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Does ‘Sleeping on It’ Actually Work?

Are a few ZZZs really capable of complex decision-making?

Anytime Jay and his girlfriend would argue late into the night — whether it was over what to watch on Netflix or why she was going through his phone — they had two conflicting approaches. She didn’t want to go to bed angry, preferring to stay up and argue, while he was in favor of sleeping on it. 

But even when they did things his way, he would wake up to a scorned, sleepless girlfriend who had been fuming all night. “I would be rested and want to work things out, and she was ready for war,” Jay recalls. Due to the fighting and incompatible communication styles, “we broke up after a little over a year.”

Although their relationship didn’t last, the adages they were living by separately have endured for centuries. Though the exact origin is unknown, the saying “don’t go to bed angry,” is often attributed to the Bible verse Ephesians 4:26 in which the Apostle Paul tells the townspeople: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Other early records of “sleeping on it” date back to 16th century England, when Henry VIII wrote, “His Grace … said that he would sleep and dream upon the matter, and give me an answer [in] the morning.” 

To this day, you’ll find couples who are still divided on which piece of advice to follow. The popular 2016 self-help book, Don’t Go To Bed Angry: Stay Up And Fight, written by a Christian husband and wife team, argues for arguing into the night. On the other hand, retired cognitive psychologist and author John F. Tholen says Henry VIII’s desire to “sleep and dream on the matter” is fairly scientific, because “our sleeping brain is often better at synthesizing information than our conscious mind.” Tholen also notes that people tend to benefit from postponing a difficult decision until they’re feeling less emotional. 

Not to mention, when we sleep at night, “connections are made that may not occur if we were awake and thinking new thoughts based on current stimuli,” explains Jillene Grover Seiver, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. As a result, when we nod off, our brains can “make connections and links that can allow for insight that may reveal itself in the morning.”

Research also appears to support sleeping on it. For instance, a 2012 study found that getting enough sleep proved helpful for people making complex decisions — though for easy decisions, there wasn’t much of a difference. That said, as Jay learned the hard way, the sleep-on-it strategy may not be super productive for couples if both partners aren’t on board with the move. Tholen explains that pausing an argument or decision “can cause negative judgments by others who may see us as indecisive or ‘wishy-washy,’” even when it’s the right thing to do.

But again, when you’re on your own, it’s definitely the way to go. So if you feel yourself about to say something to your partner that’s sure to incite an argument, your best bet is to close your mouth and sleep on it instead.