Sleep deprivation in wives can be hard on marriage

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Researchers have found that when wives don’t get adequate sleep, the marital relationship suffers considerable stress. The surprising finding is that when husbands suffer sleep deprivation, it does not affect marriage relations negatively.

The researchers, led by Wendy Troxel, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University’s School of Medicine, monitored sleep patterns of 35 married couples with noninvasive sensors for a total of ten nights. The healthy couples had an average age of 32, and were mainly white professionals. The participants kept electronic diaries to track whether daily marital interactions were negative or positive, notating marital communications such as being criticized or ignored, as well as whether they received support and were cared for.
Couples reported significantly more negative interactions, mostly initiated by the wives, on the day following night time disturbances for the wife. Such interactions were not precipitated following a husband’s poor night’s sleep.


Researchers theorize that women tend to be more verbal and expressive of their mental and physical states, as well as more aware of the disruptions in their bodies and emotional states. Men tend to repress their feelings and be generally less aware of them. What this translates to is women who will verbalize their distress and irritability, thereby stirring the emotional pot of the relationship, while the men will stay mute and withdrawn.

Do the findings suggest that women are the primary instigators of marital strife? Hardly. Staying mute and withdrawn does not necessarily translate to a healthy communication style. It is probably as destructive as venting and complaining, which is what we might infer the sleep-deprived wives were engaging in. Lack of awareness of irritability or unhappiness can lead an individual, of whatever gender, to displace those feelings into unhealthy or destructive habits or acting out behaviors. These may be more difficult to address, since they tend to appear far removed from the initial stressor.

The research does have important implications for parents with a new baby, as well. It has been documented that the introduction of a baby almost inevitably stresses a partnership. Generally, it is the new mother who takes the brunt of sleep deprivation, nursing her newborn through sleepless nights that can go on for several weeks or even months. Given that post-partum women also undergo dramatic hormonal shifts after birth, marital strife may rarely be entirely avoided.

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