We’ve all heard the advice. “Never go to bed angry.” Supposedly, you’re supposed to work everything out and start fresh the next day.
But what if you can’t? What if you’re still steaming and he’s clueless about why you’re mad?
Or, maybe you know it’s going to take a while to discuss what happened and you really need to get to bed?
Or you simply don’t want to…
It’s fine to wait. In fact, sometimes it’s a really good idea to do so. Discussing sensitive topics when you’re fuming will get you nowhere. Same thing applies if you’re tired, not feeling it, or simply don’t have the time right then.
Now, just because you’re not going to resolve things before bed, doesn’t mean there aren’t some other things you should do! Consider some of these tips to make sure waiting to resolve the conflict doesn’t cause damage to your relationship:
Even if you table the conversation, reassure your spouse about your commitment to the relationship and desire to work through the problem. Set up a time when the two of you can talk.
No matter when you have the discussion, it’s important that you’ve settled yourself down. Once you can think more clearly and engage without harshness, check in with your spouse and see if he is also calm enough to talk. You may not have the ability to work through conflict until you’ve had time to shift your body. Rest can certainly help with that!
Let go of small disagreements that are coming up mostly because of stress. I’m not saying you should tolerate mistreatment. I’m just saying that if you see that what you’re arguing about is actually minor, it’s okay not to process it. Just get a good night’s sleep and move on the next day.
Although it is fine to go to bed angry, be careful not to sweep things under the rug. Just get yourself into a more calm, constructive mindset and tackle the problem when the two of you are ready.
What messages did you get about anger when you were growing up?
I bet you heard statements like these:
Girls shouldn’t get so mad.
Don’t curse. It isn’t very ladylike.
Guys don’t like angry, bitter women.
Calm down. You’re being so dramatic.
The people who instilled this kind of thinking in us weren’t doing us any favours. Misconceptions about anger and a lack of healthy strategies for dealing with anger can damage your relationship. So, let’s get a fresh perspective on this intense emotion that you might fear and avoid.
When Anger Goes Wrong
Far too many women think anger is telling them something negative about themselves. Thanks to what they learned from their families of origin and our culture, they fear deep down that anger means they’re a bad, aggressive person. They believe that if they could just be better somehow, they wouldn’t get angry.
These beliefs lead to:
>> Tolerating behaviour that makes you feel disrespected. For example, your husband habitually runs late. Or even behaviour that harms your family, like overspending.
>> Avoiding anger at all costs. Never having an argument doesn’t improve your marriage. In fact, the opposite can happen if you are sweeping issues under the rug.
>> Seething silently in resentment. In many marriages, women build up resentment around housework and emotional labor.
>> Withdrawing and becoming depressed. This happens when you lose any hope of getting your needs met.
>> Complaints that do give voice to your anger, but in a way that’s unlikely to get your husband to change what’s making you angry.
>> Mean-spirited venting with friends. Again, this might feel like you’re doing something with your anger. But you’re actually just cultivating contempt for your husband while avoiding the real issues.
>> We all have a breaking point. If you suppress anger long enough, you’re likely to lash out. When that happens, your words will be a lot more hurtful than the ones you would have chosen if you’d addressed your anger earlier.
How Anger Can Help You
You may not realize that anger doesn’t have to result in screaming and wounded feelings. It can actually help you improve your relationship. Anger also isn’t some indication of your character, or lack thereof.
The very wise psychologist and author, Harriet Lerner, recommends viewing anger as a warning signal. It reliably tells you when something is wrong and you need to take action to protect yourself.
To use anger in a positive way, first notice how you react when you notice angry feelings surfacing. If you tend to judge yourself and say, “Ugh, I shouldn’t be such a bitch,” or push your anger down with “No time to feel that now!” see if you can just let yourself feel the emotion without trying to judge it or squash it.
Instead of recoiling from your own anger, tune in and ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate to you. Some common messages behind anger include:
Your needs aren’t being met.
You are being disrespected.
You are doing too much.
Someone has crossed a line with you.
When you have a handle on what’s causing your anger, you can act on it in a more effective way and use your anger as catalyst for positive change. For example, you can establish or affirm healthy boundaries around what you will do, how much you will give, and what you will tolerate. You can lovingly but firmly stand up for what you need and what you expect.
Read More About Women and Anger
I won’t lie to you: while embracing your anger is liberating, it can also be an uncomfortable journey. All of those early messages are deeply ingrained in our minds, and our society still has some deeply messed up attitudes about women and anger. To aid you in this work, I recommend Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger, as well as my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, many couples are experiencing extra stress and pressure. You or your partner may be dealing with job loss or putting in long hours as remote work blurs the line between professional and personal life. If you have kids, you’re probably coping with disruption in their routines and navigating challenges like online schooling.
When life gets crazy, the care and maintenance of your marriage often falls to the back burner. There are just so many other things competing for your attention that it’s tempting to put your relationship on autopilot for a while.
But this is a grave mistake. As a psychologist who has worked with countless couples, I’ve seen how easy it is for spouses to drift apart — even when they’ve been together a long time, and even when they still love each other.
The deep and sudden shifts in our lives this year can accelerate this process. While the pandemic won’t last forever (no matter what it feels like), any neglectful behaviors you fall into now can do lasting damage to your relationship.
Little habits have big consequences. That’s the bad news and the good news. Here are the daily practices that will help you maintain a loving and happy partnership even when both of you feel stretched thin.
Turn Up the Positivity
If you have a green thumb, you know that keeping your plants healthy requires care regularly, not just when you feel like it. The same thing is true of your marriage.
Plants need water and sunlight to thrive. In the same way, your marriage will wither without a steady supply of positivity. The marriage researcher John Gottman discovered that longtime happy couples have 20 positive interactions for every negative one.
Having a positivity-filled marriage doesn’t mean that life is all romance and passion (although both are wonderful, of course). Positivity also happens in the little moments of every day. When your spouse puts their phone away while you’re talking, or when you thank them for picking up extra work around the house while your job is crazy, you’re filling the “positivity bank” of your relationship.
With the stress we’re all under, those positive moments can dwindle. Maybe the two of you used to catch up with each other after a busy day by talking and cuddling in bed. Now, though, you’re spending the time before sleep answering emails you missed during the day.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal. You’re just doing what you have to do to stay caught up, right? But with the loss of this positive ritual, your connection can start weakening.
Think about all the habits that have added positivity to your relationship in the past. Which ones do you still practice? Which ones have you let slide lately? How can you preserve the positive interactions that matter most to each of you— even when life looks different? For example, if you need to answer email in the evening, you could still set a cutoff time for putting devices away to focus on each other.
Fight the Right Way
Stressful times can also create more conflicts in your marriage. But that isn’t necessarily a problem. The important thing is how you handle those conflicts.
One of Gottman’s other major findings is that showing contempt during conflict is just about the worst thing you can do for your marriage. There’s a big difference between saying “Why don’t you care about the kids?” and “I’m exhausted managing my job and the kids’ online school. Can we talk about how to take some things off my plate?”
On the other hand, avoiding conflict altogether is also dangerous. You might be thinking “With so much going on, it’s just not worth getting into this right now.” Admittedly, sometimes it is better to let the little things go. But if your point of conflict is not a little thing, you can end up simmering with resentment and eventually blowing your top.
Or maybe the two of you tend to get into escalating battles of passive aggression instead of arguing. Your partner snaps at you for forgetting an errand. So you work late and skip dinner with your family. The next morning, they roll over and ignore you when you try to embrace. And on and on. Yes, you avoided a fight. But you may have done even more harm by undermining those positive moments we talked about earlier.
A better approach is to set aside time regularly to check in with each other and openly address issues before they become explosive. I understand that this might feel like just one more thing to do when your list of responsibilities is already long. But, in the long run, being proactive about disagreements helps ensure that your marriage sustains and replenishes you and isn’t just another drain on your energy.
Master the Art of Apologizing
No matter how determined you both are to be positive and to handle conflict respectfully, there are going to be times when you mess up and hurt each other’s feelings — especially these days.
Stress shuts down the parts of our brain that help us relate to others. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this “flipping your lid.” When you’re in this brain state, you get really bad at processing information and showing empathy.
You also become more defensive. That means that it’s not only easier to behave badly toward your partner when you’re under pressure; it’s also harder to apologize. How dare they get upset that you weren’t listening (or that you got snappish, or forgot a chore)? Don’t they know everything that you’re dealing with right now?
Refusing to apologize might protect your pride, but it hurts your marriage. If apologies are hard for you, I recommend checking out the work of psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner. According to Lerner, a true apology can happen only after you have listened to and come to understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology won’t create healing if you make excuses, over-explain, blame your spouse for your mistake or and bring up what they’re doing wrong.
The French actress Simone Signoret once said: “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Every action you take in your marriage either stitches you together more closely or frays the ties that bind you. Which will you choose today?
I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by David Waranch of the Authentic Dad podcast. Here’s the introduction from his site and a link to the podcast below.
August 20, 2020
Welcome to the Authentic Dad Podcast! I’m David Waranch and I coach dads on having a greater impact in the world, living on their own terms, flourishing in their relationships.
Today, I’m joined by Dr. Poonam Sharma. Dr. Sharma is an experienced psychologist in San Antonio. She’s the author of Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage.
I wanted to talk to Dr. Sharma because I found her book very helpful and practical in navigating marriage and relationships in the modern world. I really enjoy her down to earth and practical style of writing.
We talk about marital expectations, the 5 human needs, gender roles, and much more.
I’ve seen it happen again and again. Especially to people who have been together for a long time. Their relationship was solid at the beginning. And they still love each other. After all, they’ve been through so much together. And yet, they are slowly drifting apart. Neither one can point to any clear moment when their relationship started to unravel. But it clearly has.
Why does it unravel?
There’s a really popular idea that once you fall in love, you’ll stay that way, unless you’re one of the unlucky ones who don’t. Of course, when you’re in love, you never think that could be you.
Unfortunately, this type of thinking supports being passive when it comes to your marriage. And that is a very dangerous idea. Because instead of actively tending to the relationship, you may think that if you really love each other, it will be okay.
Things become even more precarious when you’re angry with each other. Instead of kissing your husband as he heads off to work, you may ignore him instead. He might retaliate by working late and skipping the typical family dinner. The next morning, perhaps he extends an olive branch by reaching over and touching you in the morning. If you’re not ready yet, you may turn your back to him, registering a rejection on his end.
This back and forth can continue, slowly unraveling your daily relationship rituals. Add the stress of kids, work pressures, or money problems to the mix and you have a perfect recipe for the connection coming part. Until, you are now going to bed at different times, only discussing the daily tasks that need to be completed, and barely touching each other anymore.
Are you the frog?
It’s easy to end up like the frog in the boiling water. If you haven’t heard this story, it’s about putting a frog in some tepid water and then slowly increasing the heat. If you heat things up slowly enough, the frog will adapt to the changing temperature and won’t realize the danger surrounding it.
It’s the same way with your marriage. Thousands of small interactions over time strain your connection. if you don’t repair the hurt in a timely way, your relationship can come apart. All without your fully understanding why.
How to keep it together
Here are a few quick tips to keep your relationship strong as the years go by:
Remember to tend to your marriage like you would a living plant, making sure you are both getting what you need.
When you hurt each other, repair the damage quickly. Focus your energy on the big problems. Let go of the small annoyances that are coming up simply because you’re stressed out.
Exercise discipline about keeping positive relationship habits in place. If you normally give him a quick kiss when he leaves, do it. Yes, even if you’re mad and don’t feel like it. Why? It’s easier to give a half-hearted kiss than to stop kissing him and then try to get back into that habit again. Tearing things down takes just a minute, while building them back up is much, much harder.
Remember the words of Simone Segnoret:
“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.”
Make sure your actions help preserve the connection. To learn more about other ways you can strengthen your marriage, consider picking up a copy of my book, Strong Women, Strong Love.