Health & Wellness

Sleepy? You're taking a health risk if you fight with your spouse

That fight you had with your spouse after another night of too little sleep could set you up for big health problems down the road — unless you argue in a kind, compassionate way.

When both partners sleep less, they’re more likely to become hostile; if they then fight, they’re more vulnerable to stress-related inflammation than well-rested couples, a recent study has found. Co-author Stephanie Wilson called it “the sinister side of inflammation” — the kind that can wreck a body over time.

“Interpersonal stressors, including marital disagreement, are very potent,” Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told TODAY.

When it comes to slumber, “one person’s sleep problems are the other person’s sleep problems if they’re in the same bed. These things can create a vicious cycle… that can set them up for health risks down the road.”

Those risks include chronic illnesses, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, all of which bear the hallmark of heightened inflammation.

But couples who quarrel in a nice way — by expressing emotions and trying to understand the other person’s point of view — don’t experience that higher inflammatory response, even if they don’t get enough sleep, Wilson said.

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Author reveals secrets of lasting marriage: 'Underreacting to problems'

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Author reveals secrets of lasting marriage: 'Underreacting to problems'

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'Primed to fight'

For the study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, the researchers recruited 43 healthy couples married for at least three years. Each couple completed an “inventory” of their big marital problems, such as money, in-laws or other issues.

For two days in a row, the couples came to a research center in the morning where they described how long and well they slept, and were asked to try to work out the biggest conflicts on their inventory. They were essentially “primed to fight,” Wilson said.

During the discussions, researchers looked for signs of trouble — hostility, withdrawal and contempt — as well as positive communication — humor, active listening and expressions of concern.

Each spouse’s blood was taken before and after each session to measure their markers of inflammation.

The results: People who slept fewer hours had higher inflammatory responses after a marital conflict than those who slept more.

But couples were protected from the unhealthy inflammation flare as long as their arguments didn’t get nasty. The big lesson: Find good ways to resolve conflict and get some sleep, said co-author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep a night, according to the CDC, but almost half of the people in the study fell below that threshold.

How to fight 'nice'

The best way for couples to fight in a healthy way is to slow down by trying to see one another's point of view, said Jeffrey Bernstein, a psychologist in Exton, Pennsylvania, and author of “Why Can't You Read My Mind?”

“Understanding one another is just as important, if not more crucial, than love,” Bernstein said. “In almost 30 years in doing marriage counseling, I've never seen a spouse complain that their partner is giving them too much empathy.”

Marital conflict is the No. 1 stressor for most patients he sees and electronic devices are wreaking havoc on their relationships, including their sleep, Bernstein said.

If you’re frustrated by your spouse staying up late with a phone ...

Or if your partner seems more engaged with it more than with you in bed, have empathy and express your concern in a non-accusatory manner, he advised.

Some couples, like Jo Piazza, author of “How To Be Married,” and her husband, simply ban all screens from their bedroom. They don’t even charge them near their bed, but in the living room. "It's made a huge difference," she said.

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