A relationship expert explains how successful couples handle their biggest fights

In any relationship, the best course of action when a problem arises is usually to address it quickly before it snowballs into a bigger problem.

But talking through your issues requires tact, and in some instances, it’s best to choose your battles. This is less about simply letting things go, however, and more about knowing when to save discussions for later.

Dr. Michael McNulty, a master trainer from The Gottman Institute and founder of the Chicago Relationship Center, tells Business Insider that there are different kinds of issues within a relationship: some that are minor and easily solvable, and others that are more perpetual and complicated. Over time, as you get to know someone, you get to know what topics are minor and what are perpetual.

When issues are more complicated and people’s needs clash, McNulty suggests waiting to bring it up until there’s more time to talk it out. You should block out some time or even set up an appointment so that the problem can be handled with much more care, he says.

The reason for this extra care, McNulty explains, is that when we feel attacked, we go into a mode of fight or flight, the parts of our brains that handle logic and reason go to sleep, and our ability to respond to criticism rationally goes out the window.

“If partners start a conversation in a negative manner, 97% of the time that conversation will end negatively,” he says, which is why he recommends taking a softer approach to raising issues. But even with this softer approach, people can still feel threatened and essentially begin to shut down their ability to reason and think clearly.

McNulty points to some visible, physical signs of this phenomenon, which he refers to as “flooding,” and says it’s a good idea to look out for these when having a potentially heated discussion:

  • Accelerated pulse
  • Blushing
  • Sweating
  • Appearing nervous or fidgety
  • Clenched muscles

He suggests holding off on having the conversation until everyone’s in a calmer place and can really hear each other.

“If something like that is occurring, what I would do is to try to take a break and come back to it, because when people are in that state, they can’t take in new information and they can’t think creatively,” McNulty says. “So it’s not really useful to talk about much at that time.”

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