You get home from a long day of work, eager to lay down for a quick nap; a nap that will help you recover from a bad night of sleep. As you get home, you start making your way to the couch to enter dream world, but your partner stops you and tells you to walk the dog because it’s your turn. You contend that you want to sleep first, you’ll do it later, the dog can wait 30 minutes, and that they can do it. You’re tired and irritable so you angrily proclaim that you’ll do it later, and before you know it…you’re fighting.
This simple example shows how poor sleep can lead to more relationship conflict. You may be thinking that this seems obvious, and that psychologists have already established this. Surprisingly, there have only been a handful of studies looking at how sleep influences relationship functioning. As my primary research interest here at NDSU is sleep in the marital context, I find this a very exciting and important area. So why does it happen? What does the science behind this say? This post will answer these questions.
In many of my previous posts, I’ve explained how sleep is important for physical and emotional health. Well, it’s also very important for a number of cognitive processes. For example, poor sleep has been associated with decreases in emotional regulation, problem solving, empathy, and emotional recognition. On top of this, it also increases negative affect and anger. All of these are BAD for relationship communication and functioning. If you’re in a relationship, you know how important communication is. When a problem arises, you need to effectively express your own concerns, recognize what/how your partner is thinking, and strategize an agreeable resolution. If your cognitive functioning is limited, it increases risk for conflict.
Let’s go back to the example from the first paragraph. What if you weren’t sleep deprived? You likely would have approached this situation differently. Maybe you would have noticed that your partner was also fatigued (your own restless sleep can negatively impact their sleep) and perhaps in a bad mood. Instead of bluntly saying you’ll walk the dog later, you could effectively communicate how you feel and settle on a neutral agreement. There are a number of different ways this scenario can play out depending on your cognitive resources.
Psychologists have recently begun empirically testing these ideas. However, much of the current literature has focused on sleep disorders and how they affect relationship functioning. For example, how snoring, sleep apnea, and insomnia affect your relationship (hint: it’s not good). What is missing is how day to day sleep in non-disordered couples affect their functioning. Fortunately, these ideas are finding their way into the field.
Gordon and Chen (2014) carried out two studies testing these concepts. In study one, participants recorded their sleep quality and relationship conflict over a two-week period. Using advanced statistics, they found that poor sleep independently led to more conflict the following day. This type of statistical test is important because it shows the direction of the relationship.
Study 2 found similar results. Participants came into the lab and, separate from one another, recorded their sleep quality and top sources of conflict. They were then placed into the same room and were asked to discuss these sources of conflict. Researchers measured their affect, empathy, and conflict resolution. Couples who had poorer sleep the previous night had lower levels of positive affect, less empathy towards their partner, and had lower conflict resolution.
These findings are a good first step in this new direction. It tells us that sleep may in fact impact certain aspects of relationships. This matters because we cannot just say that poor sleep impairs functioning; we need to know why this happens. But why is it important to learn more about what generates conflict? Conflict is not only bad for relationship outcomes (i.e. divorce) but it is also detrimental to physical health. In the next post for this series, I will go into more detail as to how conflict influences health.
Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2014). The Role of Sleep in Interpersonal Conflict Do Sleepless Nights Mean Worse Fights?. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(2), 168-175.