You’ve heard of the old adage, “Never go to bed angry.” For generations this has been the golden rule of marriage. To be sure, this is a helpful reminder for us to keep our communication lines open with our spouse to clear up the air instead of sweeping our problems under the carpet in the vain hope that things will be better tomorrow. Because, as we know, if we let our anger fester inside us overnight, it builds up resentment and gradually eats away at our marriage, right?
Well, not always.
Truth is, when we are angry, our brain produces neurochemicals that activates our fight-or-flight response, compromising if not disabling the thinking, rational part of the brain. Ever jumped at the sight of a sinister shadow in your peripheral vision, only to realize half a second later it was just tree? That is because your fight-or-flight response kicked in along with fear before your thinking brain had time to study your environment. The same mechanism is activated when we are experience strong emotions such as anger, which then reduce our thinking brain’s ability to be objective and solve problems.
Couples who continue to hash out their arguments in the heat of anger may find themselves getting flooded, or overwhelmed, with negative emotions. Flooding prevents us from being able to listen to what our partner has to say. Often, one party attacks or blames the other, who then becomes defensive and may retaliate. A vicious cycle ensues. You can imagine how quickly the argument can spiral out of control with no solution in sight.
In such a situation, immediately own up to your anger. Say, “I agree it is vital to work through this problem, but right now my anger is getting in the way of us finding a solution together. Let’s take a 20-minute time out before we discuss this again.” It is far more important to give your brain time to calm down and get back in control than to prove you are right.
During the time out, practice self-soothing such as deep breathing, visual imagery, or other relaxation skills. (I will cover these techniques in another article.) Check back in with your partner at the appointed time; if need be, agree on taking another time out.
“Flooding prevents us from being able to listen to what our partner has to say.”
Sometimes, the need to attend to other matters (such as children or chores) or preparing for an early start the next day may prevent a successful resolution of your conflict. Recognize when you’re both at a stalemate for now and agree on taking up the issue the next day. Try to affirm your love for your partner and appreciation for their effort to work things through. You can say, “This is difficult for us, but I know we can get through this.” Give a hug. Say one thing about your marriage or partner that you still appreciate, even with humor: “You can be really stubborn, but I have to say your lotus soup tonight was world-class.”
Then try to get some sleep. Sleep helps your brain regulate your emotions, re-organize information, and find clarity. You and your spouse will be stand a better chance to overcome this tomorrow.