Don't Let 'Springing Forward' Set You Back in Your Relationship


Mar 10, 2021

Young Black couple asleep in bed, photo by Eva-Katalin/Getty Images

Photo by Eva-Katalin/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Psychology Today on March 9, 2021.

Once a year, in late fall, most of us get to experience that one delicious morning when the clock shifts backward. It gives us one more glorious hour to sleep in, to take more time getting out the door, or to perhaps just stay in bed and connect with the person we love. Whatever we choose to do, or not do, with that hour is fine. That one time a year we each have permission, etched in law, to get one more precious hour of sleep—and boy, does that feel good.

But for how lovely and liberating that extra hour feels, it in no way makes up for the jolt to the system we receive in late winter, when the clock springs forward and daylight saving time (DST) begins. This year, DST hits on March 14, and unless you live in one of the few places that skip it (like Arizona), you are probably about to experience the annual ritual of dragging yourself out of bed and slogging through the day on an hour less sleep than you usually get (which, for 1 out of 3 adults, is already too little).

This ritual continues despite strong scientific evidence suggesting the harmful consequences of springing forward, including an increase in heart attacks, medical errors, and car crashes in the days immediately following DST. Such consequences have led prominent medical and professional organizations, including the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, to recommend the abolishment of DST, and a switch to permanent standard time.

Many of the original justifications for DST, including potential energy savings or benefits to public safety, have simply not been borne out by the evidence. In contrast, there is strong evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of springing forward, with the resulting loss in sleep and disruption to our internal biological clocks or circadian rhythms. But even when the case for abolishing DST seems so clear, change is hard to come by, and many states are considering switching to permanent DST, despite the scientific argument against it. This, to me, unfortunately speaks to our unrelenting cultural tendency to minimize the importance of sleep—a fundamental biological need.

It is important that you do everything you can to minimize the negative effects of DST. In addition to those serious health and safety consequences, lack of sleep can also have a profound impact on your closest relationships. As I describe in my book, Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep, science shows us that when we are sleep-deprived, we are more irritable, more prone to conflict, our communication skills suffer, and we are less empathic—all critical building blocks of healthy relationships.

I'm not suggesting DST is going to ruin your marriage, but it sure doesn't help. So, here are five tips to help you protect the health of your body, and that of your relationship, as you and your partner weather the storm of DST together.

1. Prioritize Sleep

You should always prioritize sleep, but it's even more important to do so as DST approaches. Make sleep non-negotiable in the days leading up to DST. Don't go into DST already sleep-deprived. For most adults, this means allowing for 7–9 hours of sleep per night. The last thing you want to do is head into DST already sleep-deprived.

2. Ease into It

Try to back up your schedule in small (15-minute increments) several days before DST hits. It's difficult for our circadian rhythms to make big shifts (i.e., an hour) in our sleep-wake schedules. Small increments in advance of DST will make it easier to adjust. If you're like a lot of people, COVID-19 caused you to shift your bedtime a lot later than usual, so this can also be an opportunity to walk back your bedtime to an hour that better suits your natural sleep patterns.

3. Get the Light Right

Sunlight has a powerful influence on our circadian rhythms and can help us feel more awake during the day. Get outside as much as possible during the daytime, especially morning hours. At night, though, keep the lights in your home low. If possible, it might help to use shades or curtains in bedrooms as it will be lighter at bedtime.

4. Embrace Differences

DST can be particularly difficult for people who are natural night owls because it is especially difficult to go to bed earlier. This can be problematic among couples who have different sleep-wake rhythms (i.e., when a morning lark and evening owl share the same nest). Recognize that you and your partner may have different sleep-wake schedules and that it may take a bit more time for the night owl to adjust to the new, earlier schedule. Then, cut each other some slack. Having such recognition and acceptance can go a long way towards minimizing resentment and strife in the relationship.

5. Put a Name on It

If you or your partner is a bit on edge in the days following DST, it can sometimes help to just name behavior. What you're feeling is “slangry” (sleepy+angry). It's the sleep equivalent of “hangry” (hungry+angry). Sometimes being able to label the behavior as something temporary and attributable to sleep loss can give couples a short-term pass for not being on their best behavior. It's no excuse for chronic bad behavior, but sometimes we need just a little forgiveness for not being our best.

Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and licensed clinical psychologist. She is internationally recognized as the leading authority on couples and sleep and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep.”