You’re in a fight with your partner. Your heart is racing, your body feels rooted to the floor, and yet you feel like you want to run. Or, maybe you feel incredibly irritated and you just want to lash out. When you’re feeling adrenalized, and your fight or flight system is activated, it’s all you can do to stay grounded and centered. You either feel like you want to run out of the room or withdraw and shut down; or, you want to react in a way you know you’ll regret later.
Dr. John Gottman calls this physiological phenomena “flooding.” You are flooded by your emotions, and by adrenalin, cortisol, etc. which is making your brain think you’re in a threatening situation. Dr. Gottman’s research found that more men experience this than women, but I think anyone who’s experienced trauma can easily recreate this within their intimate relationships as well. It’s an old, familiar, physiological way of handling any threatening situation–and that threatening situation can very well be an argument or conflict with your mate.
Instead of “flooding,” my husband and I call it “electrifried.” Whatever you want to call it, this unconscious physiological response from your body is telling you something–you’re activated! You feel threatened. You’re definitely not grounded enough to respond in a loving manner–you’re just trying to cope with what’s going on for you. How the heck can you respond to your partner in a conscious and loving way? Oh my goodness–you’re either looking for the nearest door or you’re looking to spew out words not fit for any dictionary! Herein lies a huge problem for couples. When you’re reacting and not grounded–you can do a significant amount of damage to your relationship. Plus, the more this physiological reaction occurs, the more entrenched this pattern of behavior becomes. Uh oh!
According to Dr. Gottman, many men who feel adrenalized when their wives are trying to discuss things (okay–argue?) with them (researchers have found men tend to hold on to stress longer than women do), will then begin to disengage and withdraw–which makes their partners c-r-a-z-y! Ever hear of the distancer-pursuer pattern? One partner will pursue their partner, while the other partner becomes more distant? The distancer is probably overwhelmed with all kinds of stress hormones–that physiological/fight or flight response. He probably doesn’t want to lash out at his wife (he’s not consciously thinking this, just reacting to his bodily cues), so instead of the fight option–he opts for flight. It isn’t always men, though, but Dr. Gottman’s research has found that a majority of men engage in this type of behavior (which is a huge contributor to stonewalling, one of his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”–a dagger to anyone’s relationship).
When you first meet, you bring with you into the relationship your unhealed wounds from childhood that you think are safely hidden away. Then, as life with your partner goes on, little things–and sometimes big things–occur to bring those wounds to the surface. I know that when I was dating my (new) husband, even though I had been to therapy, I still felt “raw” in some instances. I was able to tell my husband I was feeling ungrounded and triggered in those moments we had a disagreement, but it took me some time to get back to a space where I could begin to think rationally. What used to take me hours and sometimes a day or two to get grounded again, now takes me a minute or two to recognize what’s going on for me and to address it then and there.
Dr. John Gottman has done a tremendous amount of research on marriage and divorce. His work in the Love Lab has really propelled the knowledge of what makes couples’ relationships work into the twenty-first century. But, like many people know, even though researchers might know now the telltale signs of divorce and be able to predict it–it still hasn’t made a difference in the rate of divorces. The rate’s still holding steady at 50%. What’s going on? Well, I think one of the reasons is that by the time couples recognize they’re in deep trouble, that’s when they reach out to a counselor–and by then chances are that one or both of them have already checked out of the marriage (so…lesson #1: don’t wait until it’s too late to then decide you need marriage counseling!). But here’s what I want you to get from this: If you or your partner feel “electrifried” during some of your arguments, that’s a big sign that that behavior is not only unhealthy for your relationship, but that at some point you are going to become one of the statistics of divorce.
Here’s some good news: Those physiological responses sent from your brain to your body during interactions with your partner–if you recognize this as happening with you or your partner, you’ve already helped your relationship simply by recognizing that this pattern exists (and it’s lethal). However, the next step is more difficult–acknowledging it as it comes up in an interaction, and not reacting to it. You could say, “I’m not grounded right now. I need a few moments to calm down.” When you’re aware of it happening, you are less likely to say or do something negative that will harm your relationship (oh that negativity is a bugger!). And if you do? Apologize, learn from it, and move forward. The more conscious your interactions become, the less physiological reactions you’ll have, and the better your relationship will become. When you can communicate with your partner from a place of consciousness and awareness–well, that’s an enlightened approach to a loving relationship.
There are many more aspects to having a loving relationship, but one of the ones that does a tremendous amount of damage is the “flooding” or “electrifried” feelings of our old biological buddy the fight or flight phenomena. It kept us in survival mode for thousands of years, but in today’s modern society sometimes it can really set us back. Animals, by the way, when chased by prey also become adrenalized by the fight or flight response, but after they escape they shake themselves off. Researchers think this rids their body of the stress hormones surging through their bodies.
You don’t have to be in survival mode in your relationship. You deserve to have a loving connection with your mate. First, however, and foremost, is a loving connection with yourself. Having a loving relationship with yourself entails working on the inner workings of you. That adrenalized response you may feel once in awhile is your body providing you with a clue that you feel threatened. This isn’t a “bad” or “good” thing–just a way to check in with yourself to see where you still might need to be healed.