don’t keep checking in. Don’t give your beloved all the reasons you are good together. Just wait. Repeat steps 1 through 3 as needed until your partner has time to cool down and decides to talk. Let your beloved take the next step.

It's not easy. I’ve had to do it myself. But it is doable. And it can make a big difference as to whether this will be a temporary blow up or the start of a break up.

Next step? Start the healing process by seeing a qualified couple therapist. For couple therapy in the Seattle area, contact me at [email protected] , or call me at 206-707-2718. I also do Internet-based therapy, so if you are in Washington State, Illinois, or outside of the U.S., you can contact me. If you don’t know a therapist trained to do couple therapy (which is different than individual therapy) and you are outside of my area, check out the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s Therapist Locator at

February 18, 2016

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