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By Kelly Gonsalvez
Anyone who has ever slept next to a partner knows being part of a unit can affect how well you sleep—from dealing with the other person’s weird tossing and turning all night to battling for your fair share of the blanket to trying to get some shut-eye when you’re still halfway through a fight with the person lying next to you and you can’t stop thinking about it.
Past research has shown your relationship can affect your sleep, but a new study published in the Personal Relationships journal has now found an even deeper connection between your love life and sleep: Apparently having a history of stressful relationships may make you more likely to have poorer sleep quality.
Researchers analyzed existing data that had been collected on over 260 people born in the mid-1970s regularly from the time they were born until mid-adulthood. These participants were asked questions about their lives periodically, including being surveyed and interviewed about their recent romantic relationships, experiences with stress, and sleep quality. Analyzing these people’s responses between ages 23 and 37, the researchers discovered a trend: People who’d had better relationships during their early adult years dealt with fewer and less disruptive stressful life experiences at age 32, and that led to having better sleep quality at age 37. That was true regardless of depression status, gender, ethnicity, income, education, and even how much stress people currently had at age 37.
In other words, having a history of good relationships as a young adult—that is, stable long-term relationships where there’s mutual care, trust, emotional closeness, and sensitivity to each other’s needs and where conflicts are resolved in a healthy and satisfying way—tended to lead to less stressful experiences throughout adulthood, which in turn led to better sleep over time.
It’s understandable why stressful life experiences (like job changes, health issues, legal battles, and interpersonal conflicts) would take their toll on a person’s sleep quality; a lot of past research has shown that having a lot of stress can seriously disrupt your sleep. But why might having a better love life lead to having fewer of these types of seemingly unrelated tough life events, or at least having them be less stressful?
“One explanation is that people who possess the interpersonal competencies necessary to maintain relationships marked by mutual caring, trust, conflict resolution, and other positive characteristics are also more likely to have other traits that may mitigate their exposure to and reduce the severity of those stressors when they occur,” the researchers write in the paper. “For instance, people who score high in romantic relationship effectiveness may be more likely to demonstrate caring and responsiveness in other types of relationships (e.g., with family or co-workers), which might reduce exposure to conflict. Moreover, when stressful events due to uncontrollable sources are encountered (e.g., unemployment, death of a family member), people high in relationship effectiveness may also be more likely to possess intrapersonal and interpersonal resources, allowing them to cope better with the stressful life event and reduce its severity.”
So people who are good at romantic love are probably good at dealing with people in other parts of their life, and those skills and emotional experiences set them up to either avoid stressful occasions or deal with them well when they occur.
“Cues of social belongingness and emotional security can facilitate a sense of protection that down-regulates stress reactivity and promotes better sleep,” the researchers explain. “Given that romantic relationships are an especially potent source of social belongingness and emotional security in adulthood, one’s experiences, tendencies, and engagement in his or her romantic relationships should have a particularly strong impact on sleep patterns.”
This is all pretty hard news to hear for anyone who feels like they’ve had a pretty unlucky love life thus far. But don’t worry: The point here isn’t that if romance isn’t the easiest for you, you’re doomed to a life of stress and bad sleep. Rather, this study simply reinforces one of the most important benefits of being in a relationship: being able to learn about how to communicate better, navigate conflicts, take care of another person, and take care of yourself. Relationships are far less about validating your worth as much as they are about learning how to become a better human being.
The good news? You can totally do that without a partner, too. Romantic relationships happen to be a great place to learn those lessons, but so are so many other parts of our social lives—our family relationships, our friendships, our professional connections, and more.
If your sleep and mental health are important to you, then your social relationships should be too. Interfacing with other people is pivotal not only to learning how to deal with stress and conflict but also to having a support system in place during all those bad times. That stability seems to be the real key to being able to have a secure, peaceful night’s sleep over time.