© John Bryant for Auckland Therapy Blog, 5 May 2020
Emotionally flooded people are swamped by dreadful out of control feelings
With Covid and economic uncertainly, people’s stress levels have gone up and in many cases, couples and families have been forced to spend more time together than usual. Domestic violence has sky rocketed. This brief article will discuss aspects of Domestic Violence that specifically involve emotional abuse.
People in intimate relationships encounter many specific issues: how to have sex, how to discipline the kids, disagreements about how money is spent and who your partner sees.
These problems are NOT what make or break a relationship. It is HOW these and other issues are discussed and the underlying beliefs we hold about our partners that determine the health of our relationship.
An early warning sign that a relationship is in trouble is harsh criticism. A criticism is a complaint that is a character assassination: an attack on the person not a critique of their deed or behaviour. Habitual criticism and contempt in a relationship indicate that one partner has made a silent judgment for the worse of the other. Silent judgments are particularly damaging to relationships because they form the basis for ongoing negative interactions. Attitudes of contempt and criticism can create continual crisis since they trigger emotional hijackings.
The more often overwhelming emotions take over the harder it is to recover from the hurt and rage that is being evoked. People who regularly feel criticized are more prone to health and immune system problems with colds, digestive problems, and stomach upsets, high blood pressure and heart disease among these. (Healthline: How the Body Deals with Stress)
The term emotional flooding is often used to describe the experience of frequent emotional distress; flooded people are so overwhelmed by their partners negativity and their own reaction to it that they are swamped by dreadful out of control feelings. People who are flooded cannot hear without distortion nor behave with clear headedness.
The physiological effects of flooding are that the heart-rate increases and physical signs such as muscle tension, hotness, shallow breathing and narrowing of focus start to happen as the body automatically prepares to ward off or escape danger. These are known as fight, flight, or freeze reactions and they are a product of the more primitive, animal part of our brains that is concerned with our survival in the face of threat.
Once the primitive response to danger has been triggered, we are no longer trying to discuss who finishes the dishes or puts the kids to bed. Adrenalin, cortisol and other hormones generated by the primitive brain keep the body in a state of high stress for some time. There is often a swamp of toxic feelings, an unpleasant wash of fear and anger that overwhelms us. Some become numb or withdraw and withhold love and kindness.
At this point emotions may be so intense, the perspective so narrow and the thinking so confused that there is no hope of taking the viewpoint of the other person or settling things in a reasonable way.
Children are likely to be damaged by this type of family dysfunction and experience psychological deprivation even if they aren’t directly targeted by coldness and criticism. The toxic effects of these situations cannot be under estimated and may cause developmental delays in children that increase odds that lead to a host of problems throughout life including learning and behavioural difficulties, loneliness, bullying or being bullied, peer problems, drug/alcohol abuse, workplace issues, promiscuity and adult relationship problems.
A healthy way to complain is when one partner states specifically what is bothering them and criticizes the action not the person. As in ‘I felt rejected when you went off without saying goodbye this morning” and not ‘you don’t give a shit about me’. Although this may look simple, it can take practice to learn to respond in healthy ways, as our negative patterns of relating can be ingrained, sometimes over a lifetime.
To learn to keep our cool and maintain healthy relationship problem solving capacities there are many tools to help. Psychotherapy may facilitate a deeper understanding of underlying personality issues that lead to dysfunctional patterns of feelings and relationship behaviour. Mindfulness, meditation and self-compassion training will help us to learn better self control and develop our capacity for good will. Relationship skills are taught through programmes such as watching John Gottman and Esther Perell, among others, on YouTube. All of these tools help us develop an attitude of GOODWILL that is essential in dealing with relationship issues.
Make the decision NOW to cultivate goodwill, empathy and compassion and to remember that the sabre tooth tiger just might be the other parent who wants to nurture and protect your children ...oh and the person you love.