The Couple That Sleeps (Well) Together Stays Together

Medically reviewed in January 2020

It is one of the most common struggles that couples face: over the life of a relationship, partners can lose a sense of appreciation for one another. Holding on to a sense of gratitude for each other is one of the hallmarks of couples who stay content in their relationships over the course of many years. On the other hand, loss of gratitude and appreciation between partners can jeopardize a relationship’s long-term success.

A study suggests that poor sleep may contribute to a lack of appreciation between romantic partners. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted a multi-part study to examine how sleep may affect people’s feelings of gratitude, and the ability to value and appreciate romantic partners. The study was presented recently at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The study included more than 60 heterosexual couples between the ages 18-56. They participated in three separate exercises designed to measure how sleep affects individual levels of gratitude, and sense of appreciation between partners:

  • After a night of sleep, people were asked to make a list of 5 things for which they were grateful. Those with poor sleep demonstrated less of a sense of appreciation than those with better sleep quality and sleep quantity.
  • Participants were asked to keep a daily record for two weeks of both their sleep and their feelings of gratitude -- and lack thereof. Researchers identified a decline in levels of gratitude that was associated with poor sleep. People were more likely to report feelings of selfishness after a night of sleeping poorly.
  • The third section of the study looked specifically at how sleep affects the dynamic of gratitude and appreciation between couples. Their results showed that people tended to feel less appreciated by their partners if either they or their partner slept poorly.

The last finding is particularly interesting. A lack of sleep by one person in the relationship resulted in greater likelihood of diminished feelings of appreciation by both partners. This suggests just how deeply sleep can influence the emotional dynamic of a relationship.

Sleep can pose a number of challenges to relationships. Poor sleep can make for difficult sleeping conditions for couples. The tossing and turning of insomnia and the noisy, disrupted sleep of snoring and sleep apnea don’t just diminish the quality of sleep for the individuals with the disorder. They also rob partners of restful sleep.

Night owls and larks who share a bed may also have difficulty marrying their sleep schedules. If you’re an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, having a partner who likes to read or watch television late into the night can interfere with sleep.

These may be among the reasons why an increasing number of couples are choosing to sleep in separate beds. Research shows as many as 25% of couples are sleeping separately, and this is a number that’s been rising for years. The separate-bed strategy may seem like an attractive option for couples struggling to sleep together well. But it’s important to consider what might be lost in this choice. I’m talking about the intimacy created by sharing a bed. And I’m not only talking about sexual intimacy, although that’s certainly a risk of sharing separate beds. (At the very least, couples are much less likely to have spontaneous sex if they’re not sleeping together.) I’m also talking about the sense of togetherness and emotional connection that comes from sleeping together.

What’s more, sleeping together can actually reinforce good sleep habits. Partners who sleep together can be a positive influence when it comes to keeping reasonable bedtimes, and not falling asleep to the television. Studies have shown that sleep apnea patients who use CPAP therapy are 60% more likely to stick with the treatment if their partners continue to share a bed, rather than sleeping separately.

This latest research makes sense given what we know about how sleep affects mood and outlook, as well as emotional and mental health. Poor quality sleep and insufficient sleep can negatively affect mood and judgment, making us cranky and less apt to greet the inevitable ups and downs of life with perspective and an even keel. Research shows that poor sleep increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety, conditions that themselves can interfere with sleep. So it’s not surprising that gratitude might diminish when we’re short on sleep, and that the people closest to us -- our partners -- might bear the brunt of this diminished sense of appreciation.

I’d like to see more studies like this -- both for the specific knowledge and insights they provide us about the functions of sleep, but also for the way they highlight the very central role that sleep plays in the quality of our waking lives, and the lives of those we love.

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