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Could insomnia be fuelling your relationship conflicts?

Insomnia is a lonely and isolating place. The nights are painfully long, and while everyone else peacefully sleeps, you suffer. The symptoms of poor-quality sleep are often invisible, and no one truly understands the torment unless they’ve experienced it.

One recent study of over 2,000 young participants in Britain showed an association between loneliness and poor sleep quality

Not only can laying awake at night cause you to feel alone but "feelings of loneliness were associated with worse overall sleep quality" in a Cambridge University study. This reciprocal loop can seem inescapable, which is why I’m passionate about what I do.

Whenever I begin treatment with a new client, I always ask about their goals. One of the most frequent goals I hear is “to be able to share a bed with my partner again.” Sadly, that’s because insomnia is not only a lonely place; it has major impacts on relationships.

How insomnia impacts relationships

Anyone who’s ever had a terrible night’s sleep knows that fatigue and irritability are among the most common next-day consequences. But the impacts on relationships stretch far beyond irritability…

● Poor communication

● Impatience

● Anger

● Frustration

● Depression

● Anxiety

● Less empathy

● Lack of desire to socialize

● Impaired decision-making

● Poor problem-solving skills

Not only can these symptoms be hard to live with, but your partner may perceive them as a lack of respect and love. It’s hard for them to understand why you seem so moody and distant. They may also feel rejected or attacked for ‘no reason’ and even start withdrawing or getting defensive. In reality, the debilitating symptoms of insomnia cause the reaction more than the actual conflict. And this, or course, can fuel worse conflict.

Why your partner may feel like they’ve ‘lost’ you.

It’s common for partners of people struggling with insomnia to feel a profound loss of connection. And many feel as if they’ve lost their spouse altogether. The person they fell in love with is no longer interested in doing activities with them and has considerably less interest in romantic relations. Instead, they might perceive their spouse as a disengaged ‘couch potato’ who snaps at everyone.

The best place to start is by talking to your partner about what’s creating these emotions. Don’t assume they get it. I mean, how could they if they’ve never struggled with ongoing sleep problems? Being open about what’s causing your emotions won’t solve every conflict, but it may provide a deeper level of understanding and empathy.

The vicious cycle

Insomnia and relationship conflicts are often a vicious cycle. When you’re sleep deprived, you are not only moody but more sensitive to criticism (or what you perceive as criticism). One of the jobs of the brain’s amygdala - that flight or fight response centre of the brain - is to look out for signs of danger to help keep you safe. Unfortunately, it actually goes on high alert when you’re sleep deprived. So lack of sleep often means the amygdala sees signs of danger, even when they don’t exist, making you ultra-sensitive. As well, insufficient sleep causes your stress hormones to ramp up, which puts tension on the relationship.

Similarly, the stress in your relationship can make it more challenging to relax into a quality night’s sleep, often for both parties. All this can lead to the ongoing cycle of insomnia and conflict.

Sleep deprivation certainly won't always cause marital problems, but it can definitely add fuel to the fire! When we're well-rested, it's easier to remain level-headed and tackle any arguments in a calm, collected manner.

The research behind sleep and relationships

An Ohio State University study found that quality sleep promotes better relationships. The findings also revealed that not only does lack of sleep increase inflammation, but it also magnifies relationship conflict.

And research has also found that, with better sleep, empathy is improved. This can go a long way in strengthening understanding and the relationship bond.

‘Good sleepers’ just don’t get it

I once had a client who’d been living with insomnia for a long time, and after a few sessions, she was sleeping much better. One of the strategies that helped her was deep breathing exercises.

Her husband was very supportive, although being a good sleeper himself, his ability to understand her inability to sleep was limited. Ironically, the noise of her breathing exercises actually started disrupting his sleep! And he began having insomnia himself.

He was considering booking an appointment with me but I never heard from him. I imagine he got used to her breathing and returned to his normal sleep patterns. Plus, his wife needed the techniques less over time, which I’m sure helped. But we had a good laugh about it.

It must be some sort of universal law because it seems that virtually all of my clients in a relationship say their partner is a good sleeper. This can be frustrating because people without insomnia just don’t get it. In their mind, if you’re tired… just go to sleep! If only it were that simple.

That’s why I sometimes encourage my clients to invite their partners to a couple of sessions with me. It can be pretty eye-opening for them once they realize the toll insomnia has taken on their loved ones. Plus, since recovering from insomnia often involves counterintuitive strategies, it can be beneficial for the partner to be aware. Sometimes, a well-intentioned partner can unknowingly sabotage their loved one’s efforts.

Clarifying how sleep regulation systems become disrupted and the unexpected strategies to improve sleep is helpful to supportive spouses. Who wouldn’t want to see their partner finally sleeping well? Quality sleep means they get their loved one back - the happy, healthy, energetic version they felt they’d lost. Plus, they finally get to share their bed (and life) again.

Better sleep improves relationships

Treating your insomnia can improve all aspects of your other relationships, not just with your spouse. It helps with communication, stress, mood and feelings of connection.

Additionally, better sleep will make you feel more energized and interested in socializing. Quality sleep truly is a relationship game-changer.

Looking for a Valentine’s gift for a loved one (or yourself)?

However, if you or your partner needs full support to recover from chronic insomnia, we have several options of CBT-I (the gold-standard in insomnia treatment). Check them out and choose what fits your lifestyle best.

Plus, as a special Valentine’s treat, for the month of February, if you purchase the Effective Natural Strategies for Chronic Insomnia course, we’ll give your partner the course for free! Just send us an email requesting the 2-for-1 promo, and we will send you a discount code. Because well-rested couples have stronger relationship


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