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.
Tracking the Effects of Sleep on Marriage
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.
Other experts agree.
“We’re stoic,” says William J. Strawbridge, PhD, an adjunct professor in the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California in San Francisco. In a study published in 2005, Strawbridge also found that poor sleep was related to marital dissatisfaction.
“It’s true that men just don’t want to talk about stuff like that and don’t seem as sensitive to it. Interaction in a marriage is more important to a woman than to a man,” he says.
On nights following days when they rated their marriages as more positive, however, men got less sleep.
“For men, on average, when they reported higher marital functioning, they had more frequent sexual activity,” Troxel says. “It was not the same for women.”
Previous studies have shown that trouble sleeping and unhappy marriages go hand in hand, but researchers say they weren’t able to tell if poor sleep was contributing to the emotional upset or if fighting was disrupting sleep.
This new study gives weight to the argument that poor sleep can drive emotional upset.
That’s valuable, Hale says, because “we need to be reminded that sleep should be a priority for not only functioning throughout the day physically and cognitively but emotionally and socially.”