Go To Bed Angry
February 26th, 2010

Hold on tight, dear readers, I may lose you with this one. 

GAP and I are coming up on our sixth wedding anniversary this spring.  And anniversaries remind me of our wedding.  And our wedding reminds me of the showers that preceded it.  And those showers remind me of the unending guidance for a successful marriage that was happily dropped in our laps by our well-wishing elders.  Of course their intentions were innocent enough, but much as we may try, marital strategy cannot (and should not!) be boiled down into anything that can be embroidered on a pillow.  As you may suspect from my not-the-least-bit-subtle title, I have a favorite offender.

Of all the trite advice that is hurled at engaged couples I think the most worthless adage is: Never go to bed angry.

Right off the top: Never.  Any piece of advice beginning in never or always could probably stand to have a bit of reality injected into it.  We are complex people.  We have moods and temperaments.  We have schedules and logistics.  We find pleasant surprises and harsh realizations scattered throughout our days.  Our lives are not filled with absolutes; with blacks or whites.  We make our way through this world subsisting on greys and nuance.  I question any piece of advice that has the audacity to come at me with never.

And then there’s the rest of it; the part about going to bed angry.  That’s the part of the saying that I believe makes a critical miscalculation about anger.  The miscalculation is that anger only grows and festers with time.  This little saying presupposes that if we go to bed angry 1) we are not communicating in the first place, 2) this “not communicating” will result in bottled-up feelings, and 3) those bottled-up feelings will swell with neglect and eat away at our insides until nothing but pure resentment is left in their place.  But in my experience only sometimes is this potent cocktail of interpersonal missteps the case.

I’ve found that more frequently anger, like anything else, benefits from rest, from down time, and from the cooling of emotions that a break provides.  And it is for these reasons that when GAP and I have a disagreement that springs up in the evening, any issues that remain unresolved at bedtime stay that way until morning.  We are both self-aware, verbal, and articulate.  We are also both stubborn.  When arguments linger it is not because things are left unsaid.  It is because they have already been said multiple times in multiple ways and with nearly countless variations in tone, slant, and interpretation.  Continuing to hash it out, as energy fades and emotions wear thin, accomplishes nothing.  Sometimes sleep, and the silence that comes with it, is the only productive course of action.        

I will concede that I don’t particularly like going to bed with anger or frustration hanging in the air.  It feels lonely and isolating.  I much prefer for issues to be sorted out into tidy conclusions before we tuck in for the night.  But that isn’t always realistic.  I have learned over time to accept that going to bed angry can be the lesser, and more prudent, of two evils.

In the morning we are rested and fresh.  We are more inclined to forgive or to compromise.  We think more clearly and speak more rationally.  And if the aborted argument is resumed when the sun comes up, all of those things bode well for the outcome.  However, we also have a baby to wake up, feed, and get dressed.  We have jobs to go to.  We have a day in front of us.  So the previous night’s conflict usually goes unaddressed, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for the day, and sometimes forever. 

Usually there is an apology – at least for the disagreement in general, if not for the positions we took within it – and usually that is enough.  We’ve each said our piece (isn’t being heard half the battle anyway?) and there’s frequently no need to resurrect what could just as easily be buried.  We love each other deeply for many reasons.  Two of those reasons are sharpness of intellect and strength of spirit.  Juxtaposing those traits with a difference of opinion could spell frequent and unmitigated disaster if we didn’t know when to walk away. 

This isn’t easy to do.  It takes trust in your partner and faith in your relationship.  It takes the knowledge that this partnership can weather an overnight storm.  No, going to bed angry isn’t for the faint of heart.  It is, however, for the tired, the bull headed, and the road-tested survivors of confident marriages.

9 Responses to “Go To Bed Angry”

  1. Jana@Attitude Adjustment Says:

    Gale,
    I really like what you said here. That old adage is pretty annoying, and often hard to remember, when you’re in the throes of an argument. I think that arguments can be exacerbated when you’re tired, and so a good remedy is to go to sleep. I, like you, don’t like to go to bed without resolving conflict, but I do find that we’re much better at it when we’ve had some sleep (even though it’s not the most restful). By morning, our fight becomes water under the bridge. I let things go more easily in the morning because I want the fight to be over. The prospect of trying to stay up and hash it all out can be more stressful. Sometimes the best thing to do in an argument is give each other some space. Great post! (And congrats on six years. Ours passed last November with very little fanfare because my daughter was only three weeks old.)

  2. Celeste Says:

    Yes, going to bed angry is often for the tired! If you are anything like me (and judging from the fact that this was posted far before the crack of dawn I think you might be)the evening is not when you are the clearest and most sensible. A small tiff late at night often feels so much heavier than it really is. If I just leave it alone and go to bed I often wake up in the moring wondering what the big deal was.

  3. Elizabeth @ Life in Pencil Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Gale. I was recently reading a study that said the old adage is complete bunk: people who “go to bed angry” don’t have any worse marriages than those who don’t. I, too, find that oftentimes going to bed is the best way to deescalate an argument. Not EVERY argument needs to be hashed over or sorted through. Life — and marriage — is long. You’ve got to pick your battles.

  4. Bridget Says:

    As someone who has never been able to follow this adage, I’m glad to finally have such a well-stated argument to defend my marriage’s strength even though we do, sometimes, go to bed angry. Like you, I’ve found that letting the words lay overnight can dissipate the argument and give a new spirit of compromise that neither of us are capable of mustering between our heated point/counterpoint exchanges. Stubborness is a strange animal and forcing the issue to be resolved before either party is ready to let go could lead to many a sleepless night (at least at our house). Now as my English teacher in high school would say “the exception proves the rule”. Perhaps “Never go to bed angry” is a rule, it’s just meant to be broken.

  5. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    What an honest and well-articulated ode to the reality of “overnight storms.” I think this post is about something bigger though, something more important, than anger and the timing of its manifestations. I think this is about how marriages, good marriages, are things we need to figure out as we go. A territory where adages and canned advice become virtually useless when thrown into reality. Thought-provokingly true stuff here.

  6. Sarah Says:

    Gale, this post is WONDERFUL.
    And this itty bitty detail: “the road-tested survivors of confident marriages.” I love this.

    I don’t subscribe the NEVER part either. Sometimes a little quiet, a little time, a little space from one another, the issues, the conflicting thoughts, the misunderstandings, sometimes that quiet not only helps, but is required to make things “right” in the end. So in short, I absolutely agree with EVERYTHING here. Love it!

  7. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I had to laugh at your assertion that it’s pretty unrealistic to listen to a piece of advice that begins with “Never or Always.” So true.

    I, too, have gone to bed angry and awakened the next morning feeling…softened. The anger just kind of melts away, usually. More often than not, I’ll walk into the kitchen, start a pot of coffee, and open my arms for a hug.

    Wonderful post!

  8. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    You’re singing my song, Gale! I’ve disagreed with this “wisdom” for as long as I’ve been married – and thankfully, so does my husband. I know enough about myself and my anger to know that often arguments are not meant to be won or lost before bedtime. So many times after I put the issue to “the pillow test” I realize it isn’t a battle worth fighting. Sleep, and time, and space put things into perspective.

    Here’s a quote I like from John Steinbeck. “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

  9. becca Says:

    I was so ready to be the outlier here. To be the one with the opposing view. But before I started typing, I stopped to think a little. And honestly, I think you taught me a little lesson here. I have ALWAYS believed that my husband and i should not go to bed angry. That putting the argument aside and not resolving it before lights out was a huge mistake. That we’d wake up in the morning, still upset and annoyed and things would just continue to fester. I always thought a hug and a kiss and an “I’m sorry” would end it and help us move forward. BUT (and this is a big but), you’ve made me realize something. That maybe I’ve been forcing a disagreement to end for the sake of a good night’s sleep. That maybe my husband and my arguments deserve some time to rest so that we can discuss when we’re more removed from the heat of it all. I detest confrontation and ending a fight is usually the best solution for me… but maybe it’s not the most effective.

    Thank you Gale, for really making me think about this. You can’t imagine how enlightening it is for me.