The current pandemic is putting a tremendous strain on couples worldwide. Even if you love someone, spending most hours of the day under the same roof with them is likely to bring out some feelings of irritation, annoyance and anger. Either your partner is too messy, too loud, says the wrong thing, looks at you the wrong way, doesn’t cooperate the way you would like them to, or is simply in your space. Next to this brewing anger, most of us are experiencing some sense of anxiety, hopelessness and despair. The uncertainty of not knowing when this COVID situation is going to end, fills us with worry. This combination of anger and hopelessness is a perfect breeding ground for explosive arguments. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol easily flood your system, you lose control over the rational part of your brain and your fight-flight system is activated.
When you go into fight-flight, your heart rate goes up, the blood flow to non-essential organs slows down, and your body gets ready to either fight your perceived danger, run away from it, or freeze. These fight-flight responses are essential when dealing with actual physical dangers, such as a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes. But when faced with your partner leaving a dish in the sink, it is your system overreacting. You may yell, name call, threaten or even physically lash out at them.
To avoid this, you need to have a plan in place for when your system gets flooded, a so-called Flooding Plan. It is the one way to deal with such moments: to stop the interaction and take a break. You need to lower your heart rate and calm down before you can have an effective conversation. In order to create a good plan, sit down with your partner at a calm time and discuss how you will handle it when one of you gets really overwhelmed and starts to lash out at others in the household (fight), withdraws (flight) or becomes non responsive (freeze). There are five steps that are part of any solid Flooding Plan:
- Indicate you need a break. Agree on a signal, word or sentence that indicates that you need to take a break. You can use the time-out hand signal, say “I need a break”, “time out”, “I feel overwhelmed and need to talk about this later”, or anything that works for you.
- Disengage immediately. Your partner needs to honor this signal or word(s) and must promise to disengage immediately. Do not try to get the last word in. Your partner is feeling overwhelmed and cannot take in information anyway.
- Take a break. Take an effective break, which means doing something that calms you down: reading a book, taking a walk, meditating, listening to music, or whatever strategy works for you. Do not ruminate on your argument. This is not easy, because we humans are excellent ruminators. If you notice yourself thinking about the argument, try to refocus your attention on your calming activity.
- Decide on a time to continue the conversation. After 30 minutes, reconvene and discuss when you will get back to the conversation. Your conversation can be then and there, or at the most after 24 hours. If you have children, make sure that this is after they are in bed or when they are not present.
- Get back to your conversation. This is essential. At the agreed time, make sure you are calm, sit down and discuss the issue you were upset about earlier. If you do not get back to the topic, your partner will feel abandoned and as if their needs are not important to you. This would be a perfect way to build resentment, so please avoid it.
We are all going through a difficult time right now. Arguments are prone to happen more frequently because we are spending more time together. Getting flooded is not a choice; rather it’s your body having an automatic response. But you do have the choice of what to do in response to the flooding. If you choose to take a break from the conversation and calm yourself, you and your partner will reap the benefits because it will allow you to have a more constructive conversation at a later time. Your relationship is worth it.