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Emotional Flooding and the pursuer-distancer cycle

We’ve been navigating all sorts of changes in our relationships over the last 12 months (if you’ve been working from home, may well have seen more of your partner in the last year than you have in the rest of your relationship!). I’ve heard from many friends and clients who have described seeing their partners in a different way this year – and I don’t only mean overhearing them at a Zoom meeting and being mildly amused/bemused by their office jargon!

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that the very premise of The Intime Collective emerged out of my own experiences and the challenges my relationship with my husband, Josh, saw after the birth of our first baby, and my desire to help other parents come out the other side.  Interestingly, in these conversations, I’ve noticed quite a few parallels between the challenges couples were navigating at the end of 2020 and what Josh and I experienced during my parental leave.

Whether you’re a parent or not, these “2020 arguments” often link back to the common areas of conflict parents experience. Put simply, a lot of it will arise from a desire to spend time differently after months and months of lockdown together. For example, one partner might be keen to get back into the office and the other is itching to make up for lost “me time” – going out with friends, getting back to the gym, getting their nails done! On the other hand, the thought of a return to “the way things were” might also be creating tension: for example, an eye-roll here and there at the thought of returning to those rushed mornings – a commute, the school run… that fast-paced way of life that has been more relaxed for many of us recently.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive and there are many reasons why couples face tough times. So, I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you and equip you with some of the tools around managing conflict.

I’d like to introduce you to four concepts:

1) Emotional flooding

2) The pursuer-distancer cycle

3) Diffusing physiological arousal (DPA)

4) Withdrawal rituals

Flood (verb). to cause to fill (or become covered), especially in a way that causes problems.

Feeling flooded in your relationship with your partner or children is that feeling of overwhelm by constant demands (the average preschool child makes three demands a minute!), questioning and conflict. These feelings, can, understandably, lead to emotional reactions and hinder our ability to communicate.

The pursuer-distancer cycle is a scenario typical in relationships where one partner “pursues” an issues that is causing conflict, often wanting to discuss it with the other, the “distancer”, who may not wish to talk about it and may not even be aware that there is a problem. (Interestingly, couples in male-female partnerships may often find that it’s the woman who takes the role of pursuer and the man the distancer. This doesn’t mean one is wrong or right – it’s actually to do with biology!) In these situations, the pursuer, who may feel unheard or ignored, feels abandoned, while the distancer feels harassed. This puts both partners at risk of emotional flooding, and inevitably, the conflict worsens and the cycle is set to continue.

DPA often occurs when we are agitated in a conflict situation – heart rate elevated, your blood pressure is elevated, you go red in the face… It’s important to understand DPA, because the awareness of it will allow you to know when your capacity to process information and make decisions is affected. It’s all too easy to say things we regret when we’re experiencing DPA!

So what can we do about it?

Take a break.


Walk away.

We’ve heard it before. Sounds simple, right? But describing a concept as “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean  it’s easy to achieve. That’s why it’s important that both partners recognise the benefits of taking 20-30 minutes away from the situation and agreeing to stop the discussion in order to self-soothe.

Taking a break from a conflict is what’s known as a withdrawal ritual – where both partners recognise the benefits of avoiding DPA and the pursuer-distancer cycle. This opportunity to calm ourselves as individuals,

Talk to your partner in advance about this. In a non-conflict situation, it’s easier to communicate with a calm tone of voice, and the use of touch – so make the most of that when describing the withdrawal ritual you’d like to introduce into your relationship. Hold your partner’s hand and tell them how you think it could help. You could even show them this article to help you communicate.

 “I read this article from Louise Gilbert: it talks about withdrawal rituals, and I realised that thinking about these could be really helpful for us. I’ve love for you to have a read and see what you think. If we just commit to taking a twenty-minute breather when one of us starts to feel flooded, we’ll be able to communicate much better afterwards, and avoid making the argument worse.”

Quick takeaways:

  • The pursuer-distancer cycle often occurs in relationships where one partner tries to raise the issue of conflict while the other tries to avoid it – often meaning that the conflict escalates because neither party feels their needs being met.
  • Emotional flooding is that feeling of being swamped by demands or expectations in your personal relationships – often occurring in the pursuer-distancer cycle.
  • A withdrawal ritual is the process of stepping away from a conflict in order to dismantle the situation and re-approach it when both partners are feeling calmer.
  • Self-soothing is a name for the behaviours we use to calm ourselves – meditating, taking a walk, breathing exercises: anything that helps us to cope and come out of a state of DPA.
  • Agreeing to your withdrawal rituals outside of a conflict situation helps to ensure that both partners are fully committed to the benefits regardless of the typical role they play in the pursuer-distancer cycle.

Don’t forget – conflict in a relationship is totally normal. Don’t punish yourself – or your partner – when you’re going through a rough patch…especially if you’re new parents! The key thing with the withdrawal ritual is agreeing that you can recognise when you need to regroup and when you’ll come back together to talk. Take the opportunity to incorporate withdrawal rituals into your relationship and before long, you’ll find the conflict hurdles much easier to overcome.

Louise Gilbert delivers masterclasses and coaching sessions to help people through stress and tough times – or just feel better equipped when those times do arise. Contact us to have a chat about how can help you and/or your team at work to build out skills around managing conflict.


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