I don’t know if it was Carol and Mike on the Brady Bunch who gave us the “don’t go to bed angry” mantra in their ideal (aka impossible) blended family TV show, or the infamous Dr. Sears in the 70s, but I certainly prided myself on this behavior for years. In fact, I would be relentless about not letting a fight go unresolved, believing I was an amazing communicator. Unfortunately, more times than not, it failed. Why? Because I would force a conversation well past its prime, pushing my partner who was flooded with emotion into a state of withdrawal or anger, just making everything worse. I wish I had known differently and saved a few hours of wreckage. So, let me tell you what I learned: It’s okay to go to bed angry.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have gained insight into how couples engage and moderate their own internal emotions – and if you are in any kind of relationship, you have probably noticed that not everyone reacts just like you. You may even believe your partner is crazy in the moment, (and I’m sure the feeling is mutual} which is why I need to give you both a break:
It can be a good idea sometimes to go to bed angry.
Why? Because most couples don’t know how to engage in a way that is productive. The source of most fighting is typically both feeling blamed, criticized, not heard or validated. And when this happens, our brain interprets these feelings in the most primal way – in terms of survival. You’ve heard of fight or flight mode? When we feel attacked, whether by a real bear in the woods or just your boyfriend, similar bells ring in your brain to signify the need to protect yourself. The result is defensiveness in the form of blaming, bringing up past resentments, shouting, mean comments, crying and sometimes the silent treatment.
“Sleeping on it” can shift our brain out of that primal fight or flight mode so we can hear the other person’s point of view, and listen to their needs. Tired and stressed after a long day makes it our bandwidth to regulate our emotions much smaller.
If you find the conversation is escalating take a pause, a break, a “time-out” as you would give to a 4-year-old in a tantrum. Regrouping can do a world of good to reset the conversation and approach it from a less charged standpoint.
Take note: To do this successfully — and this is key — there must be an agreement that you will set aside a time at a later point to continue the discussion so that no one feels dismissed or overwhelmed. You must commit to this agreement.
Do you find your relationship repeats the same negative cycle in arguments? Same thing, different day? Why? Because what triggers us in conflict is rather universal — A feeling of being misunderstood, not heard, not validated, or perhaps dismissed, rejected and flat out left – like as in your partner just walked out of the room. These are common feelings that show up in the dance of a partnership. Tell me if you can relate to this.
Now, I am going to go one step further and recommend that you try and not leave the house angry in the mornings also. Sound too ambitious, especially if you aren’t the lucky kind that forgets what you were fighting about in the first place? I’m not expecting this miracle, but I am reminding you that the morning is an important time to set the tone so that the rest of your day isn’t overshadowed with resentment or anger. No one feels good knowing there is an unresolved conversation looming while trying to focus on work or family.
Emotional connection is what we really crave in relationships. And this ‘connection’ is what helps to regulate our bodies…keeping us calm, feeling safe and contained. When couples leave the house ‘disconnected,’ they find themselves anxious, irritable and unhappy most of the day. If rehashing the difficult conversation is not timely or possible, then after agreeing on your time to talk again, say or do something that shows your continued commitment to the relationship. “I love you,” (even if you don’t feel loving in the moment) goes a long way. A kiss goodbye and a verbal acknowledgement that “we will work this out together,” goes a long way to provide some comfort during the waiting period. Sometimes it is difficult to contain the fact that both can exist – Love and commitment can still exist in times of disappointment or anger with a loved one.
If you are someone that likes to avoid conflict or shut down during an argument, you will love me for this post and forward it to your mate quicker than a tweet on election day. But, remember your commitment is to reconnect in the very near future. If you have a hard time going to bed and shutting off your thoughts, bring out those relaxation techniques, quiet your mind and remember you will be heard. For both of you, take this time to tune into what you are really needing from your partner.
Tip: It really isn’t about the socks on the floor.