Sleeplessness is a rising epidemic. An estimated 69 percent of U.S. adults are getting less sleep than they need. And this lack of sleep puts strain on relationships. People are more likely to fight with their partners after sleeping badly. And once that fight starts, it doesn’t end well—couples are less likely to resolve conflict if either partner slept poorly the prior night.
New research by Stephanie Wilson and colleagues (2017) shows that fighting after a bad night of sleep doesn’t just affect your problem-solving abilities, it affects your physical health as well.
Sleep, Conflict, and Inflammation
The researchers had 43 couples come in twice to spend a day at their lab. Each time the couples reported on their sleep the prior two nights, had their blood drawn, took part in a conversation about a contentious issue in their relationship, and then had their blood drawn again an hour later. The researchers drew blood because they were interested in how sleep would affect inflammation in response to conflict. Why? People mount inflammatory responses to stressful events, such as relationship conflict, and persistently elevated inflammation can be a pathway to many serious health problems. Inflammation also has an effect on our mood and well-being, people (particularly women) often find themselves feeling tired, lonely, and disconnected when dealing with acute inflammation.
So what did the researchers find? The less people slept the prior nights, the higher their inflammation after talking with their partner about a contentious issue. Sleep didn’t affect inflammation levels when couples first arrived at the lab, only after the conflict (though other research has linked poor sleep to elevated inflammation in the absence of stress). So it seems that in this study, sleep’s negative effects on health really came about when poor sleepers experienced a stressful event in their relationships—fighting with their partners.
Can You Combat the Negative Effects of Poor Sleep?
The news from the study wasn’t all bad—the research also pointed to ways to help buffer against the negative effects of shortened sleep. Shorter sleepers didn’t show as much inflammation if their partners were better at engaging in active strategies to deal with their emotions. Strategies like reappraisal, perspective taking, and problem-solving.
These findings add to the growing literature showing just how beneficial it is to have a partner who is responsive to you and makes you feel understood and cared about. It seems those benefits don’t just extend to being more satisfied with your relationship, they can even play a role in your physical health!
Why is having a supportive partner so good? The research doesn’t answer that question, but one reasonable explanation has to do with responses to stress. People react more strongly to stress when they are aren’t well-rested, and having a partner who can help you calm down in those situations, someone who has the tools not to let the situation escalate, may help prevent your body from overreacting to the stress.
But you don’t just have to wait for your partner to be supportive—the study also showed that shorter sleepers didn’t have as strong of an inflammatory response if either they or their partners were very expressive with their emotions during the conflict. So when you are short on sleep and faced with conflict, it may be helpful to express yourself rather than suppress what you are feeling. A word of warning, though—if what you want to say is a bunch of harsh words towards your partner, it may be good for your inflammation levels but bad for your relationship.
Wilson, S. J., Jaremka, L. M., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., ... & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2017). Shortened sleep fuels inflammatory responses to marital conflict: Emotion regulation matters. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 79, 74-83.