How do inaccurate perceptions of our partners’ sleep affect our relationship?
Many of us have surely heard of the notorious sleep-deprived couples who have just welcomed a baby into their family. The transition of a couple to parenthood – especially if we’re talking about first-time parents – is said to be a potential cause of conflict and decreased satisfaction within a relationship. Parents can get irritated and have mood swings during the day, but they may also experience daytime fatigue or even anxiety and depression.
It’s not difficult to see why this happens if we’re thinking about babies waking up 2-3 times a night asking to be fed or changed. Babies also have shorter sleep cycles than toddlers or adults, which makes it even more challenging to synchronize with parents’ 7 to 8 hours per night normal sleep routine. Moreover, the problem may not be only short-term, as we may think. A recent study conducted on over 4000 men and women concluded that sleep satisfaction and duration may not fully recover for up to 6 years after the birth of their first child.
Alas, there are several things you and your partner can do that may help improve your relationship overall during the difficult times of first-time parenthood. An important step would be, for example, to have an accurate perception and understanding of how our partners feel and how well they sleep. Research tells us that “accurate perception of partner’s state may be interpreted by that partner as a subtle form of support, which is known to be the most effective kind of support”.
How does that work?
As we have seen earlier, new parents tend to be sleep-deprived, which in turn tends to decrease their cognitive abilities. They may not be able to judge or assess things in their environment as usual or not pay as much attention to each other as before, since most of their efforts are focused on the newborn baby. This makes it easy for parents to misjudge how well or poorly the other has slept during the night, with both women and men tending to have inaccurate perceptions of their partners’ sleep, relationship satisfaction and mood disturbances. This might lead to accusations such as ‘You never wake up to tend to the baby during the night!’ which can cause conflict inside the relationship and further affect the two already tired and irritated partners.
What is there to be done?
- Double-checking with your partner to make sure you understand how they actually feel, might help. Instead of assuming that, just because you don’t remember seeing them get up during the night, it means that they actually did not, you could ask them ‘How did you sleep last night? Did the baby wake you up?’. You might even be surprised at how you both misinterpreted things and argued for nothing!
- Showing empathy and validating their emotions. Even though you might feel tired and annoyed after having barely slept on and off for 5 hours, take a moment to reflect that both you and your partner are in the same boat. Showing an understanding of their struggle and comforting each other will help dissipate the conflict and remind you that you’re in this together and that taking care of a newborn requires a lot of teamwork.
All in all, the first few months of taking care of a newborn will eventually pass, however conflicts within your relationship may have a long-term impact. Therefore, communicate with your partner and remember that you’re both on the same side!
If you think you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Alexandra Trașcă is an intern with Willingness and an undergraduate Psychology student at
Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania.
Authors, A. S. A., Reviewers, R. P. at A. S. A., physicians, W. sleep M. D., scientists, editors, & ASA. (n.d.). Sleep Deprivation for New Parents. American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/children-and-sleep/sleep-deprivation-for-new-parents/
Insana, S. P., Costello, C. R., & Montgomery-Downs, H. E. (2011). Perception of Partner Sleep and Mood: Postpartum Couples’ Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 37(5), 428–440. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623x.2011.607053
Richter, D., Krämer, M. D., Tang, N. K. Y., Montgomery-Downs, H. E., & Lemola, S. (2019). Long-term effects of pregnancy and childbirth on sleep satisfaction and duration of first-time and experienced mothers and fathers. Sleep, 42(4). https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz015