“Never go to bed angry,” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to newlyweds. If you ask people you know or search the web, you’ll find plenty of comments, opinions and research to either back up or contradict this age old advice.

For what it is worth, I think the fundamental principle of the cliche is true. But like most any piece of wisdom, you have to avoid taking it to extremes and there may be other factors to consider, which is the basis of the arguments criticizing this time honored saying saying.

I think that this sage advice dates back thousands of years to the scripture:

” ‘In your anger do not sin’ : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” – Ephesians 4:26 NIV

And since this wisdom has been around for thousands of years, all I intend to do here is add my 2 cents for why it matters.

I came to understand it during my bachelor days.

My roommate, other friends and myself were playing poker in our apartment. I’m known to be overly competitive at times and my friends decided to play a little prank on me. Throughout the night, they would frequently cheat and give the winning cards to one of the other players. The player they gave the winning cards to was the person who cared the least about winning, did not take the game seriously and often had haphazard strategy. My friends knew that one of my pet peeves was losing to someone I thought played poorly. I’m not proud of this trait and try to work on it, but it is an important fact of the story.

As the night went on, I got more and more frustrated when I lost repeatedly to this player. The odds of him having the cards he did as often as he did were mind boggling. I have pretty honest friends, so I would never expect them to cheat to win, but I guess cheating to irritate me was a different matter, which is why I was slow to consider the possibility. At some point I crossed into being legitimately mad, but they continued the prank.

When they all finally had a good laugh at my expense, I was not in a good place. “How could they keep provoking me when they knew I was so upset,” I thought to myself. I don’t recall how the night ended or what happened next, but I do know that I called it a night and went to bed before any apologies or reparations could be made. I went to bed angry.

And what happens next may be familiar to you, even if you didn’t recognize what was happening. What started out as anger at a problem situation, “How could they keep provoking me when they knew I was so upset,” evolved over time as I stewed about the night. After a while, my thoughts became, “How could they be so insensitive,” to “How could they be so cruel,” to “they are such cruel, thoughtless jerks.” You see, when we dwell on a hurt without addressing the person, the problem situation eventually becomes a problem person. We attribute what happened to a flaw in the character of those who hurt us. Now that character flaw is our problem.

And it is so much harder to resolve a problem with someone when you believe the problem is their character. And when the problem is their character, the possibility of change or resolution is so much more hopeless and frustrating. Which conversation will be more productive?

 “I was hurt when you knowingly pushed my buttons,” or “I need to talk to you about how manipulative and inconsiderate you are.”

Regardless of whether you deal with a problem today or tomorrow, I think one of the key things to remember is to stay focused on the situation and not allow your anger to fester and taint your whole perception of a person. It is always easier to deal with a situational problem than a character problem. People will be far more defensive, the scope of resolution gets overwhelming, and you will have much more difficulty dealing with facts when you try to take on something as arbitrary as a character defect.

And while we are on the topic of attributions of character, here is another valuable tip. It has been observed that when we have bad behavior, we tend to blame our circumstances:

  • “I didn’t get enough sleep and was irritable”
  • “I’m under a lot of stress right now”
  • “If you only knew what my childhood was like”
  • “It was just a miscommunication”

But when other people have bad behavior, we attribute it to their character:

  • “What a selfish jerk”
  • “They are just lazy”
  • “She’s such a B—-“
  • “Don’t be an idiot”

We excuse our bad behavior with understanding and context, but we simply chalk up other people’s bad behavior to innate character flaws. I believe we do this because we love ourselves (let’s not get into the whole other subject of people who do not love themselves). Because we love ourselves, we want to think better of ourselves, so we try to understand our behavior in context. We are more than a simple label. We have good days and bad days and we don’t want all our good points and accomplishments to be cancelled out by a mistake. We don’t do this for other people, because doing all that thinking to understand someone takes a lot of mental energy, and if we’re honest, we don’t love other people enough to put in the effort to understand them.

What if one of the main lessons of the golden rule is to love others as ourselves, which means to cut other people the same amount of slack we do for ourselves. It is a lot harder to be angry when you try to consider someone as a complicated human being who is struggling to do their best, rather than just a villain.

So, if you go to bed angry, you run the risk of turning someone you care about into a villain…and that kind of makes you sound like the bad guy now, doesn’t it?