it's complicated

In Defense of Going to Bed Angry

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

As we stormed back into the apartment, I looked longingly at the bedroom. All I wanted to do was lie down and stop — stop talking, stop yelling in circles, stop staring at each other in cold silence over whatever the hell set us off in the first place. By this point, neither of us could remember. The fight now was about power, about who could say they won, or at least about not admitting that we’d lost sight of the central issue and instead were arguing about anything and everything that came to mind.

My partner didn’t want to go to sleep. We couldn’t go to bed angry, he reminded me. We couldn’t turn off until everything was resolved. But it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to keep going — physically, I couldn’t go on any longer. I was completely drained of the energy it took to keep myself upright, let alone continue arguing. Please, I begged, let’s just go to bed, and if we’re still angry about anything in the morning, we can talk about it then.

Really, this was a self-serving plan in more ways than one. I desperately wanted to sleep, but I also had a suspicion that sleep would be the end of this whole thing. If we paused it now, I thought, there was a good chance neither of us would remember what we had been fighting about come sunrise.

I’m not sure what happened next. I think I just passed out. But it worked: When we woke up, we each said we were sorry, for everything and nothing specific, and we started our day new. So here’s my pitch: gritting through a fight at all costs has its own consequences, and sometimes the only solution is to pass out and start again.

***

I have never been a good fighter. Tears pool in my eyes before I can even put words to my anger or fear, which means others often know something is wrong before I do. What I do know, immediately, is that I don’t want to be doing this. My parents’ divorce when I was three wasn’t really a traumatic one, but it did leave me afraid of conflict — growing up, I didn’t see any proof that you could fight and still stay together. And in every relationship before my current one, that came true: One fight and we were done.

My spouse is the first person I’ve dated who’s ever given me the freedom to fight. I can’t remember what our first one was, but I remember feeling like it was a revelation — I cried and said mean things, and somehow he was still there. I’d never known that was an option: You mean I can let out all of my frustrations and you won’t go anywhere? Was this how everyone else did it?

Early in our time together, that realization sparked a growing obsession for how relationships were done. I began devouring advice on fighting, love languages, how much is too much time together or apart. Would separate checking accounts symbolize our appreciation for each other as independent people, or be a sign that we’re not in this together? I was always told not to marry before 30, so was marrying at 27 betraying something? I loved him, and I wanted to get this right.

And for people looking for the right way to be in a relationship, “Never go to bed angry” seems like an obvious place to start — resolve your problems, don’t let resentment simmer. It’s also ubiquitous.
There is an entire book called Don’t Go To Bed Angry: Stay Up And Fight. Researchers have done studies in an attempt to prove its truth. There’s Etsy art about it to hang in your bedroom. It’s the one piece of advice everyone else seems to give the bride at wedding showers. It’s even in the Bible: In Ephesians 4.25–27, Paul advises, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”

All of which is to say that for a long time, I was scared of my own suspicion that this advice didn’t really apply to us. If it didn’t work for me, it’s because I was broken, not the advice. I figured I must not care enough about my partner and our relationship to stick it out until 3 a.m., until we had gotten to the core of our fight and successfully made up.

It seems silly now that I was so concerned about living up to a trite piece of advice as a measure of the strength of my relationship. But it took that one exhausting fight to bring me clarity. When I went to bed after that big fight, I felt tired, and sad, and confused, and angry, but I didn’t feel unloved. And I knew why I didn’t mind falling asleep before things were entirely resolved: because there was no doubt in my mind that we’d both still be there in the morning.

This is something that I’m still careful not to take for granted — going to bed mad only works if we try to make each other feel loved when you’re not fighting. But waking up and saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that was about” or “I love you, can we talk about this?” feels infinitely better to me than denying myself sleep because of all the distant relatives who wrote in my wedding book that I should.

For me, the scariest part about realizing that one piece of tried-and-true relationship advice didn’t work was realizing that meant none of it might. I think I clung to these phrases because otherwise, my partner and I were on our own, two people fighting with no guide for how to resolve things other than our own feelings. But sticking together long enough eventually helped me to see that there is no guide. There is no secret. I have to keep on figuring it out by myself, and have faith that, whatever I do, my person will still be there in the morning.

In Defense of Going to Bed Angry