To bicker less, sleep more

Having a good night means you argue constructively and with kindness, says Tara Parker Pope

  • Published 1.11.17

It started as a simple conversation about a child's birthday party. But it quickly escalated into a full-blown marital rift. She accused him of neglecting the family. He said she was yelling.

The bickering parents were among 43 couples taking part in an Ohio State University study exploring how marital interactions influence a person's health. Every couple in the study - just like couples in the real world - had experienced some form of routine marital conflict. Hot-button topics included managing money, spending time together as a family or an in-law intruding on the relationship.

But while marital spats were universal among the couples, how they handled them was not. Some couples argued constructively and even with kindness, while others were hostile and negative.

What made the difference? The hostile couples were most likely to be those who were not getting much sleep.

"When people have slept less, it's a little like looking at the world through dark glasses," said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a longtime relationship scientist and director of the Ohio State Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. "We're grumpier. Lack of sleep hurts the relationship."

The men and women in the study had been married from three to 27 years. They reported varying amounts of sleep - anywhere from three and a half hours to nine hours a night. Each couple made two visits to the lab, where the partners were prodded to talk about the issues that caused the most conflict in their relationship. Then the researchers analysed videos of their exchanges using well-established scoring techniques to assess hostile and constructive responses. After all the data were parsed, a clear pattern emerged.

Couples were more likely to be hostile when both partners were functioning on less than seven hours of sleep. The couples with more than seven hours of sleep still argued, but the tone of their conflict was different. "The better functioning couples could do it with humour and kindness but clearly still disagree. The poorer functioning couples could get pretty nasty," Kiecolt-Glaser said.

A large body of research suggests that sleep-deprived people are more unpleasant and even hostile in their social interactions. A 2010 study found that men were more likely to fight with their wives after a night of disturbed sleep. In a 2014 study, couples who reported poor sleep during a two-week period also reported more daily marital conflict.

But the Ohio State study went a step further to measure how marital discord combined with sleep deprivation can become toxic to health. Each partner in the study gave blood samples before and after the fight. The samples were to measure markers of inflammation, which has been linked with heart disease and cancer.

The study found that when married partners got less sleep, 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. In short, marital discord is more toxic to your body when you have not gotten enough sleep, the study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology concluded.