Observed Relationship Behaviors and Sleep in Military Veterans and Their Partners

Published in: Annals of Behavioral Medicine [Epub May 2017]. doi:10.1007/s12160-017-9911-3

Posted on RAND.org on June 01, 2017

by Jennifer Fillo, Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Amy Soo Jin DeSantis, Anne Germain, Daniel J. Buysse, Karen A. Matthews, Wendy M. Troxel

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Research Question

  1. Does the nature of interactions among couples affect sleep quality?


Emerging research has begun to examine associations between relationship functioning and sleep. However, these studies have largely relied on self-reported evaluations of relationships and/or of sleep, which may be vulnerable to bias.


The purpose of the study was to examine associations between relationship functioning and sleep in military couples. This is the first research to examine associations between observed relationship behaviors and subjective and polysomnographically measured sleep in a sample at-risk for both sleep and relationship problems.


The sample included 35 military veterans and their spouses/partners. Marital functioning was coded from a videotaped conflict interaction. Analyses focused on behavioral codes of hostility and relationship-enhancing attributions. Sleep was assessed via self-report and in-home polysomnography.


Greater hostility was associated with poorer sleep efficiency for oneself (b = −0.195, p = .013). In contrast, greater relationship-enhancing attributions were associated with higher percentages of stage N3 sleep (b = 0.239, p = .028). Partners' hostility was also positively associated with higher percentages of stage N3 sleep (b = 0.272, p = .010). Neither hostility nor relationship-enhancing attributions was associated with self-reported sleep quality, percentage of REM sleep, or total sleep time.


Both partners' positive and negative behaviors during conflict interactions were related to sleep quality. These findings highlight the role that effective communication and conflict resolution skills may play in shaping not only the marital health of veterans and their spouses but also the physical health of both partners as well. Understanding the links between relationship functioning and sleep may be important targets of intervention in the aftermath of war.

Key Findings

  • Individuals who displayed greater hostility in the study’s conflict situation had poorer sleep efficiency, but, unexpectedly, their partners obtained more restorative sleep.
  • Partners who displayed positive behaviors had a greater amount of restorative sleep.
  • Gender differences were not observed in the associations between behavior and sleep quality.
  • Inferences of causality or directionality of the associations cannot be made from this study.
  • Better understanding of the links between relationship functioning and sleep could lead to targeted interventions.

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