Shout or Shut Down: Emotional Flooding in Relationship Conflict (for

Photo by Robin Ramos on

My husband and I rarely fight. But when we do, we aren’t very good at it.

When I feel attacked by real or perceived criticism, I’ve been known to attack him right back (despite coaching my young children to do otherwise). I’ve even thrown up an obscene gesture. It’s not pretty, folks. 

Equally as maladaptive, but not quite as outwardly problematic: When I feel threatened in some way, I can also withdraw into myself, shutting down. This feels like my brain going fuzzy (save for a few self-protective, distorted thoughts), my body weighing a thousand pounds. 

In both extremes, I’m experiencing what psychologists call emotional flooding. My attack response is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze. I feel threatened, my body ramps up to fight.

But my bodily shutdown is more like “freeze.” It’s a physiological response to stress or fear in which metaphoric walls are built—an attempt to guard against further threat of rejection or harm. This can look and feel like stonewalling to your spouse—an intentional refusal to communicate—or like “the silent treatment” from high school days.

To be clear, my brain’s protective responses aren’t always in favor of the relationship. Sometimes it guards me above the relationship. My emotional flooding, in short, can be very counterproductive. (In case you’re wondering, research shows emotional flooding afflicts both men and women.)

See, emotional flooding amidst marital conflict is like shooting holes in a boat.

So how can you, as a couple, move past shouting or shutting down?

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