Lack of shut-eye has long been linked to a range of serious health problems. Now a study confirms that it can also be at the root of strife between couples

Is your partner irritating? Have you stopped having a laugh, gone off sex and no longer care if they seem unhappy? Before you reach for a counsellor or lawyer, check how much sleep you are getting. While research has consistently linked lack of sleep with increased risks of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and premature death, it is now finding that it is also corrosive to relationships. Since more than a third of us get only six hours a night (less than the recommended seven to nine), we shouldn’t be surprised if our love lives are suffering.

The solution

A study of 43 couples by Ohio State University found that those who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to argue in a hostile, negative way. However, even if just one partner had had enough sleep, the rows were more likely to be constructive and end with conciliation. The researchers invited the couples into a lab and videoed them arguing about known problems in their relationships (money, in-laws, communication). They also measured the levels of markers such as the proteins IL-6 and TNF-alpha. A rise in these can trigger inflammation in the body and encourage the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes. The study found that while lack of sleep alone did not raise the level of inflammatory markers, it did make for more toxic rows – and it was the stress of a nasty exchange that led to an increase in markers. Previous studies show that men are more likely to fight with their partners after one night of disturbed sleep, and that couples have more rows after two weeks of less than seven hours sleep.

The Ohio research took things further. “This is the first study to show the synergistic effects of short sleep and conflict for inflammation,” said lead author, Dr Stephanie J Wilson. Of course, instinctively we know that sleep deprivation makes us short-tempered and unable to concentrate, make decisions or empathise. A sense of humour, badly needed in any relationship, is the first casualty of sleep deprivation.

So while more sleep may not solve the world’s marital discord, it could lubricate many of our relationships. The study looked solely at heterosexual couples, but the findings are likely to apply more widely. Sleep affects the parts of the brain that solve problems. Without that ability, it is hard to have a “good” row, which requires active listening, good humour and self disclosure. The study showed that good rows did not raise levels of inflammatory proteins, however little sleep people had. It is also no coincidence that the dive in relationship satisfaction in the first year after having a baby comes during a long stretch of sleep deprivation. It is hard enough to do anything on not much sleep. Why shouldn’t that include having a good relationship?