Last week, my husband and I had a pretty significant argument (yes, it happens to me, too!). It happened late at night, after I got home from work and our daughter was already sound asleep. It happened right at bedtime. My husband typically does a really great job of keeping his cool in an argument, while I’m the one who more often struggles to stay calm enough for our communication to be productive. After 20 minutes or so of discussing the problem, I reached my limit and asked for a break. I needed to take some deep breaths, regain my composure, and think about what outcome was possible that would make us both happy. The problem is, once I walked away, all I wanted to do was sleep on it. I wanted to take the night to calm down, think rationally and unemotionally about the problem in the morning, and come back to the discussion with a fresh set of eyes and renewed spirit of compromise.
Guess what, though? My husband is one of those “never go to bed angry” people. He really believes in it! So then that became a whole second argument — is it OK to sleep on it, or do we have to keep going until we get a resolution tonight?
I’m not sure where the advice “never go to bed angry” came from, but I think it’s terrible. Many of my clients come into marriage counseling and tell me that this is a rule they try to live by. I’ve even heard it in wedding vows! Sure, in a perfect world, we could find a happy resolution to every problem before it’s time to drift off together to a cuddly sleep, but in real life, that’s not always practical. It’s not ideal to go to bed angry, but it’s also not ideal to stay up until 3:00am hashing things out and be a total zombie the next morning.
Here’s my advice: resolve your arguments before bedtime if you can. But if you get to a point where you just want to sleep on it — that’s OK!! Just because you’re going to bed with an issue unresolved, or even feeling angry, doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner, that your relationship is doomed, or that you’re bad at arguing or negotiating. It just means that some disagreements are bigger than what can be resolved by two tired people at 11:00pm.
If you do decide to go to bed with an unresolved issue between you, here are some tips to make that happen in the healthiest way possible:
- Agree together to set the issue aside and pick it back up the next day, at a specific time. Say something like, “I don’t think we’re likely to resolve this soon, and I’d really like to get some sleep. I want to finish this discussion when both of us can give it 100%. Can we stop here and finish tomorrow after the kids go to bed?”
- Give each other a verbal and physical reminder that even though you’re angry, you still love each other. Kiss each other goodnight, say “I love you,” cuddle and spoon — whatever your normal bedtime rituals are, try and continue to do them. Your relationship is so much more than the argument you’re having, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. Staying connected in this way will also help you feel positively about your partner, whereas rolling over and fighting over the covers will just exacerbate the problem.
- Think about what emotions you’re feeling underneath the anger. I talk with my marriage counseling clients all the time about the fact that anger is a cover-up emotion that we use when we’re not able, ready, or willing to talk about the more difficult, vulnerable emotions we’re feeling underneath — things like hurt, betrayal, loneliness, or fear. If you can get in touch with that softer emotion and think about how to share that with your partner when the conversation resumes, you’ll find yourself much closer to a collaborative solution (and much closer to each other).
If done well, going to bed angry can actually be helpful in facilitating healthy, respectful communication the next day. Give it a try the next time you find yourself in the middle of a heated argument at bedtime!
Lindsey Hoskins provides couple, family, and individual therapy services in both our downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call 240-752-7650 or email [email protected] to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.
Keywords: Couples, anger, arguing, emotions, how to fight in a healthy way