“Here we go again,” Dwayne* muttered as Karen, his wife of 12 years, began to speak. Before she had time to finish, he asked, “Why is every little thing such a big deal with you? First crumbs in the microwave, then blowing leaves off the sidewalks and now lightbulbs? Really?“
From the corner of my eye, I saw Karen slump her shoulders and tighten her mouth as the two turned away from each other. Again.
To allow the tension to escalate a bit, I sat in silence for a full minute before asking her, “What’s that like, to be cut short before you have a chance to form a sentence?”
“It feels like an iron door slamming shut on my heart, an emotional death sentence, an execution for our marriage.”
Seek to understand your spouse’s behavior
In my clinical training, I learned that all behavior makes sense when the context behind it is discovered.
We can view the exchange between Dwayne and Karen as a flood, washing away the bridge that once connected the couple. Turns out it isn’t really the crumbs, leaves or lightbulbs that release floodwaters of anxiety. It’s a far deeper issue of a human need to feel heard, held and prioritized. This unity prevents loneliness from seeping in when marriage partners drift apart and become distracted, permitting an emotional overflow to wash over each spouse and block the couple from experiencing safe connection.
Renowned researchers and psychologists Drs. John Gottman and Julie Gottman — founders of the Gottman Institute — and Dr. Susan Johnson agree that emotional flooding is the primary cause of relationship distress, spinning into a perpetual cycle of emotional death. Through their extensive and longitudinal research, these experts uncovered a pattern of physiological “flooding” of stress hormones, which then creates a state of terror, isolating spouses during their greatest need for partner assurance and unity.
Husbands and wives need to feel secure with the one person they allow close enough to do the greatest good or the deepest harm — their spouse. Through what therapists call “attachment,” “connection,” or “turning toward,” God’s Word reminds us to consider our spouses through scriptural lenses, thus we are stronger when we unify in Christ, and offer forgiving kindness with humility (Philippians 2:1-8), often when it’s least deserved (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Dr. Johnson identifies three basic elements in a secure marital bond: “accessibility,” “responsiveness” and “engagement.” When these three pieces are not firmly in place, a couple’s foundation can be washed away.
Identify why you or your spouse self-protects
The cause of the flood is always the same. The details may differ, but the underlying cause is identical.
God built a fully functioning set of pain avoidance skills into each of us. When threatened, we close in rather than turn to our Lord to rescue us from the storms in and around us. We tell our spouse things we don’t really believe for a number of reasons: keeping the peace, running from an argument, lying to resist responsibility for our actions, making ourselves feel good by making the other feel good or being lazy emotionally and intellectually. But when we sense emotional danger and we get close to exposing our deepest fears, we turn to self-protection. We curl up like a hedgehog, pointy spines outward.
What can we do to stem the rising waters? It may sound counterintuitive, but we must move toward the source of perceived emotional destruction. Husbands and wives must learn to hold each other closer when all instincts scream otherwise. It isn’t just answering the foundational questions. Dr. Johnson’s remedy highlights having the courage to ask — and wait breathlessly for the answer to — the question: “Are you going to be there for me when I need you most?”2
The Gottman Institute’s research points out a number of physical factors that indicate flooding. If couples can learn to monitor signs of their own distress (heart rate, mental loops, quickened breathing), and adjust their responses proactively, they can avoid the riptides that pull them toward divorce.
Get curious about your spouse’s feelings
First, when couples deal with marriage conflicts, each spouse should develop a strong sense of curiosity (versus caution) about their spouse’s thoughts, feelings and underlying message. The Gottman Institute calls this approach a “softened start up,” whereby the aggrieved or agitated partner approaches the spouse with concern wrapped in curiosity, rather than running toward him or her with an open pair of scissors, ready to cut any resistance or denial into ribbons.
Make attempts to show grace and stay connected
Next, extend grace. When a wife shows grace to her triggered husband, his urge to roll up like that hedgehog and protect himself lessens. Instead of striking back, or worse, shutting her out completely, he will move toward reconciliation, working to untangle the mess and repair any damage.
The Gottman Institute describes these efforts as “repair attempts” or “bids for connection.” Examples of these include using gentle humor, observing something positive in the midst of heightened arousal, moving closer to the partner or using a soft and open tone to de-escalate tension.
Don’t use these repair attempts as ways to distract, dismiss or cajole the hurting party from what he or she is working through. Be patient and make an effort to reconnect and accept before your spouse feels rebuffed, blamed, abandoned or lonely from a lack of understanding.
Take a timeout
Third, if the discussion gets heated and tensions continue to rise, The Gottman Institute suggests a timeout for an agreed upon timeframe. That gives both parties a chance to regain a sense of calm, consider their feelings and ponder their spouse’s experience. Distressed spouses can try taking a walk, drinking some water or tea, listening to calm music, breathing slowly and monitoring his or her heart rate. Rates above 100 beats per minute indicate a high level of stress hormones in the bloodstream, which can lead to a readiness to break out the boxing gloves or run a 30-yard dash across the lawn.
Timeouts decrease agitation, as long as couples agree and honor the time. Letting conflicts stagnate only delays and exacerbates conflict while both marriage partners feel abandoned or attacked yet again — and “nothing ever changes.”
Drain the floodplain and find common ground
After a timeout, a couple can continue their discussion with clear minds and a willingness to listen to their spouse’s emotional experience. Both sides enter the conversation open to the pain, intentions and parts they each played in resolving or perpetuating the conflict. Sometimes conflicts aren’t resolved, but the distance between the partners can diminish with a sense of partnership and intentional reminders of why each chose the other.
When marriage partners would rather push away or blame the other, Dr. John Gottman suggests they look for common ground. If neither side can bend, he recommends they find a place along the compromise continuum and move in each other’s direction. They must choose to find even a small olive branch and focus on some small piece of ground not drenched in emotional overflow.
The waters of overwhelming conflict recede when couples ask clarifying questions, find common ground and collaborate together. For example, here’s what Dwayne said to Karen in my office: “When I said I would change the lightbulb but put it off, I lost your trust in my priorities. You’d like me to say, ‘I can’t get to it today’ and make a commitment to get it done and follow through. Putting you off day after day for all these years eroded your trust in my affection. A little thing to me is not little to you. It’s part of a larger message in which my follow-through confirms my love. It shows that you can trust me to listen and respond. Am I right?”
Yes, Dwayne was right.
When a marriage partner hears her concerns restated in respectful terms and is convinced that her emotions are held in a safe place, she will collapse the walls she has erected between her and her husband and put that energy into protecting the marriage. These new walls of commitment and honor mimic the walls God puts around us to hold us within His grace (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
It’s in our DNA — needing to feel cherished and to belong unconditionally. We don’t achieve that sacrificial love without God’s help. We are His work in progress. When we can view our husband or wife in the same light as our Creator does, we can see His fingerprints all over the person to whom we said, “I do.”
Leslie LaRo Hayes is a licensed marriage and family therapist from Medina County, Texas.
* Names have been changed.
A variety of marital issues can lead to challenges or even hopelessness for one or both spouses in a marriage. Gaining a sense of hope and direction often requires understanding the underlying issues and relationship patterns that may have led to the crisis. Reach out to well-trained helpers even if you are the only person in the marriage willing to take action at this time. We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or