In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores moments of rapid cognition. Among the many fascinating discoveries of psychological research he discusses is a kind of stress-induced temporary autism. Under times of stress, our ability to take in and process information from the external world diminishes, sometimes dramatically. Police officers who end up firing their weapon in the line of duty (more than 90% go their entire careers without ever firing a shot in an actual exchange of gunfire) report strange things, like never hearing a gunshot. This is because the stress responses of the body close down all sorts of functions temporarily.

Now we shift to John Gottman’s research with married couples. He has observed a similar phenomenon, albeit at a lower intensity. Couples who are in heated disagreements are subject to what he terms, “flooding.” Flooding refers to a person’s rise in physiological stress indicators in response to the way a conflict is being worked through. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. When you are flooding, you feel pressured and shell-shocked. All you can really think about is protecting yourself either by fighting back or leaving. Your ability to perceive and respond with love and creativity — even with attitudes and words that are your normal way of relating — takes a nose-dive.

When you are flooding, you need a break. It’s not a weakness. It’s physiological. It’s what your body and mind do under stress.

Here’s an important point: most of us are not very good at judging our own stress level. When arguments get heated and people say, “I just need a break,” they usually feel like they “got a handle on it” after about five minutes. Unfortunately, this is not true and it makes re-entering the discussion problematic to say the least! Gottman’s research indicates that when you start flooding (indicated by, for example, your pulse increasing by 10% or more over your resting heart rate), it really takes about 20 minutes for your physiology to leave the stress state. That’s important for couples to know when a disagreement gets hot.

There is good news, though, for both police officers and couples. Gladwell and Gottman both report that training can alter your stress response. Policemen train regularly for that firefight that has a greater than 90% chance of never happening because they want to be prepared. They know the stress response will come.

For couples, there is a 100% chance that disagreements will happen from time to time, so preparing for conflict (NOT preparing for battle!) is a wise idea.

The first step is to learn to recognize flooding when it happens. Your heart rate increases. Maybe you feel nervous or trapped. Or you’re getting ready to fire back instead of listening. You feel your normally calm way of thinking begin to contract. Gottman suggests that in the beginning it can even be helpful to take your pulse because the physiological reactions that are part of flooding often happen before self-awareness that flooding has begun. Learn what your resting pulse rate is and check it during the discussion.

Step two is to agree together that if either of you begin to experience flooding, take a break. Taking a break is not the same thing running away from the argument. It’s a physiological need. A break is a temporary halt with the commitment to continue the conversation when both parties are better able. During the break, do whatever helps you relax: read a book, go for a walk, work out, whatever. If your goal is to make the relationship work, do not continue a heated discussion when one of you starts to feel flooded. Even the agreement to take a flooding break if needed can reduce flooding because you feel less trapped when you know that at any point you can call a 30-minute break. If your spouse calls a break and you feel like, “Wait a minute! I’m not done here!” remember that your spouse will be unable to hear and respond in a reasonable way until the flooding subsides. Whatever it is that you want him or her to understand will be much more easily received after the stress response calms down.

There is a great deal more that can be done to prepare for good conflict in relationships. But this is enough for one blog post. If you feel stressed by that, please take at least a 30-minute break before you email me. 😉