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December 01, 2017

We know that hunger can leave us susceptible to poorly-handled arguments with a partner (see Nibble, Then Quibble).1 So, too, can insufficient sleep.

Researchers have found that following nights of poor sleep (less than 7 hours), couples experience more conflict and more difficulty resolving conflict amicably.2 Sleep deprived partners may have a harder time bringing patience, humor and kindness to those heated moments that every couple faces, as compared to better rested partners. Impaired by poor sleep is empathic accuracy — understanding what a partner is feeling — a skill that plays an especially helpful role when resolving conflict. Research revealed that one partner’s poor sleep not only reduced his or her own empathic accuracy, but surprisingly the accuracy of the other partner as well.3

The same study found that when both partners had experienced poor sleep, there was an increase in negative emotion and a decrease in positive emotion when couples discussed a marital problem.

A study conducted at Ohio State University4 found that when at least one partner enjoyed sufficient sleep during the prior two nights (an average of 7.5 hours), the relationship was protected from some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation. In other words, one partner’s sleep deprivation (an average of 5.5 hours) wasn’t enough, by itself, to automatically trigger negative behavior for the couple when tough topics came up for discussion. One well-rested partner seemed to “neutralize” the tendency of the sleep-deprived partner to bring about a troubled interaction. Nevertheless, the most successful conflict resolutions occurred when both partners reported being well rested.5 A good night’s sleep isn’t good only for the sleeper, it’s good for the relationship.

The Ohio State study also looked at how marital conflict, combined with poor sleep, affects overall health. Researchers found that when partners had less sleep, not only were they more likely to engage in hostile conflict, but higher levels of inflammatory proteins were found in their blood following their conflict. Such proteins have been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and other serious conditions.

It makes sense, then, if you’re not both well-rested, avoid getting into potentially difficult conversations. Or when finding yourselves inside a conversation that’s quickly heating up, offer one another a raincheck to revisit the topic after a good night’s sleep. It’s one smart way of taking care of your partnership.

References & Citations
  1. Couples Tip of the Month, February/March 2015
  2. Gordon, Amie M., and S. Chen. “The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: Do sleepless nights mean worse fights?” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2014) 5: 168.
  3. Op. cit.
  4. Wilson, Stephanie J., et al. “Shortened sleep fuels inflammatory responses to marital conflict: emotion regulation matters.”Psychoneuroendocrinology 79 (2017) 74-83.
  5. Op. cit.