Do sleepless nights mean worse fights?

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By Dr. Simon Kyle

Drawing on evidence that restricted sleep is associated with a range of cognitive and affective impairments, a team of researchers from University of California Berkeley sought to determine if sleep quality may impact relationship conflict. To do this they conducted two experiments.

The first experiment involved asking 75 individuals who were in romantic relationships to record a sleep diary each day for 14 days. The diary was completed twice a day and probed reflections on sleep quality, as well as relationship conflict, stress, anxiety, depression and relationship satisfaction. Over the 14 day period, poorer sleep was associated with greater next-day levels of relationship conflict, even after controlling for previous day conflict, stress, anxiety and depression.

In experiment 2, 71 volunteer couples were this time asked to come into the laboratory and discuss a source of relationship conflict while being videotaped. These “conflict conversations” were coded by both participants and independent observers on a scale of positive and negative affect. Each volunteer also rated the extent to which they thought their partner experienced 10 different emotions during the conversation. This score was then subtracted from reports of actual experienced emotion by the respective partner, to create a measure of empathic accuracy. Self-reported sleep for the prior night was also recorded.

Findings indicated that one partner’s sleep was associated with a lower ratio of positive to negative affect during the conversation, as reported by both participants and independent observers. This was also accompanied by decreased empathic accuracy (participants were less likely to interpret the emotions experienced by the other partner). Interestingly, these effects were not explained by stress, depression, anxiety or reduced relationship satisfaction.

As the authors point out, their findings raise important new avenues for research examining the interaction between sleep quality and interpersonal relationships:

“Although we spend nearly one third of our lives sleeping, often sharing our beds with a relationship partner, the effects of sleep on relationship functioning have received relatively little attention in the sleep community and nearly no attention in the social–psychological domain. The findings from the current research uncover some significant ways in which poor sleep influences relationship conflict for both partners.”

Gordon, A. and Chen, S. (2014). The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: do sleepless nights mean worse fights? Social Psychological & Personality Science, 5(2), 168-175.

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