In a perfect world, we would all start our days well-rested, bright-eyed, and cheerful, with no need for a cup of coffee (or two, or three, plus a shot of espresso). Caffeine might keep us awake, but our need for sleep is persistent and our lack of it has real consequences. Most people know that sleep deficits adversely affect mood, mental functioning, and physical performance (Pilcher & Huffcutt, 1996), but what about our romantic relationships? Does your love life suffer when you don’t get enough sleep? And how much sleep do you need to be a good romantic partner?
First, some basics: Our minds and bodies require sleep, usually seven-to-nine hours for the average adult, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Yet a growing number of adults are short sleepers, averaging fewer than seven hours a night. This partial sleep deprivation, typically accompanied by chronic sleepiness and the feeling that you need more sleep" is often worse than one-time sleep deprivation (Pilcher & Huffcuff, 1996).
So how does chronic short sleeping impact the success of our romantic relationships? Here are 5 ways:
1. Sleep deprivation can make you less attractive. People desire physically-attractive romantic partners and assume that attractive people are basically better people than unattractive people (Buss & Barnes, 1986; Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). Such beliefs can help attractive people during relationship initiation. But if you’re sleep deprived, you’re not looking your most attractive, according to recent researchers from Sweden. They showed participants photos of well-rested and sleep-deprived people—and the latter were judged as less attractive and less healthy (Axelsson et al., 2010). Get your beauty sleep.
2. Sleep deprivation hurts your sense of humor. Making someone laugh is perceived as the Number One way to attract a romantic partner (Buss, 1988), yet people often don’t realize that their own sense of humor fluctuates with their ability to get a good night’s sleep. Humor requires high-level cognition, and a lack of sleep inhibits it, impacting our ability to appreciate verbal humor (Killgore, McBride, Killgore, & Balkin, 2006). Unfortunately, caffeine and stimulants won’t fix the problem (Killgore et al., 2006).
3. Less sleep might mean less relationship happiness. How close you feel to your partner, how secure you feel in the relationship, and how many positive emotions you readily attribute to your relationship are all closely tied to sleep quality. Evidence shows, for example, that spouses with fewer sleep problems also tend to be happier (Troxel, Robles, Hall, & Buysse, 2007). It could be that relationship woes make for poorer quality sleep, or that a bad night’s sleep affects one’s relationship—but the likely case is one of bi-directional influence. In other words, chances are that changing one’s sleep habits might improve relationship quality.
4. Short on sleep? You're probably not short on conflict. New evidence suggests that relationships suffer from worse romantic conflicts when just one member of a couple is sleep-deprived (Gordon & Chen, 2014). People who sleep poorly tend to display more negative emotions and are less successful at conflict resolution. Since it's normal for couples to disagree on occasion, this finding suggests that a lack of sleep might accentuate disagreements and introduce needless stress into otherwise happy relationships.
5. Sleep deprivation impairs good decision making. Relationships demand decisions, from the first moments of a first encounter to the fashioning of a stable long-term connection (or break-up): Should you spend time with this person? Should you introduce this person to your family? These decisions require sophisticated sensitivity to the needs of a partner and others around you, and they certainly require an accurate assessment of future consequences.
Sleep, it turns out, plays a large role in the quality of our decision-making (Harrison & Horne, 2000), potentially through its effect on the pre-frontal cortex, an area of our brain in charge of executive functioning. Executive functioning includes all those important high-level decisions in which we think about future consequences, goals and expectations, and what is good or bad. It also helps us control our impulses. Sleep deprivation, however, makes us easily distracted, reckless, less innovative, and less able to integrate information, not to mention potentially more willing to take dangerous risks (Harrison & Horne, 2000). Such deficits in the relationship arena might impair your ability to make good decisions about potential partners. Additional research will help us fully understand how sleep influences relationship initiation.
The Bottom Line: Rest Up
Sleep may be a vital ingredient for relationship health and well-being. Whether you’re looking to meet someone or have an established relationship, take care of yourself by fostering healthy sleeping habits. It may make a big difference in the quality of your most important relationships.
Axelsson, J., Sundelin, T., Ingre, M., Van Someren, E. J., Olsson, A., & Lekander, M. (2010). Beauty sleep: Experimental study on the perceived health and attractiveness of sleep deprived people. British Medical Journal, 341, 1287-1289.
Buss, D. M. (1988). The evolution of human intrasexual competition: tactics of mate attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 616-628.
Buss, D. M., & Barnes, M. (1986). Preferences in human mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 559-570.
Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285-290.
Gordon, A. M. & Chen, S. (2014). The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: Do sleepless nights mean worse fights? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 168-175.
Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6, 236-249.
Killgore, W. D., McBride, S. A., Killgore, D. B., & Balkin, T. J. (2006). The effects of caffeine, dextroamphetamine, and modafinil on humor appreciation during sleep deprivation. Sleep, 29, 841-847.
Pilcher, J. J., & Huffcutt, A. J. (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta-analysis. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, 19, 318-326.
Troxel, W. M., Robles, T. F., Hall, M., & Buysse, D. J. (2007). Marital quality and the marital bed: Examining the covariation between relationship quality and sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 11, 389-404.