Don’t go to bed angry, as the old adage goes, is a valuable piece of advice that applies in most relationships.
Or else you risk waking up with an anger that has festered into resentment, or something much worse.
You’ve probably heard this sagely wisdom from grandparents, parents, friends or learned it yourself through relationships of your own. But this advice is more than just a popular anecdote, it’s scientifically proven to be better for your health.
A recent Oregon State University study found that when people feel they have resolved an argument, the negative emotions associated with that argument are reduced drastically, if not entirely.
This creates an overall reduction in stress, which in turn causes health benefits far into the future.
Is ‘don’t go to bed angry’ good relationship advice?
The study measured the emotions of 2,000 participants over 8 days, gauging their reactivity to arguments or situations that produced anger.
The study compared their reactivity — how they felt on the day of the argument — with how they felt in the days following the argument. This was labeled the “residue.”
Results showed that on the day of the argument, people who felt that their encounter was resolved reported roughly half the reactivity of those whose encounters were not resolved.
On the following day, people who felt the matter was resolved showed no prolonged elevation of negative effects.
This is because those who resolve arguments before bed don’t spend the night consciously or subconsciously trying to overcome the anger alone.
Other research shows that when we sleep, the brain reorganizes how negative emotions are stored, making them harder to suppress in the future. This means that not only do we wake up more worked up or angry, we can carry this into future disagreements.
How going to bed during an argument can destroy your relationship
On a personal level, the residual stress from holding resentment can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. But it can also create lasting damage in your relationship.
We talked to two relationship experts about the romantic implications of not resolving your arguments before the day’s end.
Carolyn Hidalgo, a life and relationship coach, tells us, “Anger that isn’t resolved or released before you go to sleep remains in [your] “energy body,” and makes the next argument worse.”
“Unresolved energies build up and can later get unleashed in ways that become fighting over how the dishwasher was loaded when it’s really about not feeling respected or heard.”
Dwelling on negative emotions without addressing or seeking to resolve them can bring out pettiness and anger in even the most trivial disagreements.
Relationship counselor Keith Dent has a similar take. “It can make an argument worse if you [hold] resentment due to the fact that you couldn’t resolve the issue before going to bed,” he tells us.
“If you can address the issue only, and come up with solutions, your relationship will get stronger.”
But Dent acknowledges that the nuances of lifestyles, work schedules, and the timing of unexpected arguments can mean that some couples have no choice but to go to bed during a disagreement.
Are there situations where a night’s sleep can resolve arguments?
Staying up late to hash out every misunderstanding isn’t always an option for couples. Plus, sometimes you just need space and time in order to calm down.
Dent says that a rest might be necessary “when the argument is at an impasse and can’t be resolved. This is especially important if one, or both of you are tired. You won’t be able to think clearly if you are exhausted.”
“There is a saying that “cooler heads prevail” and this is definitely true when it comes to conflict in marriage,” Dent says.
Hidalgo states that conflict resolution requires both partners to meet in a non-judgemental space with a willingness to listen and learn from one another. Tiredness can inhibit us from approaching conflict resolution with the appropriate mindset.
“Sleep affects our physical stamina and ability to focus clearly so you don’t want to be tired or fatigued where you say things you don’t mean from reacting emotionally instead of responding thoughtfully with mental clarity,” she tells us.
But she emphasizes that this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go to bed in a fit of rage.
“If you haven’t resolved the issue, and particularly if it’s just before bed, intentionally put a hold on the argument and that you will give space for it the next time,” she says. “You can say ‘let’s agree to disagree — I respect you have your own opinion or belief, we’ll continue this conversation tomorrow.’”
Hidalgo also tells us that it can be helpful to go to bed with a level of internal peace, even if the argument isn’t completely resolved.
“Find something about your partner you are grateful for and share that or hold that in your mind to help you find your inner peace,” she says.
So, how do we resolve arguments before bed?
Knowing what we do about the mental and physical health impacts of going to bed angry is one thing. But knowing how to actually prevent this from happening is something entirely different.
Resolving arguments at any time of the day or night is a crucial way to maximize the health of your relationship.
Dent tells us that calm conversation and listening are vital elements.
“If you use active listening, meaning if one person is speaking, then the other person must purely listen without jumping in to immediately address it,” he says, “then the active listener should restate the problem to make sure he/she understands the issue then validate his/her feelings. Then reverse roles if necessary. You may not be able to solve the issue right away, but at least it will reduce the tension as a couple.”
For Hidalgo, both partners being willing and devoted to resolving conflict is half the battle.
“When we can acknowledge how detrimental it is to go to sleep angry and hold the intention and willingness to seek peace with each other you’re halfway there even if both partners still feel angry,” she says.
“Make this an agreement or commitment of “let’s not go to bed angry at each other.” Willingness goes a long way. Each partner is responsible for finding patience, and respect for the other despite your anger.”
Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.