How More Sleep Can Save Your Relationship

New research shows that married couples with children are more susceptible to arguments and illness if neither is getting at least seven hours of sleep a night

A "nap station" next to the Boston Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park in Boston.
Steven Senne/AP

Married with small kids? Then the chances are you’re not getting enough sleep – and it’s almost certainly affecting your relationship. It may seem obvious, but recent scientific research highlights just how bad sleep deprivation is for couples.

When both members in the relationship are getting too little shut-eye, sleep deprivation seems to amplify problems such as negative behavior and illness. For single people, or if one of the couple is sleeping enough, things don’t seem quite so bad.

A paper published in the scientific journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in May showed how much worse things really are: A lack of sleep damages your interpersonal relationships and increases your risk of inflammation, especially after arguing, the observational study showed.

The study examined 43 married couples who made two visits to the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University. The couples reported on how many hours they slept the two previous nights and also took blood tests. Then the scientists asked them to discuss their marital problems, which was recorded on video, and then took more blood tests.

The researchers analyzed the data – both the blood tests and recorded personal interactions. The scientists categorized the interactions as being positive or negative, hostile or constructive.

While it has long been known that a lack of sleep is linked to a number of chronic illnesses, in this case the scientists wanted to know how this applied to married couples and whether one person’s sleep – or lack thereof – affected the other’s health.

In other words, how does sleep deprivation interact with married life, and does this lead to more fighting and potential illness?

The answers seem to be clear. If both partners slept fewer than seven hours a night (the minimal recommended amount), they were more hostile to each other while arguing. This was not true if they slept for more than seven hours, when their arguments were more constructive and showed, for example, greater use of humor and sympathy.

In addition, the production of various markers for inflammation such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) was higher after arguing, compared to those who slept more. These markers indicate a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, rheumatism and other conditions.

The loss of one hour of sleep increased cytokine production – molecules that signal inflammation – by 6 percent after an argument. But this was even higher for those who acted negatively and hostilely toward each other, the study found.

There is some good news for those who don’t get enough sleep: Those couples who slept too little but still expressed their feelings toward their partner and were more positive and constructive during arguments also had much more protection from an inflammatory response.

While any inflammatory response is stressful, it is a continued long-term rise that can lead to major problems, the scientists said. Less sleep simply causes more stress, and this is a major risk factor over the long term for chronic diseases, they say.

Put simply, more sleep keeps you healthier – but so does a more positive and constructive attitude toward your partner.

They found that about half of the couples studied slept too little, meaning the problem is all too common. They also found things were better if one of the couple slept enough, though not as much as when both did.

Maybe one way to help your partner and demonstrate your love for them is to let at least one of you sleep enough when possible.

The study only examined married, heterosexual couples, though the results seem to be applicable to all couples, with or without children.

Stephanie Wilson was the lead author of the study, called “Shortened sleep fuels inflammatory responses to marital conflict: Emotion regulation matters.”