Ever get so mad at your mate you just couldn't make it right before turning out the light? Did "sleeping on it" somehow dilute the argument? Or, did you wrestle till dawn—tossing and turning over the details—trying to figure out a solution? And in the morning, did you wake up rested and ready for round two or did you feel the need to work it out and make peace?

Well, researchers at the University of Massachusetts decided to investigate the theory. They recently tested the old adage some trace back to Biblical times urging people to resolve anger before day's end. ("Do not let the sun go down on your anger," Ephesians 4:26) The scientists recruited 38 men and 68 women between the ages of 18 and 30 and showed them images meant to conjure up a variety of emotions—some positive, some negative and some neutral.

Traumatic images like the scene at a bad traffic accident were mixed with benign pictures meant to have the opposite effect. After a 12-hour period of either wakefulness or rest, the study subjects were shown the images again along with new pictures equally weighted emotionally.

The result? The unsettling pictures—viewed again after sleep—are just as unsettling as the initial viewing compared to those shown the same images who have not slept. In other words, the research indicated that sleeping preserves those disturbing memories. The results were published in January's Journal of Neuroscience.

According to the U Mass neuroscientists, this response is likely by design. "Preserving very negative emotions and memories of life-threatening situations would be valuable from an evolutionary point of view," said Rebecca Spencer, PhD, in a university press release. "That experience would be a strong incentive for our ancestors to avoid similar occasions in the future."

Spencer added that the findings also have significance for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. "Sleep deprivation may be the brain's way of preventing the emotions from being stored," the researcher explained.

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Of course, strong emotions have an upside, too. Anger helps you articulate your deepest needs and frustrations. Successful couples have learned healthy ways to express and cope with anger, according to marriage expert Gelena Rhoades, PhD, a professor at the University of Denver, Center for Marital and Family Studies.

Rhoades, however, doesn't subscribe to the thinking that going to bed angry is necessarily a bad thing. "There is a benefit to taking a break—a time out, if you will—from a conflict and then going back to it later when you are feeling less emotional and perhaps more level-headed about it," she says explaining how the study's findings spill into the complex, but rewarding, world of relationships.

The expert believes that feeling the need to resolve issues before bed may put unnecessary pressure on couples to solve problems too quickly. "Conflict deserves the time, attention, and careful thought required to successfully resolve it."

Rhoades advocates doing something to help you feel better about the bothersome emotions but not necessarily solving them. "Staying up all night talking about the problem you are having isn't necessarily the answer. Right before bed might not be the best time to resolve the issue," she says.

Her advice? After an argument, admit that you have a problem that needs solving but, connect with your partner in a positive way. "Take a break from the fighting and do something fun or relaxing—a short walk or enjoy watching a funny program together," says the psychologist who also counsels couples in private practice. "There's loads of research showing that people who make positive connections with others on at least a daily basis tend to do better in their lives."

Building up reserves of positivity is an effective coping strategy for the long term. "Relationships are better able to endure the strain of withdrawal when they have positivity to fall back on. It's a little like a bank account," Rhoades explains. Once you've connected, Rhoades suggests revisiting the issue in the not-too-distant-future. "Set a date to talk about it again."

Marriage can also be likened to the weather. "Arguments are the thunderstorms in a marriage," says Rhoades. "Positive connections are the umbrella that protects you during the storm."




Interview with Galena K. Rhoades, Ph.D, Department of Psychology, University of Denver, Center for Marital and Family Studies 

University of Massachusetts Amherst

The National Health Marriage Resource Center

The National Institutes of Health