“Don’t go to bed angry.” How many times have you heard some version of this marital proverb? Many bright-eyed couples hear it in premarital counseling and happily nod along in agreement. Those who’ve been married for a while may chuckle at the naivete. We’ll see if they’re still smiling and nodding in a few months.
Once you’re married, the counsel quickly becomes more complicated, uncomfortable, and costly. Sometimes, dealing with anger before bedtime can feel like finishing the basement before bedtime. My wife and I know firsthand, having fought hard over seven years to subdue our anger before exhaustion subdues us. Achieving a cheap, superficial peace may be easy enough, but meaningful reconciliation typically takes meaningful time and energy and, well, work.
The counsel really is good counsel, though, because it’s God’s counsel: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The command covers all relationships, but marriage may be the hardest place to apply it. For many of us, marriage carries the most potential to make us most angry (or at least angry most often).
Counsel for Couples Battling Anger
This heightened tendency toward anger isn’t a defect in marriage. It’s actually a consequence of what makes marriage beautiful. Marriage has a higher and more consistent capacity for anger because marriage has a higher and more consistent capacity for intimacy. Sin hurts more when we’ve opened and entrusted all of ourselves to someone. The proximity and vulnerability can make even small sins feel like acts of war.
So how can couples fight to put their anger to bed? While many (rightly) turn to Ephesians 5 for a vision for marriage, the verses immediately before that chapter also hold valuable weapons in the fight to love each other well.
1. Anger is a good emotion that we often express sinfully.
Be angry. (Ephesians 4:26)
You won’t often hear those two words together in premarital counseling (or any counseling, for that matter). Before we try to put away our anger for the night, we need to remember that anger can be a healthy and godly response to evil.
“Many marriages suffer because we assume that anger is always bad — or that our anger is always justified.”
Many of us have developed a map of our emotional life in which anger is always out of bounds. We tend to assume that anger — especially any anger directed at us! — is unwarranted and wrong. This was my bent coming into marriage. God’s word to us, however, is not, “Never be angry,” but, “Be angry, and do not sin.” Has your marriage made room for some righteous anger over an offense? Does either of you ever say, “I was wrong. I sinned against you. And it’s right for you to be angry about that”?
Many marriages suffer because we assume that anger is always bad — or that our anger is always justified. Often, we assume the former when it comes to our spouse’s anger, and the latter when it comes to our own. The rest of chapter 4, however, puts checks on the anger that inevitably arises in marriage.
2. Strive to put away all anger.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:31)
Wait, isn’t this a blatant contradiction? Didn’t Paul just say, “Be angry, and do not sin”? There is a tension here, but not a contradiction. Much of maturity and wisdom in marriage (and in the Christian life in general) is found in the ability to know when to apply seemingly opposite commands — when to correct offenses, and when to overlook them; when to speak, and when to stay silent; when to be angry over sin, and when to put away anger.
“Be angry over the sin in your marriage, and don’t go to bed angry.”
The message should be clear: anger has a place in healthy hearts, but it’s a limited and temporary place. It’s right to feel angry over evil, but only within a life that’s actively, persistently laying anger aside — and not just most anger, but all anger (“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . be put away from you”). God gives even our righteous anger an expiration date — and that expiration date is today.
3. The 24-hour day is a mercy for marriages.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. (Ephesians 4:26)
Have you ever wondered why God made each day 24 hours long? Surely there are hundreds of good reasons, but he himself tells us at least one of them here: because it checks our anger and keeps it from breaking into a quiet wildfire. In this way, the 24-hour day is a great mercy for marriages. As the sun crosses the sky each day and begins to bury itself on the horizon, it steadily carries us toward reconciliation. It draws a line in the sand that forces us to choose between submitting to God and seeking reconciliation or refusing his counsel and coddling our hurt.
Many marriages suffer because we let offenses harden into bitterness that slowly erodes trust and intimacy over days, or weeks, or even months. Trust is the currency of intimacy. Spouses can squander that trust in big, obvious ways that we could all name. Trust is also squandered in more subtle ways, though, and perhaps the most common way is by carrying and stoking offenses. The initial hurt or anger may have been completely warranted, but the warrant has long expired, and yet the bitterness quietly remains and wounds and separates. So God pushes the sun around the earth, each and every day, to give us a golden opportunity to put away all our anger.
Let me add one important qualification here: full reconciliation may be unrealistic some days. Releasing our anger does not mean all is well in the relationship. That’s why in our home we talk about pursuing meaningful reconciliation before bed. A little bit of time and sleep can actually be great allies in the process. Insisting on full reconciliation in a short time often will just prolong the pain and discord (again, I’ve learned this firsthand). That doesn’t mean, however, that we should allow ourselves to harbor anger or settle for less than real forgiveness and reconciliation. It just means we’ll have to be patient at times for the warmth and harmony to fully return. The important lesson here is that both spouses resolve to regularly, even daily, put away all anger.
4. Unresolved conflict opens a door for the devil.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26–27)
Maybe we would be quicker to resolve conflict in our marriages if we could see what Satan can do with unresolved conflict. It’s not simply that he can poke and stir unresolved conflict and make it worse over time; it’s that unresolved conflict gives him access to every other area of our marriages. An open wound in one area eventually bleeds onto every other area. Sleeping together gets harder. Praying together gets harder. Parenting together gets harder. Scheduling together gets harder. Serving together gets harder. Just existing together gets harder.
Many marriages suffer because they ignore the spiritual war against marriage. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” — including the flesh and blood lying beside us in bed — “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Every marital battle is first and foremost a spiritual battle, and we’ll inevitably lose that battle if we think we’re only fighting each other.
5. Treat your spouse’s sin as Christ has treated yours.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
How many marital crises and divorces might have been averted if these fifteen words had really taken hold?
Notice, Paul doesn’t merely say, “Be kind and forgive one another,” but “Forgive as God has forgiven you in Christ.” God didn’t just overlook our sin and begrudgingly move on; no, his Son bore our griefs, he carried our sorrows, he received our thorns, he was crushed for our iniquities, he was wounded to heal our wounds, he was cursed, all so that we might be forgiven. So forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Nothing you or I suffer in marriage will ask or demand more of us than what Christ bore for our sake on the cross.
Many couples who have practiced this verse have made a startling discovery: conflict is actually an unusual opportunity for intimacy. Why? Because when we treat each other’s sin as Christ has treated ours, we both get to see and experience more of him. For sure, we get to see and experience him on the days when we get along, but how much more present and real does he feel when we extend and receive meaningful forgiveness, when we receive harshness with kindness, when we stay and love when we could reasonably leave?
The moments in marriage that make us most angry can become the clearest pictures of Christ and his church. What else could make a husband so kind, even now? What else would compel a wife to forgive him — again? Where else would a love so selfless, so patient, so resilient even come from?
So, husband and wife, be angry over the sin in your marriage, and don’t go to bed angry.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.