8 Relationship Rules of Survival for the Sleep Deprived wife

It’s true what they say – the thing you’re fighting about is not actually "the thing".

Except when it is the thing.

Chronic sleep deprivation can make a couple feel like they have waaaaay more issues than they actually have.

Trust me, I know from experience. Not only have I felt the acute stress on my marriage during both of the newborn phases with our two girls, but I’ve heard the same story over and over again from my clients.

Because the thing is – we aren’t ourselves when we are living on next-to-nothing sleep for weeks and months on end. We become like wild animals, snapping at everything that disturbs our sleep and growling at each other just because they’re there.

While there will always be underlying, deeper issues in our relationships to work on, sleep deprivation can bring out a side to us that is nothing short of ugly.

As a certified baby and toddler sleep consultant, I have yet to meet a couple whose relationship is not being negatively affected by chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep is as essential to our physical and emotional health as food and water, and yet we continue to exist on minimal amounts of sleep for incredibly long periods of time. It’s no wonder that our relationships deteriorate – as important as relationships are, you can’t focus on them when your basic needs are not getting met.

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So how do you survive and come out the other end of this dark tunnel with your relationship in tact?

Follow these rules for relationship survival, and you'll be on the other side of this before you know it!

1. Nothing counts between 11pm-7am.

No season of your marriage needs more grace than when you’re in the sleep deprived years of parenting young children. The same concept holds true day-to-day: There are certain hours each day where we need an extra heap of grace and understanding.  Give each other a pass during those hours where we are feeling the sleep deprivation most acutely – typically between 11pm-7am. This is when our circadian rhythm and homeostatic drive are putting the most sleep pressure on our bodies, making our need for sleep feel even more desperate. Understanding that the impatient comment my spouse just made towards me isn’t really him talking, it’s the sleep deprivation – can really help me be more gracious. Not that this gives us a pass to treat each other however we feel during these hours – we should all still be trying our best to be respectful and loving – but just recognizing these hours as the hardest can help.

 

2. Take turns.

If both parents are up all night and working all week, take turns letting the other parent sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Recouping sleep debt that is accrued throughout the week is really vital to your physical health. Though it’s normally important for your circadian rhythms to be on a consistent schedule (meaning don't sleep in all weekend), paying back sleep debt takes priority over a consistent schedule. It’s not always possible to switch off on night-duty (like with an exclusively breastfed baby who doesn't take a bottle), but wherever you can set up expectations that you're sharing in this as much as possible, the burden will feel a little bit lighter. This will probably mean having a very honest conversation with your hubbs or significant other about how much you're actually doing, and how he can better support you. Often, they really don't have a firm grasp on all the emotional and physical realities you're dealing with, and they're definitely not experiencing all the physical post-partem symptoms that you are. Instead of holding this against them, calmly and kindly communicate  with them about it.

 

3. Don’t give up on the bottle.

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Bottles are absolutely necessary for moms who are going back to work, but for stay-at-home moms, bottles aren’t so vital, so it can be easy to skip this process, or give up on it if it isn’t going well. But once you hit that 6-8 week window, or even earlier if breastfeeding is going well, you can and should introduce a bottle. It’s easy to give up on, since everyone is already exhausted, and no one wants to deal with a hungry baby who refuses the bottle. This is where dads need to step up and persevere - it will pay dividends! Once your baby will reliably take a bottle, you'll better be able to share the load, and it will give you the opportunity to get a stretch of sleep at night, and even to get out of the house alone for some self-care – or together for a date night! 

 

4. Set aside time together.

It’s easy to let this slide during the crazy newborn months, but neglecting time together can easily become a habit that lasts long past the newborn stage if you're not careful. This lack of dedicated time together can really start chipping away at your connection. But, once your baby is taking a bottle, this gives you a chance to escape! :) Even if it’s just an hour out at the coffee shop, or a 20 minute walk around the block, commit to making time to talk, hold hands, and look each other in the eye, without kids around.

 

5. Don’t judge your relationship while sleep deprived.

...if you can step back and realize it’s the sleep-deprivation intensifying those negative feelings, and not really how “bad” your spouse is, it can help you endure and live to fight another day...

Everything feels worse when you’re sleep deprived. In fact, research has shown that literally. Our pain tolerance levels go down significantly when we are sleep deprived. Stress from every day life can feel like an impossible mountain to climb, and things that used to only slightly irritate you are now huge sources of conflict. So the next time your husband says, 'I'm so tired" after you spent the whole night listening to him snore while nursing a baby, take a step back from the negative feelings, and remind yourself that the actual offense of that comment is probably not worthy of the death-kill daggers you're aiming directly at him. It's hard not to react, but if you can step back and realize it's the sleep-deprivation intensifying those feelings, and not really how "bad" your spouse is, it can help you endure and live to fight another day.

 

6. Communicate how tired you are.

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This might seem obvious, but I’ve counseled with a number of women whose husbands have no idea the degree to which their wife is suffering. Sometimes, they legitimately think their wife is getting enough sleep because they don’t realize how many times she got up the night before. Don’t expect your significant other to have tracked your sleep patterns all night, especially if you’re the one responsible for feeding the baby most of the night. It’s amazing what they can sleep through! And if he's anything like my husband, he probably won't notice the bags under your eyes or that you haven't showered for days. A brief but honest conversation starting with something like, “I just need you to understand what I’m going through each night and how it’s affecting me”, can be the first step to getting on the same page. Then ask directly for what you need him to do - spell it out - so that he can support you better! Most guys really do want to be supportive, but can benefit from some more specific requests (asked with kindness and respect, of course!)

 

7. Fix the sleep problem.

Yes, you are a parent so, yes, you will be tired for the next 18-20 years, but tired because you can’t sleep in until 10am on Saturdays anymore is different than “tired” because you haven’t had a chunk of sleep longer than 3 hours in more than 3 months. No matter what you’ve been told about sleep deprivation being “normal” or that sleep training is “evil”, if your marriage and health or other areas are suffering, it’s time to do something about it. I specialize in creating personalized plans that my clients are comfortable with, that fit their parenting style and philosophy, so that you can make the changes that you need and keep your parenting philosophy in tact. I also get my clients rapid results, so that you can start sleeping long chunks again in a matter of days. 

 8. Get marriage counseling.

It may turn out that sleep deprivation is highlighting some deeper problems that won’t be fixed by just getting more sleep. If you’re still struggling, even after everyone is well-rested again, you’re not alone. Check out my resources page for referrals to awesome marriage counselors that can work with people all over the US.

Lindsey McGonegal