Relationship Conflict and the Transformative Power of Feeling Safe


Emotional flooding. Psychologist John Gottman, PhD, explains what it means:

“(Your body mobilizes) so that it can effectively cope with emergencies that might injure you. The way this works is that in situations you perceive as ‘dangerous’…a series of things happen in your body. It can even happen without your awareness.

For example, suppose you are driving down the highway at night and suddenly see headlights in your lane coming right at you. You swerve onto the shoulder and narrowly avert a collision. If we were to examine your physiology at the moment, we would find your heart was beating fast and contracting hard, that your blood pressure was up, that you were secreting adrenaline, that blood flow had shut down to ‘nonessential services’ (your gut and kidney), that your liver had changed some of its supply of glycogen to glucose (sugar) in your blood, that the reninangiotensin system was conserving blood volume in anticipation of hemorrhage, and that you were sweating, particularly on your palms and the soles of your feet. You would be in a state of high alertness and arousal as well, a state psychologists call ‘tunnel vision.’ Your limbic system…would have been activated. Your blood pressure would be up, and blood would have been drawn in from your arms and legs into your trunk.

We call this state ‘diffuse physiological arousal’ (DPA) because many systems are simultaneously activated….You would feel what we call ‘flooded’….

The amazing thing is that all these things can, and do, happen during relationship conflict. But whereas the DPA response can be adaptive in dealing with emergencies, in relationship conflict it has consequences that are quite negative. With DPA there is a reduced ability to process information. It is harder to attend to what your partner is saying. Peripheral vision and hearing may actually be compromised. As much as you want to listen, you just cannot do it….Fight and flight routines become more accessible so you can enjoy with your romantic partner maybe even using a rabbit vibrator if you feel adventurous. The sad result for relationship conflict is that creative problem-solving, active listening, empathy, and your sense of humor go out the window” (2011).

Gottman adds: “We also know that men become more flooded during conflict than women. That’s just an empirical fact.”

Gottman’s discussion of emotional flooding (during couple conflict) meshes with another emotionally-focused psychologist, Susan Johnson, PhD. In her emotion-focused couple therapy (EFT), Johnson uses attachment theory to help couples deal with what she calls “attachment injuries.” Attachment theory broadly defines attachment in terms of secure and insecure. Johnson writes: “Attachment theory is essentially a theory of trauma, (where) distressed partners tend to adopt stances of fight, flight, or freeze that characterize responses to traumatic stress” (2004).

Which brings me to my primary reading interest of 2017; the research of Stephen W. Porges, PhD, and his “polyvagal theory.” Dr. Porges is Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University where he directs the Trauma Research Center within the Kinsey Institute. Having plowed through his initial, groundbreaking book in 2011, I was delighted to learn he had published a more user-friendly Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory in 2017. This book now ranks among my top five most “marked up, written in, and highlighted” books – ever. I could never sell it back to someone else; or, even loan it for someone else to read. Heck, I can barely read it now because of my notations. Let’s just say that I earnestly tried to digest its contents.

Specifically, Porges’ research targets the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the SNS mobilizes us to take action, for example when threatened (“fight or flight”), the PNS calms us down; one being the accelerator, the other being the brake, so to speak. Both systems are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which operates, as the name suggest, more automatically or involuntarily. Whereas the traditional view has been twofold (SNS and PNS), Porges’ research has subdivided the PNS to make three subsystems. This subdivision of the PNS focuses on the vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve, and the largest nerve in our body. This nerve with its many (poly) fibers sends and receives messages between the brain and the rest of the body. The ventral vagal nerve generates and interprets positive responses (called the “social engagement system). The body perceives safety, as when someones smiles at us, calming us down in a positive way. The dorsal vagal nerve does the opposite, and is considered a second “defense” system along with the SNS (“fight or “flight”). When one cannot handle a perceived threat by addressing it, or getting away from it (namely, “helplessness”), then there is an “immobilzation” or “freeze” response. This numbs the pain associated with the threat. Porges coined  the term “neuroception” to mean that the nervous system evaluates threat apart from conscious awareness. In other words, our nervous system is already defending us before we’re even aware of it. Porges writes:

“When people are defensive–feeling bad about themselves, feeling angry at someone else–they are recruiting (these) neural structures. There is an overlap between defensive responses and responses to evaluation… Whenever we are evaluated, we are already recruiting the physiology of defense….These feelings of danger would produce a chronic state of defense that would negatively bias perception of others.” This “neuroception” is not always accurate; for example, the body might detect risk when there is no risk. Nevertheless, one’s physiology is already on the defensive. Is it any wonder why Porges subtitles his 2017 book “The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe.” Secure attachment is all about safety.

Now, let’s connect this back to “emotional flooding” and relationship conflict. Couples who are genuinely and earnestly intent on improving their relationship need to change their interactional patterns (versus overpowering each other with “fire and fury,” even logic). We can change interactions during conflict by mindfully respecting physiology! We can work with the nervous system, not against it. We can do this by helping ourselves and each other feel “safe.” In other words, “I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. Talk to me. I will do my best to listen, affirm, apologize, and validate your feelings – even if we don’t agree. You can trust me.”

In that 2011 book I cited earlier, The Science of Trust; Emotional Attunement for Couples, Gottman makes an admission and correction to his Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999; 2015). Read for yourself:

“(The) implicit suggestion…was that by following (the) seven principles, any two people in the world could create a stable, happy relationship. We had misgivings about those implications….(So) as we worked with couples in therapy, we found that indeed something might have been missing in the seven principles conceptualization….I therefore began searching for the missing ingredient for these couples….The answer came during the course of building a program for lower-income couples expecting a baby. What we found was that all the couples talked about the importance of ‘trust.’ (Many) told us that the central missing ingredient was the ability to build and maintain trust with each other. Many distressed couples complained that their partners simply couldn’t be counted on to ‘be there’ for them when they needed them most. Over time, they said, the emotional injuries they sustained from a lack of trust built a huge gulf of emotional distance between them, leading to eventual  betrayal or the quiet whimper of the demise of love….So it appeared that the missing ingredients…were all about trust and betrayal. After all, trust and safety in a relationship are the theoretical pillars of…attachment theory.”

While “trust” may not be synonymous with “safety,” the two are definitely related. Trust creates safety. And, feeling safe is transformative.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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