Sleep Deprivation is Ruining Our Relationships, Science Confirms

published Sep 5, 2017
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(Image credit: Minette Hand)

As anyone who loves someone who snores can attest, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the hardest things to come by in your day-to-day life. But it’s pretty important for a happy relationship, according to a new study featured in the New York Times yesterday.

Relationship scientists (yes, apparently, that’s a thing now) at Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research studied interactions between 43 couples who had been married anywhere from three to 27 years in order to explore how marital interactions influence a person’s health. While they found that all couples universally bicker, how they handle the conflicts — constructively and with kindness or negatively and with hostility — all came down to whether or not they were getting enough sleep. Less than 7 hours a night, to be exact.

Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at OSU told the Times:

“It’s not the fact that the couples were disagreeing. It’s the lack of sleep and the way in which they disagreed. The better functioning couples could do it with humor and kindness but clearly still disagree. The poorer functioning couples could get pretty nasty.”

My husband and I have been co-habitating for 14 years, and between his snoring and the fact that we let our dogs sleep in bed with us (under the covers, no doubt, despite many attempts and expert advice to the contrary) and the snowball effect of the two, I’ve probably slept an average of four hours per night for a decade and a half — a far cry from the recommended six to eight hours of sleep per night for good health. I can literally count on one hand the number of times I dream (a sign of REM sleep) in any given month. Oops. No wonder why, despite still being the best of friends and head-over-heels for each other, we’re prone to bickering about virtual nonsense. It’s science, and it’s leading us to poorer health.

When married partners got less sleep, according to the study, not only were they more likely to have hostile conflicts, but they also had higher levels of inflammatory proteins in their blood after those conflicts — marital discord due to lack of sleep is literally more toxic to your body.

The good news from the study is that when even one partner slept more, there was less conflict in the relationship and less inflammation in each partner’s body.

So here are a few things you and/or your partner can do to improve your sleep — and both your relationship and your health in the process — that have also been working for us:

Get a new mattress

We recently swapped out our 8-year-old pillow top coil mattress for a much firmer and cooler bed-in-a-box foam mattress from Leesa and can scientifically say (thanks to my husband’s doctor-prescribed sleep tracking app) that we are both sleeping incrementally more. The age-old wisdom is that consumers should rotate out their mattresses every 10 years, but it could be fewer if your kids use it as a trampoline or if you toss and turn and get up frequently throughout the night (as we do).

Get new pillows

The purpose of a good pillow is to cradle your head and neck (and therefore spine) in a cloud of perfect alignment, and once they’re not doing their job it’s high time to swap them out — before they start causing insomnia, neck pain, or worse, migraines. I’ve dealt with all three due to poor pillow choice lately, and have been considering these recently sleep-tested top 5 pillows on Amazon (while I continue to hunt for the perfect pillow for side sleepers), if you want to check this one off with a quick add-to-cart while you’re at your desk today. And if you’re wondering just how long you should keep a pillow, and the other reasons for swapping one out, we interviewed the experts earlier this spring on that topic, too.

Try sleeping without a top sheet

Let’s get controversial! About 18 months ago, we ditched our top sheet after reading a UK study (which of course, I can no longer find) that said humans who toss and turn sleep better without one — something that we’re very familiar with after having traveled and lived in Europe, where top sheets aren’t really a thing and people opt for regularly washed duvet covers instead. I’ve definitely sleep better now that I’m no longer getting caught up in all that useless extra fabric that seemed to serve zero purpose except to wake me up fully for extractions at 3 a.m — one less thing to get between me and sleep. But readers have been polarized on this issue for years (here in 2014, here in 2010) so either balk in disgust or give it a try, at least for one night.

Get a white noise machine

According to, at least 5% of Americans use a “sound conditioner” in their bedrooms, and I can personally attest that no sleeping whatsoever would be done in ours if it weren’t for my Dohm white noise machine — an uber-popular and affordable model that is the official favorite of the National Sleep Foundation, and was included in Apartment Therapy’s annual 2017 guide to the best sound and white noise machines for better sleep.

Try an app for insomniacs

For years, I’ve been using a $3 iPhone app for guided nighttime meditation called Deep Sleep, designed by British alternative health and relaxation expert Andrew Johnson, which uses clinical hypnotherapy and mindfulness techniques in order to help the sleepless (like me) tune out and hit REM sleep on nights we really need rest the most…aided by headphones to tune out my partner’s snoring. Sleeping with headphones can be difficult, however; these 23 additional tips for relaxation throughout the day can also help with insomnia and more restful sleep.

Try sleeping in separate beds

It’s not ideal or romantic — though neither is bickering all the time — but according to the NYT piece, the National Sleep Foundation reports that 25 percent of couples already cohabitate but don’t co-sleep, most likely because having a bed partner does consistently affect how well and how much a person sleeps on any given night. To truly be a good host, Apartment Therapy editors suggest sleeping in your guest room from time to time, anyway — so somebody’s gotta do it.

Take a look at your bedroom design and environment

One of the biggest sleep expert no-no’s we just can’t quit (in addition to our dogs sleeping in bed with us) is using our phones as alarm clocks — which means we can’t leave them in another room, something that nearly all of us know by now that we should be doing for more restful sleep. But in addition, there are sneakier ways that our bedroom living habits are stealing sleep from us, like these 5 common but often overlooked bedroom design problems.

Ask your doctor about doing a sleep study

After 13 years of trying everything under the sun except seeing a doctor, my husband recently underwent a sleep study (and subsequent out-patient surgery) — finding out that he has a severe case of sleep apnea and was only getting 20% of the normal amount of oxygen through one nostril, having 60-80 “episodes” (times where inability to breathe led him to wake himself up) per hour. His doctor told him that if he had kept going the way he was without seeking medical treatment (surgery, mouth guard, potentially a CPAP machine in future), he likely would have died by the age of 60 from related health problems. If you or your partner has severe insomnia or snoring/sleeping issues, please seek the expert advice of your doctor or a certified sleep specialist — sooner rather than later.

What’s next for us in our adventurous journey toward better sleep and a better relationship? We’re going to try camping a few weekends this fall. Yes, seriously.