Is Sleep Deprivation Hurting Your Love Life?

The need for sleep is underscored by these surprising findings.

Posted May 03, 2019

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

How did you sleep last night? In today's fast-paced, high-stress culture, it's more normative to have not enough sleep than to be fully rested. Many of us are trying to live productive, happy lives in a state of chronic sleep deprivation and tiredness, the signals for which we mute with coffee, sugar, energy drinks, or fancy lattes.

Sleep's importance in memory, motor skills (e.g., safe driving), and mental health is generally acknowledged, if not fully appreciated. For instance, most people probably realize that skipping a night of sleep will throw you off, but fewer people may understand the dramatic effects of chronic short sleep (e.g., 5-6 hours per night), and that self-reports of sleepiness are not necessarily reliable indicators of deficits. So if sleep shapes aspects of an individual's ability to function, how does it affect the ability of a relationship to function?

Is consistent good sleep important for love and relationships?

A growing body of research is highlighting more than a few ways that sleep predicts important aspects of relationships, from attracting a desirable partner to finding and staying in a happy relationship. Here are some recent findings:

1. Well-rested individuals are judged as more attractive. Poor sleep habits might be hurting your chances of catching the eye of your desired partner by lowering your perceived physical attractiveness (Axelsson et al., 2010). Experimental work out of Sweden involved taking photos of people after sleep deprivation and after eight hours of sleep. These photos were then rated by strangers whose responses give empirical credence to that old notion of beauty sleep. Photos of sleep-deprived individuals were rated as significantly less attractive, more tired, and less healthy compared to photos of the same person well-rested.

2. Sleep deprivation may hurt your game. Flirting often relies on wit, a good read of a situation, well-timed humor, and savvy appreciation of others' humor. If your sleep is suffering, research suggests that your ability to appreciate humor is likely suffering too—and caffeine won't help (Kilgore et al., 2006). This means that a good night's sleep may facilitate more successful flirting.

3. Poor sleep can fuel conflicts. It's you. No, it's me. No, it's my sleep. Sleep deprivation may be a strong factor in couples' conflicts (Gordon & Chen, 2014). Evidence gathered through daily diaries and laboratory observations showed that participants' self-reported poorer sleep predicted more frequent couple conflict, less understanding of partners' emotions, and poorer conflict resolution.

4. Sleep issues may increase marital aggression. Have you ever found it hard to control your impulses when you're sleep deprived? This could be a big problem in relationships. A study on (majority white) married couples confirmed the links between sleep trouble, self-control, and aggressive behaviors (Keller et al., 2019). When problematic sleep translates to lower self-control (which it often does), couples suffer from more aggression in their marriages.

5. Healthy sleep encourages a healthy sex life. Women are less likely to be in the mood for sex if they're sleep deprived, as shown by a study examining the link between sleep duration and next-day sexual desire (Kalmbach et al., 2015). More sleep translated to more sexual desire and more likelihood of engaging in sex with a partner. This study also showed that women who are sleeping more than average are reporting better genital arousal than short-sleepers, which underscores the idea that sleep may be part of the story that optimizes women's sexual experience.

Research considering sleep as a driving factor for relationship-related phenomena is in its infancy, but the trends suggest sleep may be a factor in everything from attraction to breakups. Of note, while sleep may affect critical aspects of relationship health, aspects of relationships undoubtedly affect sleep quality as well. Think about it: Who hasn't had their good night's sleep disrupted from fighting with a partner, worrying about a breakup, or dreaming about a new crush? Sleep and relationship well-being demand attention, given the widespread ways in which both appear to support our health and longevity.

References

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. Bmj, 341.

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(2), 168-175.

Kalmbach, D. A., Arnedt, J. T., Pillai, V., & Ciesla, J. A. (2015). The impact of sleep on female sexual response and behavior: a pilot study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(5), 1221-1232.

Keller, P. S., Haak, E. A., DeWall, C. N., & Renzetti, C. (2019). Poor sleep is associated with greater marital aggression: The role of self control. Behavioral sleep medicine, 17, 174-180.

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(6), 841-847.