Many of us view relationships in our early twenties as a time to make mistakes and find out what Not to do in the future. However, new research suggests that those early connections may be more important than we think and may have lasting effects “hiding under our skin” affecting our stress levels and how well we sleep many years later.
In a research published today in Personal relationshipsResearchers found that participants who had positive, long-term romantic relationships at age 23 experienced fewer stressful events at age 32, which in turn predicted better sleep quality at age 37.
says lead author, Chloe Hoelsnitz, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Facing fewer stressful events leads to better sleep quality.”
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This research also indicates that it is the relationship itself, not just the skills, that can be beneficial Wendy Troxell, Ph.D., a clinical psychiatrist and sleep researcher who was not involved in this study. “If you are someone who has learned through your history that you can find people who care about you and will be there for you when you need them, that can also provide a very strong barrier to future stresses as well.”
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Relationship effectiveness and how it affects stress and sleep
This prospective study uses data from The Minnesota Longitudinal Risk and Adjustment Study (MLSRA), which from 1975 to 1976 recruited first-time mothers living below the poverty line. The researchers then tracked the mothers’ children and assessed their health, relationships, and social and emotional lives from birth to mid-adulthood. This study uses information collected from 112 individuals born to mothers aged 23, 32 and 37 – all of whom were in relationships at the age of 23.
All subjects were interviewed about their current and recent romantic relationships at ages 23 and 32. Subjects were asked to detail the disagreements – how they started, whether they were resolved, and how they were resolved. Participants described how their partners treated them and how the relationship worked, including what they liked and disliked about the dynamic.
Trained programmers rated each participant on a scale of one to five in “relationship effectiveness” based on the interview. High relationship effectiveness means that a person has positive experiences and constructive participation in relationships; They also have a proven track record of partnerships with mutual care, trust, experience sharing and honesty. Decreased relationship effectiveness is when a person has negative experiences and deals with their partner in a more destructive manner. People with a low effectiveness rating had difficulty initiating or maintaining positive relationships.
The researchers also collected data about participants’ exposure to life stress, measured through a 41-item questionnaire asking about the presence and magnitude of life-changing events such as moving, job changes, health and legal problems, and divorce, as well as the circumstances behind those events. Each stress was rated on a scale of zero to three, ranging from undisturbed to severely disturbed.
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Sleep quality was measured by participants’ self-reports about the quality and duration of sleep. Participants answered the following two questions: “How well do you sleep most nights?” and “How do you feel rested or refreshed when you wake up most mornings?”
We have found that the amount of stress people experience has affected their sleep Qualitybut not their sleep Quantity‘,” says Holsnitz, adding that the researchers were somewhat surprised that stress did not appear to correlate with how long a person sleeps.
The researchers then tested several different hypotheses to compare levels of relationship effectiveness and exposure to stress with a person’s experience of sleep quantity and quality. Each model was tested for how experiences affected sleep, revealing that in all models, relationship effectiveness was negatively related to exposure to stress (meaning the better your relationship was in your twenties, the fewer stressful events you were likely to report after you reached thirties). Across all models, better relationship skills were linked to both better quality and quantity of sleep.
Huelsnitz says this research is a step toward understanding and quantifying the effects a person’s romantic relationships can have on their health. “We know that relationship partners have a significant impact on our well-being, but there is less information about how they affect healthy behaviors such as sleeping, eating and exercising,” she says. “Our relationship with our partner can be very influencing our healthy behaviors,” Huelsnitz says.
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The data provides important insights into a key health factor, with implications for many individuals
Holsnitz explains that because the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation has collected a lot of data spanning many years, it has been a rich resource with which to identify the types of behaviors that affect sleep. She says sleep has become more recognized in the past few years as a critical health behavior. “It has health implications for eating behaviors, mood, aggression, and all sorts of other things. We really wanted to see what determines people’s sleep,” she says.
“The participants’ mothers were below the poverty line, so this is a group of people at risk,” Holsnitz says. When looking at the results, even after accounting for the level of income or the level of education of the mother at the birth of the child, the effects of relationships and stress on sleep still exist. “This indicates to us that the results will be applicable even for people who are not in this risk group,” Huelsnitz says.
What we can learn from the research: Sleep may not be as individualistic as we thought
If there’s a message for boys in their 20s in these findings, it may be the realization that the relationships you have with people and the stress you experience affects your sleep, even years after you’ve had those relationships and experiences, Holsnitz says. “Ideally, people are taking steps now to improve their relationships and reduce their stress,” she says, adding that it remains to be seen what immediate impact these changes might have on a person’s sleep quality.
“We learn beings. We learn based on past associations,” says Dr. Troxell. “This study suggests that relationships may have this cumulative effect on our health. When we have a history of trusting others and feeling supported during times of need, it can affect our health.” How we experience stress and our reactions to it,” she says. Troxell says a history of a strong relationship can have emotional and physiological benefits on stress responses in both sleep and other health outcomes.
She adds that this study is a valuable addition to existing research exploring the social nature of sleep. Science has mostly viewed sleep as an individual behavior, when in reality, the majority of adults sleep with a partner. Sleep is closely related to our social relationships,” she says. “This research suggests that it is not only our current relationship that may matter to our sleep, but that there is also a lasting impact of our relationships on the quality of our sleep.”