Tools for Couples Happiness — 12 July 2009
The relationship between sleep and love is close

We all know that we need sleep to function well. Yet, when we are not functioning well and are emotionally upset or intellectually puzzled, our sleep is disturbed. This cycle of being deprived of sleep, which can calm and invigorate us, is extremely frustrating. It leads some people to create another stressful cycle of resorting to medications to induce sleep for relief of painful and troubled emotions and ending up with additional complicating medical outcomes.

Even though scientists have not fully explained the causes and physiological processes occurring during sleep, some aspects of sleep are very clear.

Ronald M. Dahl, in “The Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Adolescents Links Between Sleep and Emotional Regulation” underscores the need for sleep: “Sleep is essential for basic survival, occurring in every species of living creature that has ever been studied. Animals deprived of sleep die.”

To accomplish this survival instinct, both animals and humans create both a physical and social safe environment to facilitate sleep. Dr. Dahl, “In the human ancestral environment, the main protection against predators was a close-knit social group. The human brain evolved under conditions that made this sense of social belonging and social connectedness the basis for feelings of relative safety. Natural tendencies in the human brain continue to reflect these links, so that fears of social rejection can evoke powerful feelings of threat and so lead to sleep disruption, while feelings of love, caring, and social connection create a feeling of safety and so promote sleep.“

This pointedly explains why when we are troubled about interpersonal issues we may have difficulties sleeping. Decisions also may keep us awake due to the uncertainty of outcome, survival implications and emotional stress.

Couples in relationship distress often report both being sleep-deprived at night and being ineffective in their daytime functioning and choices. This syndrome can be summarized: “When I am not loved I can’t sleep and when I can’t sleep I become unlovable.” A famous advice for newlyweds is “don’t go to bed mad”. This old adage may actually have great merit. Pairs, who can make up and/or resolve their difference before bedtime, may feel calmer and better able to sleep and function better the next day.

During sleep, it is believed that through dreaming our subconscious helps us resolve some of our daily woes. Trained therapists in dream analysis are able to help clients understand the meaning of the images and symbols of what they often term as their “weird dreams”.

To allow yourself to sleep, dream and resolve hard personal problems:

• Develop with your partner a short loving ritual of a hug, kiss, tender touch, and/or sweet words of love prior to sleep.
• Resolve hurt feelings by bedtime. If you need to postpone it to the next day, be positive: “I am sorry you are upset and I am available to you. I know we can solve this issue tomorrow”. Be sure to follow up the next day.
• Use relaxing techniques to calm yourself prior to sleep: hot bath, enjoyable reading, your favorite music, or a conversation with a happy, positive friend.
• Avoid watching agitating news, violent movies, frustrating bills, or any other endeavor that you know negatively arouses you before bedtime.
• Avoid conversations with each other that create unhappy emotions – even if they are not a source of conflict between you.
• Avoid getting angry, watching the clock and tossing and turning when sleep eludes you. Get up and select a calming technique such as warm milk or amusing jokes to distract and relax you.
• Keep a pad and pencil by your bedside to record your dreams their clues may refresh you the next day.
• Consider sleep as a sensitive friend who comes to visit and needs to be treated delicately. Invite it to help you resolve issues lovingly.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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