Sleep Your Way to a Better Marriage
By: Risa Ganel, LCMFT Owner/Principle Therapist
I snapped at my husband yesterday. “Why the heck didn’t you put the heat on? You can’t keep the house at 60 degrees!” It’s certainly not the first time we’ve squabbled over the temperature in the house and I’m sure it won’t be the last but the reason I snapped at him wasn’t due to the temperature.
“How did you sleep last night?” is his first question to me every morning. It’s very thoughtful and empathic. I know he truly wants to know, but I can’t help wonder if maybe there’s a protective element to his question. Which wife will he have to face today? The one who slept well, or the one who did not? You see, I’ve struggled with waking at 2am, unable to fall back to sleep for days at a time for over a year now. And I know I’m not the only one. As a nation, we are extremely sleep deprived for a variety of reasons and it’s affecting every aspect of our lives, including our marriages.
Sleep is like breathing…you can’t skip having enough air today and make up for it tomorrow. The body does not recoup the effects of lost sleep in the way many of us think that it does. It’s a myth.
Just ask Randy Gardner, who in 1964 at age 17 went 11 days without sleep and broke the Guinness Book of World Records for sleep deprivation. Think of it as the Ice Bucket Challenge of the 1960s at a time when they believed that sleep was not really necessary and many people were putting themselves through this test. (You can hear more about Randy’s story on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain in the episode titled Eyes Wide Open Part 1)
What’s interesting about Randy’s story is that over the 11 days, he played basketball and pinball and his physical abilities did not diminish. However, the longer he stayed awake, the more irritable he became, snapping at people and having difficulty regulating his moods. Just like I snapped at my husband over the thermostat setting.
And you don’t need to go to the extreme levels of sleep deprivation that Randy did to suffer significant negative levels of effect from lost sleep. Prolonged sleeplessness changes the brain and while researchers are still determining exactly how, we do know that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation, increased inflammation in the body resulting in increased vulnerability to stress.
So, how does all of this connect to your marriage? The ability to regulate emotions is a key skill in healthy relationships and is more difficult, if not impossible at times of increased stress. When you are sleep deprived by even one hour, your ability to regulate your emotions decreases. You are more likely to be hostile, negative, quick to respond without thought and less likely to use the skills taught to you from your marriage counseling sessions… like approaching your partner in a soft way about an issue or concern, or listening and understanding your partner before replying with your own point of view. It would have been much better if I had approached my husband with something like, “Hey hon, it’s really cold in the house to me and it’s not summer anymore, I think it’s time to turn on the heat. What do you think?”
Thankfully, we were talking about a relatively benign issue and not something more serious or emotionally charged. I was not at my best and if we had tried to tackle a more difficult issue, my sleep deprived mind would have made things worse for our marriage.
Chronic sleep loss may be a serious contributing factor to the difficult interactions in your marriage too. While sleeping more is not a cure all for marital problems, it is a basic human need, like water and food that must be tended to for optimal functioning. When you are not functioning at your best, you cannot be the loving partner that your marriage needs to not just survive the ups and downs of marriage, but to thrive through it all.
I have always said about myself that I’m not a morning person, I’m not a night person and I like to take naps! I need at least 8 hours of sleep to be energetic, clear minded, calm and to have the bandwidth to regulate my own emotions effectively. I have tackled my sleep problems for the most part since we had that little spat with the help of several tools that I’ll share with you HERE . I’m grateful for that, and when needed, I’ll wear a sweater, or better yet, ask my husband for a hug to warm me up.