Learn six ways poor sleep can ruin your relationship, and more importantly, how improving YOUR sleep situation may just save it (with a funny story to boot!).
Half-boiled Eggs & Burger-scented Towels
First, a true story: the other night I had a mountain of unmemorable nightmares. I woke up feeling tired. I rested where I could throughout the day, and was intent on going to bed early that night. After watching a little figure skating with my boyfriend, I dragged myself up to bed around 9:30 p.m.
After popping in my earplugs I was in the process of drifting off when I heard a clatter. “Ah,” I thought, “he’s emptying the clean dishwasher. It will stop soon.” I added an “isn’t that nice!” to remind myself to be grateful for the help. But soon after, the clatter morphed into a full on racket. I got out of bed, ran to the top of the stairs and yelled, “everything OK?”
A frustrated “yeah,” came back. I went downstairs to find him cooking up some hard boiled eggs. I stood there incredulous. “Why on earth are you making eggs at 10 o’clock?!”
Make Way for the Emotions!
He got angry—after all, he was helping us eat well (we were doing Whole30) and here I was yelling about it. Lips pursed, body tense, he turned the burner knob, then dumped out the water. I burst into tears on my way back up the stairs.
I couldn’t stop crying. Sleep now seemed impossible despite my best intentions. Crumpled wet tissues piled up by the bed. When I stopped sobbing enough to lay back down, my mind took over: Did he stop the eggs midway through cooking (i.e. how many were ruined)? Did he really turn off the burner? I considered getting up to check, but thought: “Well, if he didn’t and the house blows up, we’ll not be around to fight about it!” This was quickly followed by a dose of resentment: “Here I am, still awake and thinking about this shit!” (While in true guy fashion, he’s likely already over it.)
After several more thoughts about our early bird/night owl differences and what it meant for the future of our relationship, I finally fell asleep. But around 1:30 am, he started snoring through his CPAP. I took myself downstairs to the sofa, but woke up several more times. At 4:30 I turned off my 6 a.m. alarm and woke up on my own, only 15 minutes later.
With a busy day ahead—mostly catching up on things AND trying to make an important deadline—I made myself a Starbucks Via and started clearing my inbox. Once I completed all the easy stuff, I decided to take a quick shower break. As I wrapped a towel around myself, I realized it smelled like . . . burgers. (Our downstairs bathroom, which I often like better for showering, is just off the kitchen. Guess what he cooked for dinner last? Yup, you got it!)
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, again.
It’s Not About What It’s About
I was crying over a burger-flavored towel. It sounds completely ridiculous and writing about it now is even funny! Yet it was SO TRUE at that moment.
One of my best friends used to say, “it’s never about what it’s about.”
In this case, this means my challenge wasn’t about what or when my partner cooked. Sleep deprivation was impacting my brain and my emotions. This did have an impact on my relationship (and could have been much worse).
So let’s take a closer look at 6 ways poor sleep can ruin your relationship, using this scenario with my partner as an example.
1. Amplified sensitivity
Even with my properly-placed earplugs, I could hear sounds coming from the kitchen, which is located both downstairs and on the other side of our house!
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes a “steady increase in the excitability of human cortical circuits” (1). In other words, lack of sleep increases our sensitivity and tendency to feel “jumpy” (2).
If I had slept well the night before, I may not even have noticed the sounds coming from the kitchen. And even if I had, the sounds may not have been disturbing enough to keep me awake or to provoke me enough to leave our warm snuggly bed. Many people complain of noise sensitivity and I’m not discounting that as an issue in its own right. But how many of us have amplified sensitivity due to chronic sleeplessness? It’s more common than we think.
2. Over-reactive tendencies
Tired, busy people with amplified sensitivity also have tendencies to overreact, and not just to external stimuli like noise. Overreacting can and does often happen during interactions with one’s partner. Whether s/he does something you’re not a fan of (like burgering a towel) or expresses an emotion like anger (like dumping out half-boiled eggs), it can feel like the end of the world (even though logically it’s not).
And as Mark Manson says, “emotion inspires action, and action inspires emotion” (3).
We can overreact, and what’s worse, not even be aware we’re doing it. (4) The amplified sensitivity created by poor sleep impacts our emotions, which drives our behavior, and we’re more likely to do (or say) things we regret later.
3. Increased negative emotions
Speaking of emotions. . .
While we often think about stress as a primary contributor to poor sleep, both the National Sleep Foundation and Medical News Today show us that it actually goes both ways: sleep deprivation “can play a part in contributing to stress . . . [it] affects mood, making someone more likely to be short-tempered, frustrated, and irritable. All of these things can create tension and heighten the risk of getting stressed out.” (5)(6)
How dare my partner help in the kitchen when I was trying to sleep! Annoyance, irritation, anger: here, present, yup! When he reacted to my scolding in a moment of (his) frustration, I burst into tears that lasted for about a half hour. Resentment replaced gratitude.
When we’re sleep deprived, situations that wouldn’t typically bother us (or wouldn’t bother us as much) are illuminated; they become a papercut we notice every time we turn a page. Research has shown that anger, in particular, increases after losing a few hours of sleep at night, particularly in situations where we’re frustrated (7).
Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D. points out that in addition to “display[ing] more negative emotions”, “people who sleep poorly . . . are less successful at conflict resolution” (8). So if you do find yourself in a disagreement (which is a normal part of coupling), you may find that being exhausted does nothing to help, and may even escalate the situation (causing more stress)!
4. Catastrophizing & worst-case scenarios
Catastrophizing and imagining worst-case scenarios are common mindsets I see in my clients who are struggling with stress and poor sleep. There are three examples of this in my story:
- That clatter I heard in the kitchen–OMG, what could it be!?
- Clearly the house will blow up if I don’t check that the burner is indeed off.
- I’m 120% certain our differences in sleep timing will ultimately be the end of us as a couple. (I exaggerate all these for effect here. 🙂
According to PsychCentral, “Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is” (9). Part of what was keeping me awake was not the noise or the subsequent interaction, but the meaning I attributed to them. Yes, some part of my mind knew the noise was typical kitchen activity and that this was a small disagreement. But another, more primal part was in survival mode.
As Pam Bauer so aptly put it: “catastrophizing is the negativity bias run amok” (10). Our brains are certainly predisposed to remember and pay special attention to negative input. But because I wasn’t well rested, it was more challenging to recognize this in the moment, before I interacted with my partner, and during the time after the interaction where I was now keeping myself awake.
Fortunately none of this went further, but can you imagine a scenario where I went back downstairs to double check his ability to turn off the burner? If I started communicating my worry over our differences and the future of our relationship, when I was clearly in no state of mind to be having such a serious conversation? That certainly doesn’t sound like a recipe for success!
5. Poor (& riskier) decision making
According to some estimates, the average adult makes about 35,000 CONSCIOUS decisions each day (11) –and we all know decisions come with consequences, both positive & negative. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to make riskier decisions without even realizing it (12).
Had I been better rested, I may have made different, more skillful decisions. I might have chosen to let some time pass to see if the noise stopped. More importantly, I may have more carefully considered what I was going to say when I got downstairs to the kitchen!
Christopher Winter, a neurologist based in Charlottesville, VA and the author of The Sleep Solution states we “make better decisions, tend to be more patient and have a greater ability to listen and concentrate when we’re well rested” (13).
Increasing your patience and ability to listen by getting more refreshing sleep could be the relationship help you’ve been looking for.
6. Being unappreciative & ungrateful
Founder and CEO of marriage.com, Malini Bhatia, reminds us that “appreciation is key to any relationship” (along with acceptance and acknowledgement) (14). In fact, you may have been reading this thinking, “wow, I wish I had a partner who would cook and empty the dishwasher!”
Gratitude is a common practice for boosting happiness, yet how much appreciation and gratitude for our partner can we muster when we’re overtired? Amie Gordon, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, shed some light on that in a 2013 study. “Both men and women reported less gratitude toward their partners when they’d had a rough night’s sleep.”
In addition, feeling exhausted causes us to be more “me focused” (i.e. selfish!), because when we’re sleep deprived, let’s face it: we’re just powering through our day any way we can. (15) In my situation this is clear: how dare my partner help in the kitchen when *I* was trying to sleep! 😉
Sleep well, get “on the same side . . .”
In a prior post I talked about teamwork (in the context of the workplace). Similarly, my partner and I have coined a phrase: “on the same side.” It means we’re the ultimate team–it’s him and me, and we’re together, living life with all its charms and challenges.
Yes, communication with our loved ones could always be improved. There are courses we can take, books we can read, and counselors we can see. But at the end of the day, how well each partner sleeps has a profound impact on how well the ultimate team of two works together.
If you, your partner, or both of you are exhausted, plowing through the day because of trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or not waking rested, it’s predictable you’ll have problems as a couple. And even if you don’t have problems per se, can you imagine what your coupled life would be like if something as simple as better sleep could take your relationship from good to great?
If you regularly struggle with the 6 issues I talked about in this article, and you have trouble sleeping, please take corrective action now. Improving YOUR sleep situation may not only improve your relationship, it just may save it.