Suzanne and Rick were having their third fight of the week over in-laws and vacations. Would the conflict ever end? Each time Suzanne tried to share her perspective with Rick, he would lose it and leave the room. How would they ever get through this argument to the other side? 

If you’ve ever been in an entrenched argument or a situation where tunnel vision and unproductive dialogue set in, you and your partner may have encountered emotional flooding. One way to work through the emotional flooding is to utilize a strategy called cognitive restructuring. We’re digging into this strategy to help you and your partner cope with emotional flooding.

Understanding emotional flooding

How often do you get overwhelmed when talking to your partner or get flooded in conflict? Emotional flooding occurs when our nervous system senses a threat, real or perceived. As couples have consistent responses and gridlocked conflicts, our bodies learn a muscle memory of what to anticipate from our partner, or perhaps a learned response or behavior from previous relationships or your family growing up. 

What causes emotional flooding?

Some refer to emotional flooding as our fight-or-flight response. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, our brain stem becomes reactive and works to keep us alive. Dr. Dan Siegel described a hand brain model that walks us through each of the parts of the brain and how they operate as a collective whole. 

When we are flooded, it’s difficult to reach our prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain responsible for helping us regulate our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Therefore, in a heightened flooding state, our ability to think logically and regulate our emotions is impaired. If the conflict or conversation with your partner continues in this state, it is likely going to escalate beyond where you and your partner would like. 

The Gottman Institute outlines some possible emotional flooding signs, particularly perpetual conflicts: 

  • Not feeling heard by your partner
  • Saying things you do not mean
  • Raised voices
  • Interrupting or being interrupted by your partner
  • Being out of breath
  • A racing heart or feeling like you may have a panic attack
  • Withdrawing or shutting down conflict
  • Feeling or using defensive language
  • Contempt or an air of superiority toward your partner 

Now that there is an understanding of emotional flooding and its causes, let’s consider its possible impact on a relationship.

How emotional flooding impacts relationships

Based on these signs, you may recognize that emotional flooding plays a role in some of your conflicts with your partner. Emotional flooding must be curbed before discussing the perpetual issue with your partner. If you can’t curb the flooding, it will be difficult to have productive discussions about tough topics as your brain will be focused on survival rather than rational thinking. This is where cognitive restructuring comes in. 

Cognitive restructuring is recognizing maladaptive thoughts or distorted thinking and using self-monitoring and gathering evidence to work to reframe those thoughts. You are exploring the potential outcomes of the situation while also acknowledging your emotions before engaging in a conversation, disagreement, or following a distressing event.

Why cognitive restructuring helps emotional flooding

Flooding makes it difficult to have conversations that require couples to regulate emotions and thoughts. When couples can become aware of the need to pause a conversation, self-soothe, and then return to the conversation, conflict conversations can progress. 

If you or your partner notice a self-fulfilling prophecy, absolute language like “always” and “never,” or assumptions in your discussion, it can be helpful to consider what cognitive distortions are at play and try to restructure your thoughts.

Cognitive restructuring allows couples to slow down their conversation and ask themselves questions as the situation unfolds. This helps them cope with emotional flooding or raise awareness so the emotional flooding stays at bay. Let’s dive into the five steps of cognitive restructuring. 

5 steps of cognitive restructuring

As you and your partner start to raise awareness with your thoughts and notice your cycle, it can be helpful to have steps to follow. Below are the outlined steps of cognitive restructuring when emotional flooding sets in.

 Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge when emotional flooding is occurring.

 Step 2: Pause and take a break to cool down if necessary.

 Step 3: Identify your triggering thoughts and emotions.

 Step 4: Use cognitive restructuring techniques to challenge and reframe your thoughts.

 Step 5: Communicate with your partner using balanced and calm language.

Now that the steps have been outlined, let’s consider a real-life example. Suzanne and Rick are in a gridlock conflict about vacationing with Rick’s in-laws. 

Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge when emotional flooding is occurring.

Suzanne may recognize that each time Rick shared about his family joining their summer vacation, she had an accelerated pulse and interrupted him with a raised voice. She also notices that she thinks that her husband always wants to prioritize his family over hers. 

Step 2: Pause and take a break to cool down if necessary.

Suzanne could say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and flooded right now. I need some time to decompress. I will bring the conversation back up in an hour.” 

The cool-down period would allow Suzanne time to check in with herself and raise awareness of her thought patterns. Ideally, she has time to regulate and separate herself from the conflict conversation. 

Step 3: Identify your triggering thoughts and emotions.

After Suzanne has calmed down, she reflects on her conversation with Rick. She notices that she thinks all family vacations must include Rick’s family, leaving no space for her and Rick’s created family to make their own memories. 

Suzanne believes that she is feeling nervous that she and Rick are becoming too enmeshed with his family. She fears disappointing Rick and sharing boundaries with her in-laws. 

Step 4: Use cognitive restructuring techniques to challenge and reframe your thoughts.

Suzanne notes that she assumed the worst-case scenario of losing all summer vacations as a family. 

She considers the helpfulness of having built-in babysitters if she and Rick want to go to dinner or have a walk at the beach alone if her in-laws vacation with them. 

Then Suzanne breathes a sigh of relief when she realizes that she and her Rick were only discussing this year’s summer vacation. She’s ready to talk more about their future summer vacation plans. 

Step 5: Communicate with your partner using balanced and calm language.

After taking an hour to cool down and process, Suzanne is ready to talk with Rick. She says, “I was thinking during the break, and I realized that I’ve been assuming we always vacation with your family. I’d really like us to mix things up and figure out ways to have separate family time just for us and also see how we can include your family from time to time.”

Are you ready to try cognitive restructuring? 

Emotional flooding can significantly impact your relationship and communication with your partner. As you start to pay attention to your thoughts and behaviors, you may notice consistent patterns and where cognitive restructuring can be most helpful. It all starts with awareness.

Our therapists are uniquely experienced in helping couples navigate emotional flooding and employ improved communication techniques. We offer in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.