Family affair

A Family Affair: Poor Sleep Can Harm Relationships

Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa. He co-hosts the attached podcast. (Jacob Priest)

My wife has just had our second child, a girl born barely a month ago. I can’t tell you how in love with our daughter I am. She has big eyes and a full head of hair. Being a dad brings me so much joy.

But that doesn’t come with a lot of sleep. My wife and I are lucky to get three hours of uninterrupted sleep these days. We have so much love for our daughter that we wouldn’t trade her for anything, but I look forward to the night when I can get eight hours of sleep without waking up.

It is common knowledge that lack of sleep is bad for your health. When we don’t get enough sleep or don’t sleep well, we are at greater risk of illness. Lack of sleep is associated with cardiovascular risks, obesity and mental health problems such as depression.

But what is perhaps less well known is that lack of sleep affects your relationships and how your relationships affect your sleep. Of course, we all know that when kids miss their naps or don’t sleep well, they’re going to be grumpy. But many studies now show that when we don’t sleep well, it’s hard to communicate with those we love. And that if we don’t have a good relationship, it can affect our sleep.

Poor sleep reduces our ability to resolve conflicts. When partners sleep less, they are more likely to be hostile towards each other. And this can turn into a vicious circle. The quality of our relationship may be related to the frequency of our sleep disturbances. If we don’t get along well with our family members, we might wake up more frequently. In other words, poor sleep can make us more unfriendly, which can cause us to sleep even less, making us even more unfriendly.

It doesn’t mean that lack of sleep will ruin our relationships. But knowing the research can give us hope when you don’t get much sleep. My wife and I have tried to give each other extra grace when one of us is small or gets easily frustrated. We know this may not be the time to have big talks or make big decisions right now – we’re just too tired to do that. Knowing this helps us connect, laugh and try to enjoy this unique moment in our family. It helps us get up, so the other can take a well-deserved nap.

It also keeps us looking forward to the day when we can sleep at least a little better than we are now. It feels good to go to bed a little angry and wake up still tired. It’s helped us cherish the quiet times when our kids are sleeping, where we can try to start a new Netflix series, but fall asleep 10 minutes later.

Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa. He co-hosts the attached podcast. Comments: [email protected]