Illustrations by Erin Taj

No Sleep? No Sex—And a Lot More Fighting

How a lack of sleep can ruin a relationship

Sleeping Together is a four-part series that examines the science behind that other thing couples do together in bed: sleep. We will publish a new installment every morning, starting today and ending Friday. First up: How a lack of sleep fucks with your relationship’s emotional well-being — and how much you’re actually fucking.

I haven’t slept in more than a year. At least not in the way a fully functioning adult should sleep. On top of the to-be-expected sleepless nights that come with being a new parent (I have a 1-year-old), I also suffer from chronic insomnia, specifically sleep-onset insomnia, meaning that no matter how exhausted I feel, it can sometimes take me hours to fall asleep — though not for lack of trying. My most recent attempt at a remedy: healing crystals under my pillow. (No, they haven’t worked. Yes, I’m keeping them there just in case they do.)

But aside from my increasingly disheveled appearance, terrible short-term memory and general ineptitude at maintaining an adult conversation — not to mention I’m moody as fuck — my lack of sleep is probably taking its biggest toll on my marriage.

Research warns us of the negative side effects of sleep deprivation — it affects our judgment, decision-making, problem solving, mood, memory, productivity, overall attractiveness (beauty sleep is an actual thing) and even our ability to take a joke. And that’s not even taking into account the links between lack of sleep and Type II diabetes, dementia, depression, obesity and heart disease, just to name a few not-at-all-terrifying prospects.

Most of us accept intellectually that sleep is important, and we can probably even rattle off some of the most recommended suggestions for getting better sleep. But according to the National Sleep Foundation, 45 percent of Americans report that poor or insufficient sleep affects their daily activities at least once a week.

It’s not just fucking with our own lives; it’s fucking with the lives of everyone around us as well — especially the people we share a home with. “Our lives are closely intertwined with the lives of our romantic partners, especially if we live with them,” says Amie Gordon, a psychologist and post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. “We often have to make joint decisions, navigate conflict and make choices that pit what we want in the moment against what’s best for our relationship over time. All of these actions are likely to be affected by poor sleep.” The reason for this is obvious, notes Gordon: When we share a life, we share a bed.

A 2013 study by Gordon and fellow UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen provides scientific data to back up what I’ve felt over the last year but couldn’t quantify as the new reality in my relationship: More — and more intense — fights. In particular, they found that a decrease in empathy and an impaired ability to read one another’s expressions was clearly present after even just one night of bad sleep. “When people sleep poorly, they are less able to gauge their partner’s feelings and their partners are less able to gauge their emotions,” they wrote.

Gordon and Chen also were able to link the lack of sleep directly to increased conflict, while ruling out other extenuating factors such as stress, anxiety, depression and relationship satisfaction. In other words, not only are there more fights, but the ability to resolve these frivolous arguments is hindered by a lack of sleep as well.

What’s especially fascinating is that they found that this doesn’t just apply to people suffering from severe sleep disorders, the focus of the other couple-centric sleep studies; it’s true of anyone who gets less sleep than they’re used to.

In a separate study, Gordon and Chen determined that poor sleep contributes to a lack of gratitude and feelings of appreciation between couples, which is felt by both partners when just one person gets less-than-stellar sleep. “Poor sleep may make us more selfish as we prioritize our own needs over our partner’s,” Gordon explained when the study was released.

It makes sense. When your basic needs aren’t being met, you tend to focus on that fact. If your partner happens to be getting that thing you’re missing (in this case, sleep), it’s a breeding ground for arguments, if not full-on resentment. Gordon also mentions that there are studies showing that people have stronger negative emotions and react more strongly to negative events when they’re sleep-deprived. “Sleep loss is also thought to reduce self-control,” she told me via email. “You may be less able to control negative reactions or impulse.”

So as it turns out, my husband’s and my frivolous-yet-intense fights, my brooding resentment and seeming inability to control my not-even-close-to-resting bitch face is (mostly) caused by an actual thing and isn’t a reflection of my slowly becoming the worst version of myself. Far from it, actually.

Unfortunately, one of things that could help repair our relationship — sex — is not likely to be taking place under the circumstances, either. When you’re sleep deprived, sleep isn’t the only thing that’s not happening in your bed. According to a survey from the Better Sleep Council, 60 percent of Americans would choose a good night’s sleep over sex. That preference does skew a bit when broken down by gender, however; 42 percent of men crave sleep over sex, while 79 percent of women would rather hit the sack in a more restful manner. The fact that more men preferred sex isn’t entirely surprising. When I posed the same question to a much-smaller but incredibly significant sample — my husband — he immediately said, “Sex.”

I think the more difficult question would be whether sleep or sex is more important to a relationship. This one is a complete toss-up for me. I absolutely need to get more sleep, but things are noticeably better between us—if only for a little while—when we have sex. My husband put it this way, “Of course sleep is important; if you don’t sleep, you die. But sleep is such an individual thing, whereas sex is us literally working together on a part of our relationship.”

We are, of course, no experts. Psychologist and researcher Amie Gordon, who is, says they’re both important. “I wouldn’t suggest anyone always choose one over the other,” she tells me. “But on the nights when you’re really exhausted, I’d say go to sleep and save the sex for the next day. You’re apt to enjoy it more after a good night’s rest.”

After a good night’s rest. For many sleep-deprived couples, I imagine discussions about sleep and sex are often intertwined, as they are for us, complete with forlorn glances off into the distance. So how linked are the two, scientifically speaking? Does sleep actually affect the quality of our sex lives?

Absolutely.

Inadequate sleep has been shown to lower testosterone levels in men, and chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to erectile dysfunction and sexual dysfunction for men and women, respectively. The research on ED and sleep is primarily focused on men who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), but the fact that treatment of the sleep disorder can lead to a dramatic improvement in sexual functioning is pretty telling. It’s been estimated that about 40 percent of men with OSA also have ED, while about 90 percent of guys with ED also have OSA.

How exactly the two conditions relate is still being determined, but the correlation is becoming clearer. A 2012 study from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center found that after six months of treating sleep apnea in non-diabetic men under 60 with continuous positive airway pressure therapy — i.e., the mask that makes you look like an elephant in slumber — regular users of the machine saw improved sexual function and satisfaction across the board, with 41 percent of ED sufferers seeing the condition vanish completely. Guys with no history of ED also reported improved sexual performance.

Men are notorious for falling asleep after sex, thanks, in part, to a potent, sleep-friendly cocktail of brain chemicals that are released during orgasm (including serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and the hormone prolactin), but experts say that sex can also help women sleep. The results may not be as immediate as they are for most guys, but increased estrogen levels after sex in addition to a similar release of hormones can help women sleep deeper and have more REM sleep.

It works in reverse, too — better sleep equates with a better sex life. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, each extra hour of sleep corresponds to higher levels of sexual desire for women in relationships, as well as a 14 percent increase in the likelihood of having sex with their partner the next day.

Of course, getting more sleep shouldn’t be expected to magically fix all your sexual problems. But it certainly helps. A lack of sleep has absolutely highlighted some of the biggest issues in my relationship, but it’s also forced us to identify and deal with them, however poorly that might be going at the moment. Perhaps my husband and I could save some money on that couples’ therapy we’ve mentioned maybe, some day, possibly trying out, and just get me some sleep already.

That’s a little easier said than done, but I’m working on it. More sex would be great, too. Here’s hoping one begets the other.

Jennifer Sanchez is a freelance writer in Portland.

More from our four-part series on sleeping with your partner: