“All of the things it takes to make a relationship work are probably completely decimated by lack of sleep”
-Christopher Winter, Author of The Sleep Solution
Waking up well rested feels good. You have the energy to complete all your tasks, and you can get them done with a smile. When you’re sleep deprived, though, things can get bad. Your body goes into survival mode, and just getting simple things done can feel like a chore. Superfluous activities, like chats with our partner, become less important. It’s no wonder then, that being in this state can negatively impact every facet of our lives and can especially affect our relationships. Here’s why sleep is an essential ingredient in the recipe for successful relationships.
Sleep impacts your moods
Do you get irritable when you’re tired? Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. It’s a sign that, on account of sleep-deprivation, your amygdala – the part of your brain that handles memories and emotions – doesn’t quite work the way it should. It might start releasing more, or fewer neurotransmitters than it should, resulting in us either overreacting to situations, or being a little too apathetic to them. Neither of which are great for our relationships with the people around us.
In this state, small problems can seem like massive obstacles, or on the flip side, the things that our friends and partners care about can seem a lot more trivial. This in turn leads to increased conflict and lower relationship satisfaction all round.
According to Jennifer L. Martin, a clinical psychologist and behavioural sleep medicine specialist at UCLA, we can get a good idea of how sleep deprivation affects us by looking at a toddler who missed out on a nap. Despite being all grown up, the processes going on in our brains are much the same. And though the effects of sleep-deprivation may be obvious to onlookers, Martin says that the matter is often compounded by the fact that we don’t usually notice the amplification of our own emotional reactions.
Sleep and your decision-making skills
Apart from just messing with our moods, lack of sleep can affect your judgement. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can affect risk-taking behaviour due to reduced functioning of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This means that we’re more likely to act before thinking things through, simply because our brains aren’t in a state in which they can effectively think at all.
One such study compared participants’ performances on the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) –which mimics real-world decision making under conditions of uncertainty – before and after 49 hours of sleep deprivation.
While rested, volunteers performed in a normal, predictable fashion. After sleep loss, however, they demonstrated “a strikingly different pattern of performance,” the study reports. “Relative to rested baseline, sleep-deprived individuals tended to choose more frequently from risky decks as the game progressed”.
They add that their performance after sleep-deprivation showed “a pattern similar to, though less severe than, previously published reports of patients with lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex”.
Sleep impacts your physical health
According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, lack of sleep can negatively influence your health and aggravate chronic conditions. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to the development and management of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression, among others.If you haven’t been getting enough sleep, you’re also more likely to catch viruses like the common cold. In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is particularly important.
So now, not only does your partner have to deal with you being irritable and making poor decisions on account of sleep deprivation, but they also have to deal with your stress over chronic illnesses, and potentially have to make you soup because you’ve gone and caught another cold.
Our sleep schedules impact relationships
All the mental and physical impacts aside, another way sleep impacts relationships is simply by virtue of being a block of time in which we’re…well…not awake.
Whether it’s because of conflicting working hours, overnight study sessions, or late-night video game binges, if the two halves of a couple have very different sleeping schedules it can impact the relationship. How can you spend quality time together if one of you isn’t even awake?
Christopher Winter, Author of The Sleep Solution, says that “meeting in the middle—staying up a little later or asking a partner to wake a little earlier” can help to create more together time for couples who have conflicting working times. But of course, this needs to be done with your partner’s need for sleep in mind or you’ll have to deal with all the above issues.
So, considering all of these effects, it’s no wonder sleep impacts relationships. Those closest to us have to deal with us being grumpy, reckless, and unwell when we haven’t slept properly and that’s ultimately unfair to everybody. So here are some things to keep in mind going forward:
What can you do?
- If you’re feeling unusually irritated or anxious, think back on the quality of sleep over the last few days. Sometimes knowing the real root of our irritation does wonders for overcoming it.
- Winters recommends saving serious conversations or decisions for days when you’re feeling well-rested. That way you can avoid making reckless, over-emotional decisions and have better listening and concentrating abilities.
- Winters suggests sharing a Google Calendar with loved ones in order to plan ahead and ensure you’re well rested for every occasion.
- Finally, don’t feel guilty for declining invitations that you don’t feel like you have the energy to attend. Go home and rest, and your loved ones will be grateful that next time they see you, they get the best of you – not the cranky sleep-deprived version.
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