Sundown Wrath, Sunrise Joy

By Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC.  Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, September 2013.

In the summer of 2012, I wrote an article entitled “Pulling the Sheets off Anger” which was about how to avoid going to bed angry. I have discussed this topic with many people, but have also added what is about to follow, in order to make angering and arguing more practical and sustainable. Agreeing not to go to bed angry and agreeing not to wait until bedtime to discuss sensitive matters is a helpful and wise strategy, but emotions being what they are, and human beings who they are, sundown wrath often occurs. Have hope, there is still something that can be done.

Many have interpreted the Bible verse, “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph 4:26) to mean, “don’t go to bed angry,” and thus, have tried to work out a disagreement before going to sleep. They often “talk” into the wee hours of the night, usually reaching no resolution, and stop from sheer exhaustion. One of the two has to give in to “make the peace” yet ends up angrier for having to settle, to give in and over-compromise, for the sake of peace and sleep.

!News Flash!—that’s still going to bed angry…

…At least the spirit of it.

I have a friend/mentor who shared with me a great alternative interpretation. He told me that instead of trying to talk your way to resolution that night, take a collective deep breath (or two; perhaps a third). Then take a collective time out, because fatigue also is a participant in the current argument, and can serve to hinder, not help. Set an appointment for the next day or for the near future, when both of you are rested, relaxed, and unhurried, to resume the “discussion of alternative viewpoints.” Next, take another collective deep breath (or two, perhaps a third). Then, and this is the important part, part 1: Resume your regular-nightly-getting-ready-for-bed-routine! When the feeling of anxiety or fear or anger starts to creep in, take a breath; regulate as you work your routine (brush teeth, wash face, put on pajamas). And then get in bed, breathing deep in order to relax and ready yourself for sleep. And here’s the really important part, part 2: Touch! Any old (or young or middle age) body parts will do: hand to arm, foot to calf, tush to tush, anything that is somehow flesh to flesh. If you are emotionally regulated enough (calm), and can spoon, go for it. It does not matter how, just that you do it: Touch! What happens is a miracle of Creation and Design—trace amounts of the neurohormone called oxytocin is released into your system. This chemical increases your feeling of well-being and connection to the other person. While you are resting, your body starts to move you in the direction of resolution, by creating the sense that you ARE together AND connected AND on the same team, though not necessarily on the same page yet. So, when you awake, you are not only refreshed of body, but also refreshed and united of spirit, ready to tackle the “discussion of alternative viewpoints,” but from what seems like the same side of the bargaining table, rather than the opposite. The potential for sundown wrath is transformed into the potential for sunrise joy.

Besides, a productive discussion is much more likely (and a senseless argument less likely) when you are both holding a nice warm cup of morning java between your hands. And if the “discussion of alternative viewpoints” starts to move in the direction of heated argument, let go of your coffees with one hand, join those hands, and let oxytocin start to work its wonder again.

And as all cheesy advice concludes, “you’ll be glad you did.”

But you really will this time.

To talk further about making this a reality, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. Give us a call at 205-807-6645, or send an email via this website. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.