Want to keep your relationship harmonious? Make sure you and your partner both get enough sleep—every night.
Sleeplessness interferes with our ability to manage conflict in relationships and makes us more likely to fight with our partners, according to new research. Even just one night of poor sleep can make couples more prone to conflict.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley investigated associations between poor sleep and conflict in romantic relationships. They examined the role of sleep in relation to several aspects of relationship discord, including the nature, degree and resolution of conflicts. Researchers conducted 2 different experiments using a pool of more than 100 couples who on average had been together for roughly 2 years. Both experiments revealed that poor sleep had an immediate and negative effect on degrees of conflict in relationships, on couples’ conflict resolution skills, and on partners’ feelings toward one another in relation to their conflicts.
The first experiment was what researchers described as a “daily experience study.” For 2 weeks, 78 couples provided daily reports detailing their nighttime sleep experiences and any relationship conflicts that occurred during the day. Couples reported more conflicts in their relationships on days that followed poor nights of sleep. Just a single night of poor sleep was associated with increased relationship conflict, even for those people who were generally good sleepers.
In the researchers’ second experiment, couples participated in videotaped discussions about sources of conflict in their relationships. Partners then rated their own behavior and their partners’ behavior, and assessed how well they’d resolved their conflicts. Individuals also provided details on their sleep from the night before. Researchers found:
- Increased negativity. Poor sleep was associated with more negative feelings between partners. Even when just one partner reported sleeping poorly, both partners were more likely to report and display greater negative feelings.
- Less empathy. Couples exhibited less empathy where one or both partners slept poorly.. Researchers found couples that slept less were less skilled at reading each other’s emotions.
- Difficult conflict resolution. Sleep made a difference in couples’ ability to resolve conflict. Conflicts were resolved most often when both partners had received a good night’s sleep the previous evening.
This research is particularly interesting because of the steps taken to focus specifically on the relationship between sleep and relationship conflicts. Researchers took into account other factors that might contribute to conflict—including stress, depression, anxiety, low relationship satisfaction—in order to more thoroughly evaluate the impact of poor sleep. The results also build on previous findings from the same research team, who previously examined the effects of poor sleep habits on feelings of gratitude and appreciation between romantic partners. A study of 60 couples ranging in age from 18 to 56 found that poor sleep was associated with greater feelings of selfishness, and diminished capacity for gratitude and appreciation for partners. As in the latest research, poor sleep on the part of only one partner had a detrimental effect on the emotional outlook of both people in a relationship.
A growing body of research indicates that sleep is an important factor in the health and happiness of relationships. In recent years, a number of studies have shown that poor and insufficient sleep can have a negative effect on relationship. The good news is that studies have also shown that addressing sleep issues can help improve relationships:
- Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the links between daily relationship function and nightly sleep quality in couples. Results showed that sleep quality and relationship quality are each capable of influencing the other. Researchers found at times that better sleep at night predicted less negativity between partners the following day. They also found that more positive daily interaction between partners predicted better sleep quality at night. Interestingly, the analysis revealed differences between men and women, suggesting that the sleep-relationship dynamic may be influenced by gender.
- Couples whose sleep-wake routines are similar may have an easier time interacting, managing conflict, and solving problems. Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Brigham Young University studied the connection between sleep-wake habits and relationship function of 150 married couples. They found couples with different sleep-wake routines—an early riser married to a night owl, for example—experienced more conflict, spent less time in shared activities and conversation, and had sex less often than couples whose sleep-wake habits were aligned.
- Working on sleep issues and treating sleep disorders can reduce conflict between partners. Among married male patients with obstructive sleep apnea, those who used CPAP therapy for 3 months reported decreases in levels of marital conflict, in addition to reductions in daytime sleepiness, depression, and impairment to daily functioning.
As all couples know, sustaining healthy, long-term relationships takes work. Couples who take care to sleep well can help protect the loving, supportive emotional connections that can make these relationships so rewarding. The quality of our sleep and the quality of our most important relationships are deeply linked—make it for better, not for worse.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor®
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