We’ve all heard the adage: Don’t go to bed angry! Even the Bible takes a stand on the issue—“Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” But is it really good relationship advice? Do you have to resolve every argument before you can get a good night’s sleep?
Clarify Your Thinking
When it comes to relationships, nothing is really that simple. The first step in creating a successful relationship out of conflict—whether it’s a family member, a friend, or a significant other—is to accept that you won’t always agree with one another. It may be hard, but you can usually start by agreeing to disagree.
From that point, you can leave your anger behind and start to work on a solution. Don’t confuse resolution of anger with resolution of the conflict. You can let go of or work through anger before you resolve the issue—and it’s usually the smart thing to do. Here are two basic rules of thumb:
1. Don’t Go to Bed With Fresh Anger
A January 2012 LifeHacker report features a study by neuroscientists at Umass Amherst that shows strong negative emotional experiences stay fresher in the memory if an individual sleeps soon after the experience. This is certainly not unexpected—I’ve written other sleep blogs about the importance of sleep to learning and memory retention, and the fresh recollection of traumatic events is just another form of learning, however unfortunate.
If, on the other hand, you stay awake until the memory becomes less sharp and fresh in your mind, the clarity of that memory and your emotional response to it is less protected or vivid.
So when it comes to fights in a relationship, it’s best not to go to sleep directly after the fight. Wait until that emotional response has had some time to calm before you crawl into bed. If you go to bed seething, you’ll wake up seething—and be more likely to get angrier faster the next time there’s an altercation.
2. Don’t Stay Up All Night, Either
If it’s late and you’re exhausted, stressed, or there’s alcohol involved, don’t push too hard for resolution—and don’t make life decisions based on spur-of-the-moment evening anger. Tempers are more likely to flare in these situations. Focus on relationship triage: Minimize the anger and the damage, even if you wait ‘til tomorrow to resolve the issue.
Psychology professor John Gottman, Ph.D., told NBC News that not everyone can make up amicably before bedtime every time. Instead, if the relationship is a marriage, Gottman recommends spending a moment before bed every night recalling something positive about the relationship.
Then, no matter how angry one or both of you may be, he says, “kiss goodnight for six seconds.” Balance this ability to put things down for the night with a weekly chance to talk reasonably about the way things are going—a weekly “State of Our Union” address, he calls it, that balances a celebration of something you appreciate about your partner with the chance to talk about one thing that’s caused frustration or anger that week.
No matter how angry you are, work on letting it go before the end of the night—even if the issue isn’t resolved before bed. If you can give yourself some distance from the anger for awhile and accept living without resolution before you sleep, you’re more likely to have successful relationships and a long-lasting marriage.