Apr 22, 2021 / Wendy M. Troxel PhD
There are many ways that sleep problems can set you on a path toward a rocky relationship.
Making sound decisions, being in a good mood most of the time, reining in some of your bad moods or irritability, problem solving, communicating effectively, tolerating frustration, practicing empathy — these are all important skills for cultivating and maintaining a healthy relationship. And these are also all the things that go south when you’re low on sleep.
When these are in short supply, whom do you take it out on? Usually your partner. Chronic sleep loss or otherwise disturbed sleep can trigger a host of emotions that can send you on a spiral of relationship-damaging behaviors.
Sleep plays a powerful role in how we experience and regulate our emotions. When we miss out on sleep, we become more irritable, we have more negative moods, our frustration tolerance is lowered, and we become more emotionally labile, meaning that we are more prone to mood swings, because our capacity to regulate our emotions is impaired.
Studies have shown that when sleep was restricted to five hours per night for a week, participants showed a progressive increase in negative emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration, irritability), with each successive night of sleep restriction. Research has further shown that sleep loss led not only to increases in negative emotion but also decreases in positive emotion.
To the partner of the person deprived of sleep, this activation of negative emotions in concert with the blunting of positive emotions can feel like a double whammy of contempt and criticism. The partner feels lonely, vulnerable, and attacked, which, of course, can then lead to defensiveness or counterattack. Not a great recipe for relationship bliss.
On nights when couples slept worse, they reported more conflict the next day.
Decades of relationship research has confirmed that conflict itself is not necessarily a sign of relationship doom or distress — it is perfectly normal and in fact healthy to have some level of conflict in relationships. It’s about how you engage in conflict with your partner that matters.
Social psychologists Drs. Amie Gordon and Serena Chen have studied couples’ nightly sleep patterns and their daily relationship behaviors. They found that on nights when couples slept worse, they reported more conflict the next day. But it’s not just that sleep loss increases the likelihood of conflict. It’s that once a couple is in conflict, sleep loss triggers the very relationship behaviors and communication styles that we know are most toxic to relationships. As Dr. Gordon explains it, “When one or both partners are not well-rested, minor squabbles can turn into major rifts.”
Researchers at the Ohio State University brought 43 couples into the lab and asked them to engage in a typical relationship conflict. (It turns out that couples are very good at diving right into conflict when instructed to do so, even under the conspicuous conditions of a scientific laboratory, replete with a video camera to record the event.) Couples also reported on their nightly sleep patterns.
After each conflict, the researchers painstakingly coded the conversation using a well-developed relationship coding system that identifies positive versus negative communication styles, including the degree of hostility or constructive responses.
While all couples engaged in conflict, the researchers saw a clear distinction in how they engaged: Couples who reported sleeping less than seven hours per night were more likely to engage in hostile conflict. It’s the difference between saying to your partner “It really makes me mad that you didn’t unload the dishwasher” vs. “Shocker — yet again, you couldn’t do the one thing I asked you to do.”
Couples who reported sleeping less than seven hours per night were more likely to engage in hostile conflict.
A sure-fire way to ratchet up the intensity of a relationship tiff is when one or both partners feel their words and, more importantly, their feelings are not being heard. In many ways, empathy is the glue that binds a relationship together. Being able to gauge your partner’s emotional temperature during a hot-topic discussion is a critically important skill for relationship well-being. Unfortunately, empathic accuracy also takes a hit when relationship partners are sleep-deprived.
Drs. Gordon and Chen found not only that couples were more likely to engage in conflict after sleeping poorly but also that poorly slept people had lower empathic accuracy. Their research showed that the negative effects of one partner’s sleep loss on empathic accuracy spread to the other partner. On nights when one partner slept worse, the other partner also showed reductions in empathic accuracy. This likely reflects a relationship dynamic in which one partner feels dismissed or that their feelings aren’t being heard, leading to increased defensiveness and emotional walls being built up on both sides.
Other research shows that even the words we use to communicate and the sounds of our voices are colored by our sleep or lack thereof. Psychologist Eleanor McGlinchey used computerized text analysis, including analysis of acoustic properties of speech, as well as observer ratings of the emotional expression of speech, before and after sleep deprivation in the laboratory. She wanted to determine the extent to which sleep deprivation affected word choice, including positive and negative emotion words, like “happy” or “excited” or “sad” or “anxious,” as well as the tone, including positive and negative emotion expression.
She found that under sleep-deprived conditions, participants showed a decrease in the use of positive emotion words. Observers rated their speech as being lower in positive emotional expression (less happy or calm) and higher in negative emotional expression (more sad, anxious, or fatigued). Using sophisticated computerized text analysis of the acoustic properties of speech, she also found that sleep-deprived participants’ speech was, as McGlinchey put it, “softer, sharper, and lower energy … and the lower acoustic energy can make it sound like the person is disengaged.”
Sleep-induced loneliness is contagious. Within couples, this can lead to greater emotional distancing and a lack of connection with your partner.
Beyond the sleep-induced relationship blowups and communication shifts, lack of sleep can lead to broader social consequences, including the more existential state of loneliness. Science is showing us that lack of sleep hurts our social brains and can make us feel alone in the world.
In a series of elegant studies published in 2018, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that poor sleep predicted greater feelings of loneliness, as well as greater social withdrawal and anxiety, the next day. At the brain level, the researchers demonstrated that sleep-deprived people showed deactivation in the parts of the brain that are responsible for helping understand other people’s actions and behaviors, and amplification in the parts of the brain that signal threat or fear responses in social contexts.
In other words, sleep-deprived subjects’ brains were less active in the parts of the brain that make you more social and more active in the parts of the brain that make you want to stand in the corner away from people. Researchers also looked at how other people reacted to the sleep-deprived subjects. They found that the observers perceived the sleep-deprived people to be lonelier and less attractive than well-slept people. But the real kicker is that after observing the people who were sleep-deprived, the observers themselves reported feeling lonelier and more socially withdrawn, despite being well-rested. Sleep-induced loneliness, therefore, is contagious. Within couples, this can lead to greater emotional distancing and a lack of connection with your partner.
As you read this, you may be entering a state of increasing anxiety, verging on panic for some, as I describe the relationship harms that could be caused by sleep loss. And frankly, the last thing any of us needs is yet another reason to keep us up at night.
But rather than sweating the consequences of sleep loss, it’s time to start prioritizing sleep as a mutual goal within your relationship.
Excerpted from the new book Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep by Wendy M. Troxel PhD. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wendy M. Troxel PhD Wendy Troxel PhD is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct faculty member in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. Dr. Troxel is internationally recognized for her work on sleep in couples, how sleep affects health and the global economy, and how social environments and public policy impact sleep.