COLUMBIA, Mo. – “Don’t go to bed angry.”
The saying may be one of the oldest pieces of relationship advice still in circulation. It goes back at least to the Book of Ephesians in the New Testament: “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
But it may not always be the best advice, says University of Missouri Extension gerontology specialist Jacquelyn Benson.
Benson recommends that couples sleep on it. Put your anger on pause overnight.
“Sleeping on it” is helpful because the part of our brain responsible for judgment and self-control functions poorly when we are tired and in need of sleep, she says.
“Going to sleep and readdressing the problem the next day when our minds are rested is better than staying up until the wee hours of the morning to fight. We’re also less likely to trade escalating provocations back and forth.”
Many disagreements occur in the evening hours, when tensions and exhaustion can run high after a stressful day, she says.
Venting concerns can be healthy, but it also can anger your partner further. Choose your words carefully, Benson says. Control the pace of the argument and keep your voice low.
That might be easier if you can put off discussing disagreements until the next day. Tell your partner that what is being said matters, but you prefer to discuss it later. This lets your partner know that you hear his or her concerns while giving both of you time to rest.
But set a specific time to discuss the issue so that it doesn’t get buried or never addressed, Benson says.
Time some time to look at things from your partner’s perspective. “Think of yourself as a third party, a fly on the wall,” she says.
Don’t take your anger into the bedroom. Reserve this room for rest and intimacy.
Holding hands, a good-night kiss or any type of physical touch often helps diffuse our anger, Benson notes. It lets your partner know you care and you’re on solid ground even when you disagree.
Longtime couples tend to manage conflict better than young couples, she says. “We tend to mellow as we age.”
A common feature of happy couples is that they tend to let minor things go. Benson admits this is easier said than done. “Start with small annoyances and practice a different response. The good news is old patterns can change.”
The other good news is that disagreements are normal. If you never argue, that’s a red flag that the relationship isn’t healthy, she says. “Someone is bottling up their feelings.”
Relationship experts give advice based on evidence from scientific studies that demonstrate what works best for the average couple. “It’s important to keep in mind, though, that none of us are ‘average.’ We all have our own idiosyncrasies that need to be taken into account when we make relationship decisions,” Benson says.
Benson conducts research on intimate relations in later life and teaches courses on marriage, families and relationships at MU.