Sleep More, Love Better

Sleeping better improved conflict in relationships

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Most couples have a little fight now and then. But there may be a surprising way to tone down the tension — make sure both of you are getting a good night's sleep.

A recent study found that couples were more likely to reach a resolution on a difficult issue if they were both well rested.

If one or both partners had poor sleep, however, they experienced more negative emotions and less empathy in discussions with their partner.

"Get enough quality sleep each night."

The study also found individuals who slept poorly or didn't get enough sleep tended to experience more conflict with their partner on the following day.

The bottom line is that getting enough sleep can be beneficial for your relationship.

This research, led by Amie M. Gordon,  a social personality psychology PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the effects of sleep on relationship conflict.

The researchers conducted two separate studies to learn whether poor sleep influenced the way couples communicate.

In the first study, 78 young adults (mostly around age 21) who were involved in romantic relationships kept a sleep diary for two weeks.

Each day, they answered questions about the quality and quantity of sleep they got, as well as questions about their daytime functioning, their emotions during the day, whether they had conflicts with their partners and whether they thought their partner disturbed their sleep the previous night.

Then the researchers compared the participants' answers related to sleep to their answers related to emotions and conflict with their partners.

The researchers found that the participants reported more conflict on the days following a poor night of sleep, even after taking into account any possible conflict that occurred on the previous day.

This pattern was seen both across the entire group, comparing participants to each other, and across the time period for individuals, comparing different days for each individual.

"People who slept worse on average across the two-week diary reported more conflict in daily life relative to people who slept better," the researchers wrote. "When participants slept worse than they usually did, they reported marginally significantly more conflict the following day."

This pattern appeared for both males and females, "...suggesting that getting more or less sleep than one is used to influence conflict for both good and poor sleepers," the researchers wrote.

In the second study, 69 young couples (average age 22) came into a laboratory and answered separate questionnaires about their sleep the previous night, including how much sleep they got, how well they slept and how tired they felt that day.

Then, each partner listed three sources of conflict in their relationship. The researchers randomly selected one of these for the couple to discuss for five minutes while being videotaped.

Afterward, each partner answered whether they felt they had reached a resolution on the issue.

The researchers found that one or both partners having poor sleep made it less likely that they would report reaching a resolution. But the opposite was true as well.

"Participants reported being most successful at resolving conflict when both partners were well rested," even after taking into account relationship satisfaction and depression symptoms reported by both partners, the researchers wrote.

The participants were also asked how much they and their partner each felt five positive emotions (appreciated, appreciative, cared for, caring and confident) and five negative emotions (angry, ashamed, resentful, defensive and rejected).

The researchers found that the worse sleep the participants had gotten, the more likely it was that they felt more negative emotions than positive emotions, especially compared to the participants who had slept better.

Interestingly, if one partner in the couple had slept poorly, it also appeared to affect the emotions of the other partner, who also tended to report more negative than positive emotions.

In addition, the worse the sleep was for participants, the more poorly they scored in trying to identify the emotions of their partners.

In other words, their empathy suffered if their sleep had suffered. Also, their partners had a harder time identifying the emotions of the sleep-deprived person.

"When people sleep poorly, they are less able to gauge their partners’ feelings and their partners are less able to gauge their emotions," the researchers wrote.

These results aren't surprising at all to William Kohler, MD, a dailyRx expert and the director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill, Florida.

"My clinical experience goes along with that," Dr. Kohler said. "I frequently see patients who are irritable have a lot of marital conflicts.

"Then once their sleep apnea or their sleep disorder is treated, the conflict resolves or improves, and they're less irritable, more easy going and more desirable to live with," he said.

In fact, he said his job as a sleep medicine physician has sometimes seemed to double as a marriage therapist, according to some of his patients.

"I sort of joke that I've been accused of being a marriage counselor because once the patient's sleep problem is corrected, their marriage conflict dissipates or considerably improves," Dr. Kohler said.

He said research has shown that enough quality sleep is linked to better mental health. The better couples sleep, the more likely it is that they will interact well.

This study was published May 14 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 11, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013