5 Ways Sleep Will Strengthen Your Relationship

Written by
 Dr. Michael Breus
Last Updated
March 16, 2021
min read


There’s no doubt that the pandemic is causing strain on couples throughout the country. The polling organization Ipsos has been tracking the state of our unions in the pandemic and found that among both married and partnered couples, 1 in 10 consider themselves very likely to separate at least partially as a result of pandemic-related strain on their relationships. One in five couples say they are fighting more during the pandemic than they were before, and one in three feel more annoyed with their partner.

Given all that we’re dealing with right now, you might look at these numbers and be surprised and even grateful that they aren’t higher. Until you remember that these figures represent millions of couples struggling with conflict, frustration, and isolation in their intimate partnerships, which has been brought about (or made worse by) the intense, sweeping impact of coronavirus.

Better sleep can have a profound and transformative impact on our relationships, especially our most intimate ones. Studies show couples who are sleep-deprived fight more and resolve conflicts less successfully than well-rested partners. And it only takes one person in a couple who is short on sleep to increase conflicts, according to research. Studies also show that one partner’s poor sleep has a direct and negative impact on the other partner’s mood and relationship satisfaction.

Our sleep and our intimate relationships are intricately connected, for better and worse. If you’re experiencing tough times in your partnership, here are five reasons getting more and better sleep can help set you on a course to reconnect.

You’ll communicate better

Stop and think for a moment about all that goes into effective communication. Reasoning, attention and focus, facility with language, control of our own emotions and recognition of our partners’ feelings. How about humor, compassion, and patience? We need those too, in order to communicate well with everyone, especially the people closest to us.

That’s an incredibly complex range of cognitive skills that all need to activate at once. Every single one of those skills is compromised by poor sleep. There are a couple in particular I want to highlight for couples.

Lack of sleep makes you more emotionally reactive. Sleep deprivation increases activity in the amygdala—that’s emotional rapid response center of the brain. Short on sleep, the amygdala goes into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations. At the same time, lack of sleep also hampers communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain handles a lot of complex tasks, and one of them is to put the brakes on impulsiveness. The prefrontal cortex is kind of like a traffic cop for our emotions: it sees an impulsive reaction and says, “whoa, slow down, do you really want to say THAT right now?”

Lack of sleep impairs your ability to recognize your partner’s emotions. Tired and sleep deprived, we can’t see our partners as clearly, at an emotional level. A number of studies have demonstrated this impairment, showing that sleep deprivation inhibits our ability to accurately gauge the positive and negative emotions of others. If you’re not getting your rest, you’re more likely to miss the simmering hurt and anger in your partner during an argument, and the conflict can escalate.

You’ll have more empathy

Empathy is essentially our ability to walk in another person’s shoes. When we’re relating to our partners empathically, we can see situations from their perspective, and relate deeply to their feelings. Empathy is a foundational element of loving, durable, nurturing and supportive relationships.

A number of studies have documented how poor sleep limits our capacity to be empathic with others. Here’s one that stands out. This 2014 study measured the impact of a single night of sleep deprivation on the empathic abilities of a group of 37 healthy adults. Scientists measured empathy in two ways:

Direct empathy, which is the overt, conscious relating to another person’s emotional experience. You see your partner hurt or in distress, and you register your own explicit feelings of distress.

Indirect empathy, which is our own physiological response to another person’s emotional experience. Seeing your partner hurt and distressed, your heart rate rises in response.

Scientists found that one night of sleep deprivation impaired both types of emotional empathy, rendering the volunteers less able to recognize and relate to the emotional experiences of others. Especially when times are tough, extending empathy to our partners can be a lifeline for staying emotionally connected.

You’ll feel more gratitude and appreciation for each other

We’re all at home a lot right now, juggling jobs and childcare and household responsibilities. That’s a lot of work, and a whole lot of togetherness. Under these conditions, it can be tough for couples to maintain appreciation for each other. Grumbling to yourself about how your spouse loads the dishwasher all wrong, wishing someone would thank you for making dinner for the 15th night in a row, missing the regular date nights that got you out just the two of you—there are a thousand ways that losing appreciation for one another can put emotional distance between couples.

Not sleeping will only makes things worse. That’s because lack of sleep diminishes gratitude for our romantic partners, according to this research by sleep scientists at UC Berkeley. Their study of more than 60 couples found that going without sufficient rest made couples supportive of one another when solving problems together, less attuned to one another’s moods, and more likely to feel unappreciated by their partners.

A really important detail from this study for couples: Scientists observed that if one person in the relationship is short on sleep, BOTH partners lose a sense of gratitude toward the other.

You’ll have better sex—and more of it

You probably don’t need a sleep expert to tell you that couples are less likely to have sex—and less likely to enjoy sex to its fullest–when they’re tired and short on sleep.

Part of the problem here has to do with the timing of most couples’ sex lives. Limiting sex to bedtime can be a real intimacy killer. Why? Because 10 or 11 p.m. is, biologically-speaking, about the worst time to have sex, thanks in large part to low levels of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire for both men and women. Testosterone is at its daily high first thing in the morning, so one way to increase your sexual intimacy is to try working some morning sex into your lives.

But sleep deprivation can affect both sexual arousal and sexual function, in both men and women. Insufficient sleep is linked to lower testosterone levels in both men and women, one way that sleep can diminish sex drive, arousal, and sexual pleasure. Men with low testosterone are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction, and ED is also strongly linked to the obstructive sleep apnea—another excellent reason to seek screening and medical attention for snoring and sleep disordered breathing.

Research shows sleep deprivation reduces physical arousal and desire in women, diminishing sexual drive and interfering with sexual function, including lubrication and orgasm.

Partners are also more likely to misread each other’s sexual interest when sleep deprived. A 2013 study found that men, when sleep deprived even for a single night, overestimated women’s interest in sex. Scientists attributed this to the effects of sleeplessness on the brain’s frontal lobe, where we assess risk, manage inhibition, and make complex judgment calls.

You’ll see the world—and each other–with more optimism

Sleep colors how we view the world around us, and how we perceive the people closest to us. Restful sleep helps us maintain a more optimistic outlook. Sleeping better can make us more positive-minded, and adopting an optimistic mindset has been shown to improve sleep. (Some really interesting research found that optimists are better overall sleepers, with lower rates of sleep disorders.)

Lack of sleep hinders our ability for optimism, and exacerbates our focus on negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Research has shown that sleep deprived people have more repetitive negative thoughts, and are less able to shift their minds to positive thoughts. their better-rested counterparts. That research has also told us that more sleep deprived we are, the more difficult it is for people to stop ruminating on negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

When we’re sleep deprived, we’re more likely to worry about what the future holds—a form of worry that scientists call anticipatory anxiety. Scientists at UC Berkeley found that emotional control centers of the brain—in this case the amygdala and the insular cortex– were activated by lack of sleep and contributed to increased anxiety about the future.

Stuck in a negative mindset with more pessimistic view of what’s ahead, we run the risk of losing sight of the deep and lasting value of our intimate relationships.

We’ve all got plenty of challenges to face right now. Finding comfort, companionship, support, pleasure and fun with your partner is a whole lot easier if you’re both committed to getting consistently good sleep.