Research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that poor sleep hurts relationships. “Poor sleep may make us more selfish as we prioritize our own needs over our partner’s,” according to Amie Gordon. Gordon concluded that when partners feel unappreciated, the hidden culprit is sometimes poor sleep.
Sleep is a Cornerstone of Mental Health
Sleep is the cornerstone of mental health. One of the most common symptoms of emotional distress is sleep disturbance. People with depression complain of early-morning awakening, fragmented sleep, and inability to get back to sleep once awakened. Anxious people frequently report difficulty getting to sleep due to worry, rumination, and replaying or anticipating the day. Having children is another culprit in poor sleep. Nightly feedings, diaper changing, and generalized worry keep new parents awake well into toddler-hood. Getting a good night’s sleep is important—anyone who has been through periods of insomnia can attest to that. But what was interesting about this study is that it demonstrates that a partner who is sleep deprived is less likely to express fondness and gratitude. As Gordon notes, “You may have slept like a baby, but if your partner didn’t, you’ll probably both end up grouchy.”
How Sleep can Affect Romance
When Jack and Anne came to my office recently, Jack had been through a particularly stressful experience with his father. His emotional distress increased tension in his neck and back, intensifying his chronic pain. The combination of physical and emotional tension cascaded over several days, resulting in a sleepless night. The next morning, when his partner made a gentle bid for contact by pointing out an interesting article in the newspaper, he snapped at her. Or as they more vividly described it, “It was somewhere between a growl and a scream.” The walls went up, and both partners retreated in silence.
When bids for contact are not acknowledged, or your partner turns against rather than turning toward your bid, it leads to accumulated tension, often turning to resentment. Over time, this resentment leads to distress-maintaining thoughts about your partner (such as “my husband is such a jerk”) become toxic to the relationship. We know from research on marriage that expressing fondness and admiration is important for the health of the relationship. Once Jack was able to identify that his grouchiness was due to his poor sleep, he could make a repair to Anne by saying, “I’ve been preoccupied lately with my father, and that made me lose sleep. I’m sorry I overreacted this morning.”
Poor sleep can lead to the chronic use of sleep aids. From over-the-counter Benadryl to prescription sleeping pills, these medications can help for short-term insomnia, but when someone is depressed or anxious for an extended period of time, nightly use of these medications changes sleep architecture, making deeper, restorative sleep scarce. If disturbed sleep lasts for months—or years, as it often does—the missed opportunities to express loving tender thoughts to your mate accrue, leaving both partners feeling deprived of affection.
Because sleep problems are a symptom of something else, such as depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, or chronic pain, it is important to understand the reasons behind poor sleep and address those directly. As sleep improves, grouchiness diminishes, making room for hugs and kisses.
couples counseling, and Mindfulness-based therapies in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years.
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