Sleep Disorders That Hurt Relationships

Sleep disorders can take a toll on the emotional health of you and your partner. Find out how to keep poor sleep from wrecking your relationships.

It’s not so surprising that missing out on a good night’s sleep can harm your emotional health. But did you know sleep disorders can also take a heavy toll on your relationships?

In a study of more than 60 couples presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that not logging enough shut-eye can make you a less engaged and appreciative of your partner the next day. And since the quality of your relationship can also affect your ability to sleep well, experts think poor sleep may set up a vicious cycle.

“Sleeping poorly leads to behaving badly, [and] behaving badly, in turn, leads to sleeping badly at night,” says Wendy Troxel, PhD, a behavioral and social scientist with the nonprofit RAND Corp. and an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Relationships and Sleep Disorders

For most sleep disorders, however, there are ways to break the cycle. In some cases, partners may even play key roles in helping their sleep-deprived spouses. Here’s a look at night-time problems that may be hurting your relationship — and how to stop losing sleep over them.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

People with obstructive sleep apnea briefly stop breathing many times during the night because their airway has become blocked or collapsed, and they almost always snore loudly. They may also snort and gasp as they start breathing again after an apnea episode, yet they aren’t even aware of what’s happening.

“This has actually been called a disease of listeners because the bed partner is just as affected as the patient themselves,” Troxel says.

Sleep apnea keeps people who have it, and often their partners, from getting enough rest. As a result, you’re more likely to be drowsy during the day and may be at higher risk for auto- or work-related accidents. Sleep apnea also increases the risk for chronic health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and obesity.

A less discussed consequence of sleep apnea may be the toll it takes on a person’s sex life. People with sleep apnea may lose interest in sex because they’re too tired or depressed to keep the spark alive. Men with sleep apnea can also develop erectile dysfunction. However, according to a study of 80 men with erectile dysfunction and sleep apnea published in 2012 in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, researchers in Egypt found that treatment with continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, for at least three months significantly improved erectile function.

“There’s a really important role here for partners to speak up,” Troxel says. In fact, in a survey of 124 patients presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians in Atlanta, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan found that people who said their sleeping partner had elbowed them awake because they were snoring were more likely to have sleep apnea than those who said they’d never been similarly nudged at night.

If your spouse could pass “the elbow test,” encourage him or her to see a sleep medicine specialist for help. Appropriate treatment will not only help you get more sleep but also reduce the risk for serious health problems for your partner and restore your sex life.


Everyone has an occasional bad night of sleep, but if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three times a week for a month, you may have the sleep disorder called insomnia.

And that means more than dark circles under your eyes.

“When you disrupt sleep, it has a direct effect on a person’s ability to regulate their emotions,” Troxel says. People who are sleep-deprived are more irritable and less sociable. All too often, their loved ones get the brunt of these grumpy, disengaged moods.

In the study of more than 60 couples done at Berkeley, researchers videotaped the pairs as they worked together to solve problems. The taped exercises were revealing. Participants who were sleep-deprived were less likely to say a simple “thank you” when they got help from their partners than those who were well-rested.

In another study, involving 29 couples and published in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that, especially for women, fighting with a spouse or partner during the day leads to bad sleep the next night.

If your spouse isn’t sleeping well, there are steps you can take to help break the sleepless cycle.

  • Encourage your partner to stick to a regular routine that includes exercise. Research suggests that people who are sedentary and those who keep irregular daily routines are more prone to insomnia.
  • Try to get on the same sleep schedule. Couples often sleep on different schedules. She’s a lark, while he’s a night owl. In a research review published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto reported that such mismatched partners are less satisfied with their marriages than those who turn in at roughly the same time each night.
  • Be aware that a sleepy spouse is likely to be a grumpy and unappreciative one, and try not to take it personally. Just being aware that poor sleep may be behind the bad behavior might keep your partner’s mood from hurting your own sleep.
  • If your relationship is in serious distress, seeking help from a counselor or therapist may help you get more rest at night.
Restless Legs Syndrome

People who have restless legs syndrome, or RLS, say that it’s creepy-crawly, tingling, or pulling sensations bring on an uncontrollable desire to move their legs or arms. Moving relieves the unpleasant feelings, at least for a little while.

But restless legs syndrome, which tends to get worse in the evening, can make getting a good night’s rest difficult for the person who has it and his or her partner. About 80 percent of those with RLS kick their legs. Consequently, they may kick the person they’re sleeping next to.

In addition to poor sleep, there’s another way restless legs syndrome can impact your relationship. Doctors don’t know why, but men with restless legs syndrome are significantly more likely than those who don’t have it to develop erectile dysfunction.

If you’ve got a partner who’s in constant motion at night, encourage him or her to seek medical help. Certain medications and conditions — including iron deficiency, pregnancy, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease — may bring on restless legs syndrome. Relieving the trigger often helps with the constant motion. Your doctor may also prescribe medications that boost dopamine to help relieve the twitching and kicking.

In addition, certain lifestyle changes — including cutting back on caffeine and tobacco, getting regular exercise, massaging the legs, and using a heat or ice pack — can help.

By Brenda Craig