New psychology study uncovers the romantic consequences of poor sleep quality

A recent scientific study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships has shed light on the intriguing connection between the quality of our sleep and the quality of our romantic relationships. The research suggests that poor sleep can lead to increased feelings of anger, which, in turn, negatively impacts our perceptions of our romantic partnerships.

Couples worldwide often face moments of sleeplessness, whether it’s due to stress, having young children, or other factors. Researchers wanted to know if there was a connection between poor sleep and how people perceive their romantic relationships. They also aimed to explore the role of emotions in this relationship dynamic.

“What predicts whether romantic relationships last and are happy and satisfying is something I’ve been interested in my whole career,” said study author Erica B. Slotter, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Villanova University.

“Our romantic bonds are important for both mental and physical well-being. In the field of relationships science, researchers have learned a lot over the past 50 years about the individual differences that matter for relationships (i.e., personality), as well as the communication and interaction styles within a relationship that work well versus not (i.e., conflict behaviors).”

“Less attention has been paid over the years to the smaller things – things that fluctuate over time, sometimes even day to day – that might predict outcomes for relationships. Sleep is one of those ‘smaller things.’ Ongoing sleep deprivation is a serious issue that can impact well-being and is prevalent in American adults.”

“Even among people who aren’t what we might consider chronically sleep deprived, sleep quality can vary day-to-day and certain periods of life (i.e., new parenthood) are characterized by less quality sleep than others,” explained Slotter. “We were interested in how relatively short term differences in sleep quality would be related to people’s emotional states, and thus their perceptions of their relationship.”

To tackle this question, the researchers conducted a series of three studies involving a diverse group of participants, including college students and people in dating and marital relationships.

In the initial study, the researchers sought to examine the association between sleep quality and perceived relationship quality. They gathered data from a sample of 209 romantically involved non-student adults who were recruited via the Prolific research platform.

To assess sleep quality, participants were asked to complete the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a widely used self-report questionnaire that evaluates sleep quality over the past month. The PSQI covers various aspects of sleep, including sleep duration, sleep disturbances, and daytime dysfunction.

To measure perceived relationship quality, participants responded to questions that gauged their overall satisfaction with their romantic relationships. These questions helped researchers understand how participants perceived the health and satisfaction of their partnerships.

The results of Study 1 revealed a significant correlation between poor sleep quality, as indicated by the PSQI, and lower perceived relationship quality. Essentially, participants who reported experiencing poor sleep over the past month tended to have less positive views of their romantic relationships. This initial finding set the stage for further investigation into the emotional dynamics underlying this relationship.

Expanding on the insights from the first study, the researchers conducted a second study to examine temporal changes in sleep quality, anger, and perceived relationship quality in a longitudinal study of dating and married couples. The sample included 134 couples recruited from the Chicago metro area.

The researchers found that changes in sleep quality were associated with changes in general anger, with worse sleep quality predicting increased feelings of anger. Study 2 also provided evidence that changes in anger mediated the association between changes in sleep quality and changes in perceived relationship quality. This mediation suggested that fluctuations in anger played a significant role in how changes in sleep quality affected relationship quality.

The third and final study sought to experimentally induce different affective states (emotional states) among 218 romantically involved college students. Participants were exposed to various emotional inductions, including anger, distress/sadness, positive affect, and a no affect manipulation as a control condition.

In the anger induction condition, participants were asked to imagine a series of mishaps occurring on exam day designed to elicit anger and annoyance. In the distress/sadness condition, participants were asked to imagine sad occurrences in their immediate circumstance to elicit sadness and distress. In the positive affect condition, participants were asked to imagine positive events transpiring on exam day to elicit a positive state. In the control condition, participants completed no writing tasks but completed survey measures.

Sleep quality had a significant main effect on all three affective states (anger, distress, and positive affect) across all conditions. Poor sleep was associated with more anger, more distress, and less positive affect. Poor sleep appeared to increase both baseline anger and reactivity to the anger induction, which could contribute to lower relationship quality among poorly rested individuals. In other words, poor sleep appeared to exacerbate feelings of anger, and this intensified anger was more likely to lead to negative perceptions of their romantic relationships.

“In short, getting worse sleep predicted people perceiving that their relationships were worse – they perceived less intimacy, love, satisfaction, trust, passion, and commitment in their relationships,” Slotter told PsyPost.

“Worse sleep also predicted people feeling angrier – in general, not necessarily as their partner. Increased feelings of anger mediate, or accounted for, the association between worse sleep and relationship quality. Taken together these findings suggest that sleeping less well predicts us feeling more irritable and angry, which then predicts us feeling less positively about our romantic relationships.”

“We ran several studies looking at these ideas,” Slotter explained. “Most notably, our second study tracked couples over time, so we’re able to look at how changes in sleep (i.e., sleeping less well this month versus last month) mattered. The effects I mentioned previously were all associated with worse sleep on average, but also worsening sleep over time.”

Like all scientific research, this study has some limitations to consider. For instance, sleep quality was primarily measured through self-reporting, which may not capture the full complexity of sleep patterns. Future research could benefit from incorporating more objective measures of sleep.

“This work is all correlational,” Slotter noted. “We didn’t experimentally manipulate sleep. As such, we can’t claim that worse sleep ’causes’ our outcomes. We also did not examine whether our effects would look different among chronically versus occasionally sleep deprived people, and our sample was limited in terms of its demographic diversity.”

The study, “Tired, angry, and unhappy with us: Poor sleep quality predicts increased anger and worsened perceptions of relationship quality“, was authored by Alexis Audigier, Sara Glass, Erica B. Slotter, and Elizabeth Pantesco.

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