Dear Dr. Chani,
It has been six months since I got married and I am perpetually exhausted. Marriage is wonderful and exciting in some ways, but it is not always easy. I was surprised to find out after I got married that my husband and I have a lot of differences of opinion. We are constantly sparring over small and big things in our life. It takes so much effort to iron out all of our disagreements.
The good news is that when we take the time to talk about our issues, eventually we come to a resolution. Based on what I read in marriage books and articles, it seems to me that we have a normal, happy marriage. I really admire and love my husband.
What worries me is that I am always exhausted from our long, drawn out conversations. I wish we would not argue so much. I look forward to having the majority of our time spent having pleasant and enjoyable discussions.
One specific question that I have for you is about whether or not I should continue to follow the advice I received when I got married. When I had my bridal shower, we went around the room and everyone wrote down one piece of marriage advice on an index card. A few people wrote down, “Never go to bed angry.” I have been trying to follow this advice but I am not sure it is working for us.
We stay up really late at night until we finally work things out. Sometimes, we do not even end up working it out, and then we just stay up alone, sulking. My husband hangs out on the couch and I struggle to fall asleep in bed between tears.
What do you think about this advice and should I continue following it?
What you are describing about a series of arguments in your marriage is a very common experience, especially within the first year. It sounds like you are putting in a tremendous amount of effort to grow your relationship. Your commitment to communicating through your disagreements is fantastic!
Your question centers around a piece of advice you received about avoiding going to sleep when you are having an argument with your spouse. Before I answer your question, we need to understand: Why do people offer this advice?
This advice goes along with a common myth that in a happy marriage there are no arguments. It is simply not true. A conflict between a couple is normal and healthy. Two people are bound to have different perspectives, needs, and expectations. When you argue, you struggle to understand why your partner does not think about a situation the way you do. You grapple with how to meet both of your needs when they contradict each other. You marvel at why you each entertained vastly different expectations about something. A conflict is not bad. It does not indicate that you have a problem in your marriage. A conflict is an opportunity to get to know each other better.
When people give advice not to go to bed angry, they are implying that a conflict should either not exist or should be resolved quickly. Yet, since a conflict is normal, I recommend that you adjust to going to bed in the middle of a conflict.
Allow yourself to accept that you are angry and upset. A large percentage of your angst when you go to bed angry is not about the content of the conflict but about the fact that you are having a conflict in the first place. You are frustrated that you are not getting along.
I suggest you quickly adopt a new expectation – allow yourself to have conflict. Dr. John Mordechai Gottman, an expert couples researcher, reports that around 70% of the arguments that couples have are perpetual. If you are like most normal couples, it is likely that you will notice you have recurring conflicts about the same topics. Hopefully, the more you talk about them, the more you will understand each other’s needs and expectations. It will get easier to navigate your perpetual conflicts over time.
In the meantime, a good night’s sleep can work wonders for both of you. When you try to stay up to resolve a conflict, it can make you even more frustrated. When you are tired, the prefrontal cortex in your brain is starving for rest. This is the part of your brain that you need so you can control your impulses to act negatively. You also need your prefrontal cortex to think in creative and abstract ways so you can see things differently and understand your partner’s perspective. In addition, sleep deprivation increases negative moods so not going to sleep causes you to feel more irritable, sad, frustrated and angry.
When you go to sleep, you wake up feeling refreshed and you can think more clearly. Get used to going to bed angry when necessary. Rest assured that you will not only feel better, it will actually make it easier to communicate through each conflict.
Wishing you a peaceful sleep,