A few girlfriends ago, I was in a relationship that involved a lot of arguing. We were together for about a year and a half before I broke things off on a rainy fall day after – surprise, surprise – another argument.
I’ve already painted this situation with an unfair brush. Truthfully, it was a good relationship, for the most part. We knew each other well, had mutual friends and were long past holding in our farts. But, as relationships sometimes do over time, this one eventually pulled off its mask of growth and progress to reveal a frustrating secret identity of stagnant mutual complacency. And that’s when the arguments seized their chance to conquer.
A lot of our arguments happened in the evening, a result of circumstance and location. We both worked during the day and, by the time I drove the exhausting hour-and-a-half (plus) through NYC traffic to get to her place, just ringing the buzzer seemed like a Herculean feat.
I usually brought her flowers. And she always had something good for dinner. So, it’s not like we didn’t try. But, at the end of those marathon days, sometimes, the mind and body just get wiped. The mouth can’t be expected to function properly during these moments of catatonic lapse, so it says things. And that’s when the sparks start to fly.
“So, why didn’t you text me today?”
“We still need to talk about what happened this weekend.”
“I really don’t want to go to that party tomorrow night.”
Not exactly trivial matters, but also not bodies hidden under the futon, or extramarital affairs with blood relatives. Instead, they served as small splinters of biting truth, burrowing into the relationship’s skin and, before they could be extracted with common sense and reason, they mutated into some reckless, uncontrollable goliath that the neighbors could hear.
But, you’re not supposed to go to sleep angry, right? That’s the rule. You have to resolve the issue at hand before climbing into bed, exorcising all of those bicker demons far away from your queen-size comforter. If you don’t — if you try to sleep cooking in a stew of anger and resentment — then you’ll only boil until morning, dooming yourself to a sequel that’s bigger and badder than the original argument.
Or will you?
As it turns out, occassionally shelving an argument until sunrise might actually be the absolute best thing you can do to resolve your problems in a healthy, constructive way.
It all comes down to sleep.
First and most obviously, exhaustion doesn’t make it easy to be patient, rational or even willing to compromise — all things that come in handy when you’re engaged in an argument. Here’s why: The more tired we become, the more likely our bodies are to reroute resources to keep vital functions humming. As such we have a harder time remembering facts and remaining rational because the areas of our brain responsible for those capacities aren’t receiving the same physiological love.
And according to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Southern California and author of “Medicine Morning Report: Beyond the Pearls,” an argument at the end of the day can crumble under the weight of sleep deprivation thanks to the chemical called adenosine.
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that builds up in your body throughout the day, encouraging sleep when it reaches max capacity (fun fact: caffeine suppresses it). “In conjunction with our circadian rhythm, the buildup of adenosine throughout the day contributes to overall enhanced sleepiness.”
And we don’t want adenosine to fuel our arguments because, as Raj explained, build-up of the chemical suppresses important neurotransmitters that keep us awake and sparks the release of those that facilitate deep sleep.
“The two different parts of the brain we need to talk about are the hypothalamus and the higher cortical areas,” he says. “In the hypothalamus, you have a special area known as the VLPO switch. When you’re awake, the VLPO signals alerting hormones to fire – hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. As the adenosine builds up, the longer you stay awake, it signals the VLPO to turn off those alerting hormones and turn on the ones that encourage non-REM sleep.”
Turns out, this phenomenon doesn’t just apply to couples arguing about which college friends’ weddings they should or shouldn’t go to. In fact, how many of your bedtime arguments have felt like police interrogations?
Plus, studies have shown that sleep-deprived people have a shaky grasp on recalling past events accurately. When it comes to arguments about who was supposed to send regrets or pick up the dog, reinventing history typically doesn’t help cool heads prevail.
For me and my ex, the bedroom was always a perfect place to argue. Her on one side, me on the other, and this giant fluffy barrier between us. Plus, it was the natural end destination of every night; we always landed there. But, according to Dr. Raj, lugging our problems into the bedroom in the first place might have been the kiss of death.
“It’s called stimulus control,” he says, in a phrase oft-repeated in the sleep-industry. Meaning the bed should be for two things, both of which start with "S". No, “screamfest” isn’t one of them.
Ideally, Dr. Raj says, couples can set up a specific time during the day to discuss problems. Not in the bedroom. And certainly not in bed.
“You want your body and your mind to feel that the bedroom is meant for sleeping. It’s a room where you should be able to peacefully transition into sleep,” he says. “If you’re always having arguments in there, your brain automatically associates the room with arguing, not sleeping.”
No, you don’t need to build an argument Octagon in the foyer. But actively keeping your arguments away from where you lay your head at night will help keep your bedroom free of psychological shrapnel.
“If you’re able to table an argument and get a good night’s sleep, you’ll be less prone to facing problems you don’t need, and you’ll be able to see the big picture more clearly.
So, if my ex and I had waited until morning to clash, would we still be together? No. Absolutely not. There was a lot more going on. But would we have been more civil, receptive and emotionally aware? Most certainly. Now, don’t mistake this “wait ‘til morning” philosophy as some sort of magic ointment that makes arguments dissappear. But, scientifically speaking, putting pause on a fight and going to sleep angry might have preserved some civility, and made for a much less stressful year and a half.
Can’t argue with that.