Go To Bed Angry

Your fight about the messy garage might just be your body saying you need more sleep

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“Never go to bed angry.” It’s one of the most common pieces of relationship wisdom there is, often written in cards to newlyweds or dispensed to longtime couples after a fight.

It’s also terrible advice. You shouldn’t operate heavy machinery while drowsy, including the delicate machine that is your relationship. For the love of God, if you’re sleepy, go to sleep.

Early in our marriage, when our fights were more frequent, my wife and I would try to talk everything out before bed, but I’d end up nodding off in the middle of some serious discussion. So we’d end up fighting even more — while being sleep deprived.

What we learned after having children is that every outburst is not what it seems. In relationships of all kinds, we so often talk about our wants as a source of conflict, when we really should be addressing our needs. Sometimes, my son will be screaming for some toy, and I’ll try to have a serious talk with him about his attitude. I’ll count to 10 and say, “You can’t always have what you want,” in some feeble attempt to mold his character. At that point, my wife will come in and shake her head. “He’s just tired,” she’ll say. “Put him to bed.” And she’s right. His want for that particular dinosaur is not his need. He needs rest. I was trying to install a better smoke detector when what I needed to do first was put out the fire.

Even among adults, a fight is rarely about what it appears to be about. A fight is a feeling — of not being heard, not being seen, not being tended to. And feelings come from our bodies. So, just as doctors check your vital signs before anything else, check on your core needs. Are you hungry? Are you sleepy? Do you need to run around outside? Only after you’ve ruled out these needs can you move on to your wants.

And so often, the need to be addressed is simply feeling loved. With the kids, what we’ve found is that we’ve never resolved a behavioral issue with a single discussion (or even several). Rather, things just seem to get better when we spend time with them. We’ll cuddle with them and talk to them without trying to “correct” their behavior. The goal is simply to meet their core need of love.

I like to think about each relationship having a “love bank.” Sometimes, with my wife, we’ll argue over something like my loud chewing (in my defense, I believe I chew at a perfectly normal volume). But the real reason she’s upset might be because we’ve been taking each other for granted for weeks. There’s nothing in the bank. We don’t have the funds — the emotional resources — to talk it through all night and make it better. Instead, the only thing we can do is commit to spending more time together in the morning or evening. And then when I chew (like a totally normal human), it’s all okay. We have love in the bank. Our needs are met so we can let the little stuff go.

My advice to newlyweds or oldlyweds is not advice. It’s just my experience. As I get older, I realize more and more that I’m still a child with needs. I’m made up of a bunch of feelings in a body — a body that needs food, love, care, and enough sleep. So go to bed angry. Commit to giving each other more time. Try again in the light of day.