Why ‘Never go to Bed Angry’ is Horrible Advice

I’ve attended an unusually large number of weddings over the year. In my 20’s, I was invited to less than ten ceremonies; in 2007 alone I easily eclipsed that. They have ranged from the very simple, Justice of the Peace proceedings to the much more elaborate and decadent weddings at five-star hotels and gathering halls. While the planning of a wedding appears to be true hell, the day itself seems like a pleasant experience for most involved. Save for the now three-times-a-bridesmaid and the Jewish grandmother stuck in church because the groom is Catholic.

While many cite the bride’s walk down the aisle, the personally written vows or the Best Man’s speech as the highlight of the day, nothing truly compares to the glory that is the Open Bar. The Open Bar opens up the window for amazing “overheards.” These are the random things people spew out in a drunken-stupor to people they hardly know:

“Dude, if I get laid tonight, this will be my sixth wedding in a row that I’ve scored. I’ll say it again, sixth wedding.”

“I had so many beef skewers at the rehearsal dinner last night, I woke up this morning with the meat sweats.”

“If she gains another five pounds, he’ll be screwing his 20 year-old secretary within the year!”

“Know what I wanna be when I grow up? A trophy wife!” This last one announced by a 13 year old to her father.

Even with all of this verbal amusement, I am almost always skeptical on the big day. I may be many things: irritable, obnoxious, impatient, slow-witted, un-photogenic, but one thing I am not is naïve. Everyone in my family has been divorced at least once. Depending on which study you read, you can find divorce rates in the United States as high as 60%, with more conservative estimates generally in the upper 30%’s. These numbers don’t even include people who are together yet miserable.

And of course in my professional life I don’t usually work with the cheerful. Relationship difficulties are both the cause and result of psychological problems, so many of my clients are going through relationship issues to some degree. Thus, as I lean against the bar, sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, looking at the happy couple of the day as I drink anywhere from my 1st to 7th glass of red wine, it’s hard to wonder if the relationship will last. And if it does, does that automatically translate to a happy marriage?

Most people at a wedding recognize that marriage is a difficult endeavor, and they often use their time with the microphone to provide helpful advice to the new couple as they begin their life together. Depending on how drunk the speaker is, I’ve heard advice range from the benign to the inappropriate:

Try to say at least one positive thing to each other each day.

Only fight about problems in the present, never the past.

Have sex in every room of your house within the first 19 days.

I’d like to sleep with your new wife. Or her sister. Or both.

The most distressing piece of advice I’ve heard over the past year, however, has been “never go to bed angry.” If I were a violent therapist I would have shot the speaker in the kidneys with my stepfather’s .45 magnum (what I like to call “Tough Love”). While I’m sure many couples live and die by this advice, I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals and couples who have tried to pull this off, and I’ve learned that not only is this philosophy extremely difficult to follow, it’s also highly undesirable:

“Never go to Bed Angry” puts an arbitrary time limit on how long a person can experience an emotion. While I never encourage clients to hold grudges, many emotions need to run their natural course. Suppressing or attempting to cut off common and potentially healthy emotions before they’ve been adequately experienced is a major mistake because the emotion doesn’t go away, it simply festers. Anger in and of itself is not bad: it is a signal that someone or something might be attempting to violate us or our rights, and if we handle this emotion properly, it’s not a problem. This problem of stopping anger within an arbitrary time limit is compounded for couples because “Never go to Bed Angry” forces two people to be ready to resolve a difficulty at the same time.

Here’s the rub: people generally don’t mind someone being angry at them or because of them. People are afraid of what that anger might mean. When our partner goes to bed or leaves the house in an angry state, it taps into our deep-seated fears of loss abandonment: what if this person leaves me for good? By forcing a “Never go to Bed Angry” rule, we can dupe ourselves into thinking that everything is okay once the lights go out. Not only is this false, it can actually create more conflict for many couples, because the feelings simply fester and build-up over time, rather than dissipating or worked through on their own. One of the biggest issues that many people in relationships face is how to sit with negative emotion, to just let it be, to not force your will on your partner, to not “fix it” before it’s ready to be addressed. Many couples need to understand that occasional arguments and conflict don’t translate to relationship instability and break-ups.

On the flip side, however, there are people who might use these ideas to never discuss anything. “I’m Just not Ready Yet” becomes the mantra, and then nothing ever gets resolved. This is just as bad as “Never go to Bed Angry” and can in fact be torturous to the other member of the couple who wants to talk things through. This is especially problematic if one person has significant abandonment fears, as he or she is left wondering what the ultimate outcome of the conflict will be. Many couples find it helpful to use a Talk Deadline that is a compromise: something that isn’t the witching hour of bedtime, but not five days later either. Every couple is different, and a good couple’s therapist helps each person to figure out where along the timeline they should be. This leads to a massive increase in relationship satisfaction.

So, if I’m holding the microphone at the next wedding I’m in attendance at, I will raise my pinot noir, stare deeply and seriously at the couple, and tell them the following as words of true motivation:

God, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Vishnu, Allah, or some other being altogether has perhaps brought you two together on this day, unless you are Agnostic like me, which means that you probably don’t know how you arrived at this point. Regardless, you are beginning the supreme journey, one that is very difficult. In fact, most people fail at it. The ones who succeed sometimes go to bed angry, but don’t necessarily wait a week to talk things through. Be one of those couples. If you struggle, do not lose faith. Just contact me at the number found on one of the many business cards I’ve spread across the tables here tonight. Therapy is cheaper than a divorce lawyer. Salut!

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13 Responses to “Why ‘Never go to Bed Angry’ is Horrible Advice”

  1. Phil says:

    great story and I do hope you’ll get to give that advice at a wedding one day. also I am greatly disturbed by the 13 year old futur trophy wife.

  2. Amber says:

    Hmmm…I never did think to ask you, but have you been married yourself?
    This is quite insightful!
    I was young and stupid when I married two months after my 18th birthday. We’ve gone through a period where divorce, I thought, was imminent. I don’t know why or we pulled through but we did.
    Six years after the young and stupid marriage I now have a child to think about and severely different ideas on the institution of marriage. I have a very different view on relationships altogether now because I’ve been tied down for so long. As I’ve said many times before, I’ll say it again, if anything happens to separate my husband and I, I WILL NOT get remarried. In fact it will probably be years and years before I allow myself into another emotional relationship. Sexual yes, emotional, no; but that’s a different story….

  3. Ricky says:

    I’m seventeen and been in a relationship for two years. I’ve always subscribed to the whole “don’t go to bed angry” thing, albeit over the internet or phone since we don’t live together. Forcing her to talk to me for hours into the night and whatnot…I’m glad I read this, I’ll let it go for awhile next time.
    Dr. Rob Note: Ricky, keep us posted on if it works!

  4. Anonymous says:

    If I lived by this theory, I would NEVER sleep!

  5. Kiddo says:

    Most of the time the only reason why say, “dont go to bed angry”, is because they afraid of what will happen. Alot of people I know say well what if something happens to them and you were angry at each other. I once heard that the best relationships are based on fear. Fear of hurting or losing the other person. I’ve been dating my b/f for 2 years and were best friends 3 before that. And my advice would be, dont worry about fights. Passion comes in many forms emotions are a humans greatest gift, and ALWAYS ask yourself, “Will this even freakin matter next week?” Our rule is if it will we talk about it, if not then we’re obviously in a raw mood adn should just take some time to ourselves and calm down and forget about. After learning this we maybe argue once every couple months, if that.

  6. katie says:

    I really dont like when people say “dont go to bed angry” It just keeps you awake and forcing to deal with something that would seem a lot less major in the morning or when you have given some time to think about it. I know I over react sometimes and after I have gotten some sleep I can realize that.

  7. Wayland says:

    You could cut it down a bit more to, “The ones who succeed sometimes go to bed angry, but don’t necessarily wait a week to talk things through. Be one of those couples. If you struggle, do not lose faith. Just contact me at the number found on one of the many business cards I’ve spread across the tables here tonight. Therapy is cheaper than a divorce lawyer. Salut!” Either way, this was great.

  8. not a doktor says:

    You’re right, some of us just enjoy a good rage/hate fuck. You just can’t do that when you hang the anger on the bed post.

  9. Canadian says:

    Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.~
    Pete Quote from the movie Knocked up

  10. Really good post and I love the toast! Couples are going to have conflicts. The trick is to learn how to have them — yes, there are tools to having conflicts. And when you know those tools, conflicts can actually bring you closer together (and maybe less sleepless nights). As a relationship expert, I offer a free teleseminar, “The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship.” To hear it, go to: http://choicerelationships.com/teleseminar_resources

  11. Gloria says:

    New reader here via GaijinSmash.net. I so agree with you on how awful this advice is.
    I’ve been with my hubby for over 7 years now (married for 2 – HS sweethearts), and boy do we go to bed angry all the time. Well, not all the time, but whenever we have fights. I have a poisonous mouth that just shoots out poison that stings, and it makes him soo angry. So both of us are angry, for 2 different reasons, but we’ll still sit/sleep next to each other.
    I rant about the fight to my sisters/friends/coworkers, and the ones that know us well know that it’ll be over soon, but those who don’t know us as a couple would get really worried. It’s kinda funny actually, but then I feel bad for making them worried about me!
    Anyhow.. enough babbling.. I’ve got so much more reading on this blog to do!

  12. Aspiring Psychologist says:

    I used to subscribe to this rule as well, whih meant I would stay up until I was ready to drop frm exhaustion trying to sort out a ‘problem’ with my OH over Skype. The next day, on reflection, I could always see at what point we moved from constructive discussion to me becoming overtired, overwrought and overreacting to everything he said.

    I’ve since learned not to even attempt a ‘discussion’ when I’m tired and if necessary, to go to bed mid-argument, as talking or rowing beyond that point just doesn’t help at all!!

    I don’t really understand, in hindsight, why people seem to think it’s acceptable advice! You’re ‘allowed’ to go to bed feeling happy, sad, anxious, lonely, or any other emotion – why not anger??

    Love your site 🙂

  13. Annie says:

    sigh. I won´t get married ever. I certaintly love to be single, I mean, is good to flirt with guys once in a while… but I don´t like anything to be complicated.

    Anyway, I heard a similar advice to that one, but it was more like “try to not react while angry, but wait until you are calmer” or something like that.