June 13, 2011 (Minneapolis) -- When couples fight, sleep often suffers. Now a new study shows that the reverse may also be true. Not sleeping well, it seems, can make for a rockier relationship.
The study, which was presented at the SLEEP 2011 conference in Minneapolis, found that wives who have trouble falling asleep are more likely to report negative interactions with their spouse the next day. Husbands were also affected, rating the couple's interactions as less positive the day after their wives tossed and turned.
“I don’t think that’s very surprising; I think we’ve seen it in ourselves,” says Lauren Hale, PhD, a sleep expert and associate professor of preventive medicine at the Stony Brook School of Medicine in Stony Brook, N.Y. Hale reviewed the study for WebMD, but was not involved in the research. “Most of us notice it in the reverse. If you’re really ill rested, you can be nasty to people.”
Another finding that couples may recognize: On days when husbands reported more positive interactions with their wives, the husbands got less sleep.
“Shorter sleep duration itself is not necessarily meaning that you sleep poorly,” says study researcher Wendy Troxel, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“Couples that have more positive interactions during the day may be engaging in other activities in bed at night,” she says.
For the study, researchers recruited 35 healthy married couples and had them wear sensors that monitor movement for 10 nights. The average age of study participants was 32.
During the day, spouses were asked to keep diaries detailing how they were getting along.
They rated how strongly they felt positive things, like feeling close to their spouse and valued, and whether or not they talked about their feelings with their partner.
On the negative side, they were asked how much they felt criticized, dismissed, ignored, or whether they were having an argument.
When women had trouble falling asleep at night, they were more likely to report more negative and fewer positive interactions with their spouses the next day.
Husbands also reported fewer positive interactions when spouses couldn’t fall asleep easily.
Curiously, however, husbands’ sleep difficulties didn’t seem to affect couples’ relationship interactions.
Explaining Gender Differences
“Women tend to be more sensitive to the highs and lows of relationships and they tend to be more communicative when they’re feeling the stress,” Troxel says.
“So the fact that women’s sleep problems affect both their own and their partner’s next day’s marital functioning may say something about women’s expressiveness, whereas men tend to kind of repress or withhold negative emotions,” Troxel says.