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This just in — go to bed angry

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a bit of conventional wisdom out there about how couples should handle a disagreement. It goes - never go to bed angry. Well, I personally have no problem doing this, which maybe explains my relationships. But the idea is, it is better to hash things out as soon as possible rather than let things fester. As Rhaina Cohen argues, though, in a new piece in The Atlantic magazine, that conventional wisdom may be due for an update. Hey, Rhaina. Welcome.

RHAINA COHEN, BYLINE: So happy to be talking to you.

CHANG: So happy to be talking to you. OK, so there are a lot of people out there, I bet, who are listening to this right now and thinking, wait, what? Like, you want me to go to bed angry? That is a good thing? How does going to bed angry actually help?

COHEN: So the idea of going to bed angry came through in conversations that I had with several pairs of people who have tried a system just like this. And they've found that if you're trying to deal with some kind of conflict while you are angry, you're just not going to be able to get to a place where you're problem-solving. You're too worried about trying to win, about trying to prove that you're right and the other person's wrong. So, yeah, maybe you can - you have let out all of your anger, and you have vented by the time you went to bed, but you probably haven't repaired anything in the relationship, or you may have even risked creating new problems in the relationship.

CHANG: Right. Like, you get lost in the heat of the moment.

COHEN: Exactly, yeah.

CHANG: OK. And you tell the story of this one particular couple, Liz Cutler and Tom Kreutz. And, you know, they apparently have been practicing this method for 40 years, not - you know, not talking about things in the moment and letting their anger diffuse. How did they even develop that system?

COHEN: Yeah, I mean, they are kind of a riot. They met through an argument.

CHANG: (Laughter).

COHEN: You know, they have one of the most sort of romantic, loving relationships that I think I have ever encountered. But certainly, in the beginning, it's a very heated relationship, and they talk about the way that their passion and their fervor is the thing that drew them together but also created a lot of conflict. And what they ended up figuring out a few years into their relationship, when they were just in their 20s, was that they wanted to have these sorts of check-ins - they frame them around contracts that they would write - to try to solve problems in their relationship. And over time, that became a standard part of their relationship. Every year - and then later it became every few months - they would have these conversations.

And the point was, since they were so hot-tempered, to try to delay any kind of conflict, any kind of frustration to those quarterly check-ins or, when it was earlier, to those yearly check-ins. And the idea is that if they can't react in the moment, they're not going to have a knock-down, drag-out fight where they are out in the driveway, and everybody can hear them. It forces them to sit with the feeling, and by the time they are confronting the other person, they can be distant from it. Here's what Liz told me about how doing these contract talks affected her feelings of anger.

LIZ CUTLER: When something happened, I would be able to hold it and not be angry in the moment because I knew there would be a time and a safe space where I could bring it up, and we could deal with it. And I knew that you're not allowed to fight at contract talks. Tom wouldn't be angry, so I could say what I needed to say. And there was no gamesmanship. There was no need to win the point. I could boil it down to - here's what I think the issue is that we need to talk about.

CHANG: OK, can I be honest, though? Because when I first read about Tom and Liz's method, I was like, oh, my God, that sounds unbearable - because, you know, it would be really hard for me to table something for way later, like months later, before talking about it, before dealing with it. How did they resist that urge to want to talk about something that bothered them?

COHEN: I think it came through a lot of practice. And there were some sort of concrete things that they did. The one that I love is that Liz, for a long time, had a piece of paper in her desk drawer, and if something happened that annoyed her about Tom, she would write it down.

CHANG: (Laughter).

COHEN: Or if it had already happened, she would just add a checkmark so she would know that it had happened again.

CHANG: Wow.

COHEN: And that gave her this place to acknowledge that something was happening that was frustrating to her, but it didn't need to be dealt with while she was angry and maybe while Tom didn't want to have that conversation. And I think the other part of it is that they set what they call rules of engagement for what these quarterly meetings would be like, which meant that you could kind of look forward to having a hard conversation, in a way. So one of the rules is that they're not allowed to be angry during what they call contract talks, during these quarterly meetings, which meant that it became possible for each of them to raise the thing that they want to be changed. And they know that the other person is going to hear them out.

CHANG: Yeah.

COHEN: And they can actually do something about it. So they basically had a sense that if there was something that really bugged them, they would have a place where they could deal with it. And they sort of trained themselves from being very fiery kind of people to people who can sort of parking-lot the feeling.

TOM KREUTZ: I know that the effort is worth it.

COHEN: Here's what Tom told me.

KREUTZ: I know that this series of small steps that we've taken year after year after year, quarter after quarter after quarter, has been incredibly beneficial, absurdly, has strengthened our relationship in so many ways.

CHANG: I'm just marveling at how highly rational all of this seems, right? We all want to be that person when the heat is as intense as can possibly be, but I just don't know if everybody's personalities can handle this. What do you think?

COHEN: Well, I mean, I think in their case, they are - the whole thing that they're doing is not having these rational conversations in the heat of the moment because they know they're incapable of it. They're not - you know, I think maybe the harder thing would be - try to have a productive conversation about how you're solving some problem in your relationship when you are at an 11 in your fury. So I think it's possible for people to hold off. Maybe they can't wait three months. I think that is like...

CHANG: (Laughter) I don't know if I could - just to be honest with you, just to be honest.

COHEN: Yeah. I mean, it is, like, ultramarathon level, I think, for most of us.

CHANG: (Laughter).

COHEN: But I think it's also possible for people to wait a few days until feelings - high, intense feelings have drained.

CHANG: You know, let's just zoom out. Overall, these, like, semi-regular contract talks - whatever you call them - these, like, scheduled talks, they're something that a lot of relationship experts out there recommend. And one expert you talked to, that person said that couples should, quote, "treat relationships like tea." Can you explain that concept?

COHEN: Yeah, so this is professor James Cordova, and he came up with something that's called the marriage checkup. And the term checkup is sort of no mistake because he's trying to make the comparison to our physical health. We go to the dentist every six months. We don't just go when there is a huge toothache that we have, when we're about to get a root canal; we get preventative treatment rather than wait until you're in a crisis state and then maybe go to couples therapy.

CHANG: So is the idea that you need a system for disagreement or that you need a time for disagreement?

COHEN: I think that's a really interesting question. I think what unites the people who I have spoken to is that they are creating time to have these conversations, and by having these recurring meetings, they end up creating a system. It might not be quite as intense as Liz and Tom's, where they really have written out rules of engagement. But I do - I think the time would be a big enough deal for most of us.

CHANG: Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor at NPR. She is the author of "The Secret To A Fight-Free Relationship," which appears in The Atlantic right now. Thank you so much for joining us.

COHEN: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "ADD AND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.