They say to “never go to bed angry,” but dealing with conflict while sleep-deprived can be a recipe for disaster.
Tired couples may find themselves arguing more than when they are well-rested. One reason for this is that sleep deprivation not only makes your body feel less vibrant, it also affects the way that you think. The effects are more than the typical neural slow-down. It’s not just that a tired person won’t be able to make a quick rebuttal. The danger lies in the fact that the brains of sleep-deprived people work differently.
If two people begin in an argument in a state of sleep-deprivation, it may be more challenging than usual to find a solution.
This finding won’t come as a surprise to the chronically tired, who may struggle not to snap at people. However, both well-rested and sleep-deprived people seem to respond to major stressors similarly. The difference between the two lies in the minor stressors. Sleep-deprived people get more stressed, angry and frustrated by the little things. This finding implies that tired people are more likely to start an argument over a minor issue, like leaving the toilet seat in the wrong position. It may be hard to argue rationally with a sleep-deprived person who is easily stressed by minor issues.
Being able to listen and respond to your spouse is a crucial part of concluding an argument. However, sleep-deprived people may struggle to read facial expressions. A small study had 54 people classify different expressions that were a blend of emotions, such as 30% surprise and 70% disgust. When they were sleep deprived, the participants had decreased accuracy in determining emotions. They were especially poor at differentiating between happiness and sadness, which are associated with complex intersocial interactions.
Sleepy people may struggle to understand what their partner is feeling when they are talking. They can even mistake sadness for happiness, which easily leads to miscommunication.
Tired people also struggle to step into their partners’ shoes and see things from their perspective. A small group of 37 volunteers was asked to complete the Multifaceted Empathy Test, which uses photos and question to gauge the respondents’ ability to empathize emotionally. Prior research also tested other aspects of empathy. Multiple studies have demonstrated that sleep-deprived people don’t empathize as well as well-rested counterparts.
A tired partner who is unable to see their spouse’s position may be a source of frustration for the other partner in an argument.
A partner who is irritable and doesn’t seem to understand their spouse’s feelings may just be tired. Rather than arguing, it may be better to wait until both parties are well-rested. Although the stress may make you grind your teeth at night, a more productive discussion may be possible in the morning.