When we get enough sleep, the brain is able to properly process our emotions and memories from the day.
On the other hand, when we are sleep deprived, the body goes into ‘survival mode’; the brain shuts down anything non-essential and focuses on what the body needs to survive – eat, urinate, make it through the day. This means that ‘unnecessary’ activities – like chatting to your partner, meeting your friends at the pub, or remembering to pick up milk on the way home – go out the window.
This is why sleep is paramount to relationships. “All of the things it takes to make a relationship work are probably completely decimated by lack of sleep”, says W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution.
Below are four key signs that sleep is impacting your relationship, and what to do about them:
1. YOUR EMOTIONS ARE OUT OF SORTS
When we are sleep deprived, the part of our brain that links emotions to memories – the amygdala - doesn’t function properly. The science-y bit says that this can result in the amygdala releasing more or less neurotransmitters, which in lay-man’s terms, could lead you to overreact or not react at all. In short, our natural responses are hampered by a lack of sleep and we’re more likely to react badly to situations that we’d normally be able to handle.
Unfortunately, this can lead to more conflict within relationships and this is often compounded by the fact that we don’t usually notice this amplification of our emotional reactions. In other words, we feel that our behaviour is unaffected and appropriate for the situation we are in.
Tip: The next time you find yourself ready to snap at your partner, consider how you slept for the past few nights. The simple realisation that sleep could be causing you to overreact can help diffuse a situation. Talk to your partner and explain how your sleep is impacting your emotions. It is helpful if you are both able to spot the signs and understand there is a very real cause behind your reactions.
Tip: Postpone serious conversations until you are more rested. When we get adequate sleep we make better decisions, we tend be more patient, more able to listen and concentrate and less likely to engage in risky behaviours. These are all components of a healthy relationship.
Tip: Respect your partner’s need for sleep and make sure they respect yours. Couples often feel that it is reasonable to ask their partner to miss out on sleep so they can spend more time together. A better solution is to focus on quality over quantity. Time this when your partner is most alert, and use it wisely. A 30 minute conversation is likely far more important and beneficial for your relationship than two hours of Netflix.
2. YOU'RE SICK AND TIRED
Sleep is a great protector of your immune system; it fights against infection and, if you do happen to fall ill, sleep is deployed to encourage rest and recuperation. On the other hand, it doesn’t take many nights of short sleeping to weaken your immune resilience.
A study by Dr Aric Prather at the University of California demonstrated a clear link between sleep and illness: the less sleep an individual acquired in the week leading up to exposure to the common cold virus, the higher their chances of catching a cold. Almost half of the participants who slept an average of five hours became infected, compared with just 18% of those who achieved seven hours or more.
And it doesn’t take long for short sleeping to have more severe health consequences. A lack of sleep can kill cancer fighting immune cells, provide a perfect environment for its rapid growth if cancer is established and increase the risk of cardiac arrest.
Feeling under the weather can impact our relationships as it stops you spending quality time with your partner.
Tip: You don’t have to pick between quality time with your partner and sleep. Make an evening out of preparing for bed. Sleep doesn’t tend to be something we focus on, or dedicate much of our ‘awake time’ to. But try setting aside a whole evening to relax and unwind with your partner, engaging in activities that promote sleep. This could be taking a bath together (using sleep-inducing plant oils), giving each other massages or dimming the lights and reading to each other.
3. YOU HAVE DIFFERENT SLEEP SCHEDULES
Shift work, or even just long hours at work, can interfere with sleep patterns. Different schedules, or being an early bird while your partner is a night owl, can make it challenging to fit in and uphold plans to see those who matter; “It’s a rare person who can really nail it regarding a relationship and working unusual hours”, Winter says.
Tip: Try sharing a Google Calendar. It will help you see when your precious free time coincides, make plans and also remember them (particularly important when a lack of sleep impacts memory!)
Tip: Make a no-phone rule for your time together. If you work 9-5 while your partner works late shifts, any evenings you get are precious. Lock phones away in a drawer to make sure you are focused on enjoying each other’s company. Social media also encourages FOMO (the enemy of sleep!) so have some dedicated time off. You’ll also benefit from the decrease in sleep-hindering blue light!
Tip: Get creative with your plans to secure more time together. If they get home after dinner, all is not lost! Try greeting them with a bath ready and waiting (baths are proven to improve sleep). If you enjoy eating together but working patterns make dinner tricky, do breakfast. Unfortunately, the nature of shift work means these probably won’t be the best times of day for at least one party. In those circumstances be mindful of how your partner is feeling and make allowances if they’re not as upbeat as usual.
Tip: When time together is rare, try exercising together. Exercise improves sleep, boosts your mood and is a great way to take pride in something achieved together. It’s also two birds with one stone – super efficient!
4. YOU'RE TRYING TO HAVE IT ALL
It’s not only our relationships with our significant others that are affected by sleep; our interactions with colleagues, family, friends and anybody we encounter during our over-tired day can be impacted. Even our work and careers suffer, with memory, focus and problem-solving ability affected by a lack of sleep. So it’s important to prioritise sleep and rest before it becomes a problem.
It’s a commonly-held theory that we can sacrifice a few hours of sleep in order to fit everything into our lives. It might seem like a good idea, but depriving yourself of sleep in order to increase the length of your day can be seriously counterproductive. To fully enjoy and engage with your waking hours – including your responsibilities, your relationships and your health, happiness and wellbeing – you need to be able to completely disconnect, switch off and recharge. So prioritising sleep often means you will get more done, not less.
Tip: Keep a sleep journal. This will help you identify patterns in your sleep quality and quantity, and the impacts on next-day productivity.
Tip: Identify the things that are really important to you, that enrich your life and make you feel happy and accomplished. These are the things you should be making sure you find time to fit in. Forget the social media scrolling and Candy Crush.
NB: This article is for information purposes, and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, or have symptoms which prevent you from sleeping well, you should contact your medical practitioner.