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Sleep Your Way to a Better Relationship

With new habits, more zzzzz's can improve connection

more sleep can mean more love

Too busy to sleep more? Too many pressures or things that must be done? Not that interested in getting into bed the same time as your wife? Sleep problems abound for American adults, with greater impact on our lives and relationships than we imagine. At least some sleep problems can be addressed with a few simple lifestyle and priority changes.

If you're like many couples, you have slipped into nighttime patterns that put significant pressure on the health of your relationship. Commonly, couples report these issues:

  • One or both partners gets less sleep than they need to perform optimally, both physically and mentally
  • Lack of sleep increases irritability, distractibility or sluggishness. If you have ADHD, lack of sleep increases the severity of your symptoms
  • Partners don't go to bed at the same time, missing critical time for connection

Recent research confirms that adults typically need 8 hours of sleep a night - and that means you! You may wishfully insist that your body can adjust to 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night, but in the research - where actual cognitive performance was tested (vs. the wishful thinking variety of performance assessment) - the results were clear. Except for a very small group of people with genetic differences, less than 8 hours of sleep equals worse performance. It takes you longer to do things, and you do them less well. Or, as was recently reported in the New York Times (4/17/11), those who had 6 hours of sleep a night for only two weeks performed as poorly as those who had stayed up for 24 hours straight -"the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk."

That may explain why so many of us who get less than 8 hours sleep are irritable, distractible and slow to respond. For those who already have distraction issues (those with ADHD, and those who and those with too much on their plates) it's clear that sleep deprivation exacerbates symptoms. And that has a direct, negative impact on the quality of connections you make with your partner.

And then there are the night owl / early riser couples. This pattern is the equivalent of a huge lost opportunity for sustaining and nurturing your partnership. Particularly for parents, whose households may not quiet down until after the kids are in bed, the time immediately before bedtime can be an important connection point when you can chat about your day, do something fun together, cuddle or be more intimate.

I always suggest that couples create a "sacred time" around the bedtime of the earliest spouse - time that they know they will be together in an amiable or loving way. If necessary, the later spouse can get back out of bed to complete a task after the couple has had some time to connect. I continue to advocate this "sacred time", but in relationship to sleep patterns, I urge you to think in terms of "transitions" as well. If your target time to start sleeping is 10:30, then consider the possibility that you should head to the bedroom area at 9:45 - 20 minutes to get ready for bed, wash up and perhaps consider what you will wear the next day, and 25 minutes of sacred time to read with your partner, listen to soft music, sew on a button, talk, cuddle, meditate together or whatever.

Inevitably, those couples I work with who follow this advice find that they are more relaxed with each other, feel closer, and sleep better.

So if the science of sleep deprivation doesn't convince you, consider trying your own test. Take two or three weeks and make sure you get a full eight hours sleep plus some sacred time with your partner each night. Making this commitment to each other will make you cognitively sharper, less distractible and irritated, AND strengthen your bonds. You really can sleep your way to a better relationship!

Seven Tips for Better Sleep

1.) Don't forget your transition time! Relaxing before trying to fall asleep helps. Plus it's a great time to quietly connect with your partner in meaningful ways.

2.) Exercise at times that don't keep you pumped up at bedtime.

3.) Set the temperature to 68-72 degrees for best sleep

4.) Watch what you eat and drink - caffeine can keep you awake, alcohol can disturb your sleep, eating a big meal right before bed can make you uncomfortable, and drinking water after 8pm can lead to unnecessary bathroom breaks in the middle of the night

5.) Create appealing and relaxing pre-bedtime activities. Avoid watching tv or having highly emotional conversations right before bed.

6.) Experiment with blocking out light or noise. Heavy curtains, drape clips, eye covers, ear plugs, covering LED alarm clocks - all of these can improve your night's sleep.

7.) Be considerate - if you return to the room after your partner is asleep, use a flashlight and be quiet!

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