How Sleep Affects Your Relationships

Sleep helps the brain process your emotions and memories from the day. You wake up well-rested with enough mental space to both create and log new memories and work through the experiences of your day.

Couple on couch talking and smilingSleep deprivation, on the other hand, causes the body to go into “survival mode,” according to  W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist based in Charlottesville, VA and the author of The Sleep Solution. In practical terms, this means “superfluous” activities—like conversations with your partner, social outings or remembering to pick up the dry cleaning—go out the window.

According to Winter, sleep is more paramount to our relationships than  we realise, as the things it takes to make a relationship work are negatively affected by lack of sleep. When we’re deprived of sleep, we’re more likely to overreact to situations that normally wouldn’t rattle us.

Here are three ways sleep impacts relationships – and possible solutions to counteract the effects:

  1. Your emotions are thrown out of whack

Ever feel like you just want your partner to get to the point of the story already, or that you’re a little more anxious than usual after an all-nighter? You might just be a bit tired.

When you’re sleep-deprived, the part of your brain that ties emotions to memories—the amygdala—doesn’t function properly,  In fact, a 2013 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that the amygdala activity to stressors in poor sleepers predicted symptoms of depression and perceived stress.

When we’re deprived of sleep, we’re more likely to overreact to situations that normally wouldn’t rattle us. Small problems seem bigger. Our reactions are amplified. Some studies show that people are more likely to feel sad, depressed, or anxious if they don’t sleep well or if they are sleep-deprived.”  This is compounded further by the fact that we don’t usually notice this amplification of our emotional reactions.

Save the serious conversations for a day when you are more rested. We make better decisions, tend to be more patient and have a greater ability to listen and concentrate when we’re well rested , which are important components of healthy relationships.

  1. Poor sleep can make you sick and tired

Insufficient sleep can put you at a risk for health issues including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But other issues stem from insufficient sleep, too—like the common cold.

Equipment for monitoring blood sugar levels

When you’re home sick, your interest in spending time with anyone or anything besides your bed can disappear, which will have a negative impact on relationships.  Research suggests that, for partners, being a caretaker can be stressful and, particularly for women, have a negative impact mental health.

  1. Different sleep schedules can cause relationship problems

If you’re in a relationship and work odd-hour shifts, referred to quite rightly as “unsociable hours”, making plans to see the people who matter to you can be a challenge. “

One suggestion that may ease scheduling social occasions is sharing an online calendar with friends and family. It can help you not only plan ahead, but also remember the arrangements you’ve already made—especially since a lack of sleep can impact memory.

The most important thing either partner can do is to respect the other’s need for sleep and concentrate on spending quality time together when you are both more alert.

Couple preparing dinner togetherIf, however, your partner has a variable schedule, compromise is called for.  Meet each other half way, e.g. staying up a little later or asking a partner to wake a little earlier to be able to spend a bit more time together.

And perhaps most important, respect his or her need for sleep. “For some reason, couples feel like they can ask their partner to miss out on sleep so they can spend time together,” says Martin. A better bet is to focus on spending quality time together when your partner is most alert.

Who You Sleep with Can Affect Your Sleep in the Future

In a recent report on a study published in the journal Personal Relationships,  sleep quality might be related to your romantic relationships.  A press release stated that “The quality of a person’s romantic relationship and the life stress he or she experiences at two key points in early adulthood (at age 23 and 32) are related to sleep quality and quantity in middle adulthood (at age 37)”.

“The study’s findings add to a growing body of literature showing that one of the important ways in which relationships impact individuals is by reducing the occurrence and severity of life stress.”

Amie Gordon, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist and lead investigator of a study on sleep and relationships, stated in a press release that “People who aren’t getting enough sleep are less appreciative of their partners; poor sleep may make us more selfish as we prioritize our own needs over our partner’s.”

bed room with twin beds covered with aqua bedspreads
A possible solution is to get a “sleep divorce”.  However, sleeping apart doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping in separate bedrooms — it can be as simple as separate beds.

Although a large body of evidence shows that relationships are important for health, it is only now that researchers are beginning to understand how the characteristics of people’s close relationships affect health behaviors, such as sleep. The findings of the study, conducted at the University of Minnesota, suggest that one way that relationships affect health behaviour is through their effects on stress on individuals.

In summary, it’s important not only to make sleep a priority, it’s also important to find ways to reduce stress.

Simple Solutions for a Complicated Problem

There are low-tech, simple things you can do to improve both your sleep and your relationship with your spouse or partner:

  1. Make sure you have a solid bedtime routine that includes self-care, e.g. yoga or a warm bath
  2. Remove any distractions from your bedroom; NO WiFi, work, etc.
  3. Restrict your activities in the bedroom to sleep or making love, rather than war!

In part 2 of the series, a look will be taken at the impact of sleep on women’s health and relationships.