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Sleep On It? When to Go to Bed Angry

Why fatigue, hunger, and stress may be the real culprits behind your fighting.

“Never go to bed angry” might be one of the worst pieces of old-time wisdom. People tend to feel more negative emotions and react more strongly to negative events when they are tired. So finding yourself fighting late at night—when you should be sleeping—is a recipe for disaster.

When we are low on sleep, we start fighting over things that wouldn’t ruffle a feather when we are well-rested. In some of my own research, I’ve looked at the link between sleep and conflict, and found that people are more likely to fight if they slept poorly the night before compared to days when they slept well. I also brought couples into the lab, had them tell me how well they’d slept the night before, and then asked them to solve a big problem in their relationship. I found that if either partner in a couple had slept poorly the night before, people were less able to understand their partner’s feelings during the conflict, and had a harder time resolving the problem. And yes, I mean either partner—so it seems that if just one of you is sleep-deprived, you may be in for a rockier ride when dealing with conflictual issues.

In other words, a poor night of sleep for you or your partner may lead you to fight when you wouldn’t otherwise, and when you do start fighting, you may just find yourself having a harder time resolving the issue. Unfortunately, other researchers have found that people sleep worse after fighting with their partner, suggesting that if you don't deal with the conflict, you may have a harder time getting a good night of sleep.

Fighting while hungry (hanger, anyone?) is another recipe for disaster. Who can think clearly or be patient when their body is screaming for calories? Similarly, being short on time or feeling stressed makes people more irritable and hostile. You are more likely to notice your partner's negative behaviors and less able to deal with them constructively when you are stressed. Like sleep, stress may turn nonissues into issues and prevent people from dealing constructively with their conflict.

Does it feel like there is never a good time to fight? To deal with conflict constructively, you should ideally discuss the issues in the best possible place at the best time. Of course, you cannot always fight under optimal conditions, but you can become more aware of the outside factors that exacerbate conflict and then work to minimize those external factors. Your conflict may escalate unnecessarily if you are tired, hungry, stressed or short-tempered for some other reason unrelated to your conflict. Sometimes you may even find yourself in the midst of a conflict that wouldn’t have happened if you’d just gone to bed a little earlier the night before or waited until after you'd eaten to broach the sensitive topic. So the next time you start to get angry over something little, take a minute to evaluate the situation. If it’s close to bedtime, instead of staying up so that you don’t go to bed angry, try distracting yourself with something pleasant for 20 minutes and then going to sleep and seeing if you are still as mad in the morning. If you're hunger, take a break and get something to eat. If you are short on time, hit the pause button and return to the issue when you don't feel so rushed. And think about your partner as well—did they say something insensitive because they are being a jerk, or are they just tired and hungry after a long day? Making good attributions for your partner's behavior may be beneficial for both of you. And you may find after a good night of sleep, a good meal, or time to think clearly, that your problems don’t feel so big anymore.

Want to argue less in your relationship? Try answering these five simple questions.

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