How Just One Night’s Poor Sleep Can Hurt a Relationship

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Study tracked couple’s sleep and their arguments to reveal how the damage was done.

“Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can’t sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can’t sleep with the window open.” —George Bernard Shaw

People are usually at their worst after a bad night’s sleep, but what does that do to their intimate relationships?

A new study finds that even one bad night’s sleep can be surprisingly damaging to a relationship (Gordon & Chen, 2013).

In the research, 78 couples were tracked over a two-week period. Each day the couples made notes about their sleep quality and any arguments they’d had with their partners.

The results showed that even for those who were good sleepers, just a single night’s poor sleep was associated with increased relationship conflict the next day.

These findings were not affected by one partner being the source of the poor sleep, or overall relationship satisfaction, depression, stress or anxiety.

Only one partner in the couple had to have a bad night’s sleep and their relationship suffered the next day. Four processes caused by the poor sleep are to blame:

  1. Less empathy. The worse couples slept, the less empathy they showed towards their partners. And it worked both ways: after a bad night’s sleep, not only did they find it difficult to judge their partner’s emotions, it was difficult for their partner to read them in turn.
  2. More negativity. There will always be bad feelings at some stage in a relationship; but to be a good relationship overall, these should be massively outweighed by the good feelings. When partners slept poorly, this ratio went in the wrong direction towards more negative feelings.
  3. Conflict resolution problems. When tired, couples found it harder to resolve their differences.
  4. Selfishness. Poor sleep can induce more selfish feelings in partners and they feel less able to appreciate and feel gratitude towards the other.

Since poor sleep can also damage your health, as well as your relationship, it’s vital to address these issues as soon as possible.

The good news is that improving sleep can improve the relationship. In fact, it works both ways. One study has found that better sleep encourages better relationships and that the improved relationship status feeds back into improved sleep (Hasler et al., 2010).

So, starting to sleep better can put your relationship into a virtuous circle that continues to reap the benefits.

Image credit: Sheldon Wood

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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 5 August 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License