A 5-month study of recently-separated adults revealed that participants who spent more time with their ex-partner tended to have decreased sleep efficiency. However, participants who had lower sleep efficiency were not more likely to spend more time with their ex-partner in the future. Individuals with higher attachment anxiety and who watched television more also tended to have decreased sleep efficiency. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For most individuals, divorce from their marital partner is a significant life upheaval with great potential to undermine psychological wellbeing and physical health. Studies have linked the experience of divorce with an increased risk of early death and a whole range of adverse health outcomes.
One of the functions adversely affected by divorce is sleep. Disturbed sleep may be an important factor linking the end of marriage with negative health outcomes. Divorcees reporting ongoing sleep disturbances that persisted 10 weeks or more after physical separation from their partner are more likely to have increased blood pressure. Additionally, people with sleep problems are more likely to experience negative emotions. This is particularly the case with people who experience high degrees of interpersonal conflict, a type of conflict that is practically the hallmark of a divorce process.
Study author Andrea M. Coppola and her colleagues wanted to examine the changes in sleep efficiency in the 5 months following divorce. Sleep efficiency is a measure of how effectively a person’s time spent in bed results in actual sleep. It is calculated as the ratio of total time spent asleep and the total time spent in bed, usually expressed as a percentage. Study authors expected that sleep efficiency of study participants will improve with time after divorce. Their second expectation was that contact with ex-partner would be associated with sleep efficiency.
The participants were 122 recently separated or divorced adults between 24 and 65 years of age. Participants were married for 13 years on average and were separated for 4 months, on average, at the start of the study. 62% of participants were White, 22% were Hispanic.
The researchers conducted assessments three times for a week over a period of 5 months. At each assessment period, participants were asked to wear an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) during one weekend, and an actiwatch at night for 7 days.
Actiwatch is a type of actigraph, a device that monitors and records a person’s movement and activity levels. The study authors used them to assess the sleep properties of participants. The EAR operates through a smartphone app and is designed to capture brief snippets of ambient sounds intermittently throughout the course of the day. It allows researchers to objectively determine what the participant is doing on a daily basis. Researchers can then examine whether these activities are associated with sleep quality.
For this study, the researchers examined EAR data to determine how much time the participant spent with the ex-partner and how much time he/she spent watching television. Watching television is considered a potential marker of social disengagement. Research data suggests that it may have a causal role in the emergence of depression.
Additionally, participants completed assessments of emotional attachment orientations (the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale – Short Form) and separation-related psychological distress (4 assessments – Beck Depression Inventory, Impact of Events Scale, Loss-of-Self/Rediscovery-of-Self, and the Inventory of Complicated Grief).
Results showed that, contrary to study authors’ expectations, sleep efficiency did not change across the 5-month study period. Mean sleep efficiency was 82% across all time points. However, contact with the ex-partner was substantially associated with sleep efficiency. Participants who spent more time with the ex-partner following separation had lower overall sleep efficiency.
Looking at each individual separately, time spent with the ex-partner on a specific day was not associated with sleep efficiency, but participants who generally spent less time with the ex-partner tended to generally have more efficient sleep than those who spent more time.
Comparing different time points, result showed that time spent with the ex-partner predicted poorer sleep efficiency, but poor sleep efficiency did not predict more contact with the ex-partner. This means that it is more likely that contact with the ex-partner reduces sleep efficiency, than that poor sleep efficiency makes individuals more likely to spend time with the ex-partner.
Participants with higher levels of attachment anxiety and those who spent more time watching television tended to have lower sleep efficiency. However, time spent with television on was associated with poorer sleep efficiency only at the second and third time point.
“We showed that naturalistically-observed daily social behaviors, especially contact with an ex-partner, are associated with lower sleep efficiency. Additionally, attachment anxiety and time spent watching television are inversely associated with sleep efficiency. These findings highlight the influence of social relationships on health behaviors and suggest potential intervention targets for adults recovering from the end of a marriage,” the study authors concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of psychological processes happening when a person experiences divorce. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, EAR device data did not allow researchers to differentiate whether a person is actively watching television or is just in a room where a television set is on. Additionally, most participants were included in the study some months after divorce. Results might not have been the same if the study started immediately after the separation.
The paper, “Sleep Efficiency and Naturalistically-Observed Social Behavior Following Marital Separation: The Critical Role of Contact With an Ex-Partner”, was authored by Andrea M. Coppola, Matthias R. Mehl, Allison M. Tackman, Spencer C. Dawson, Karey L. O’Hara, and David A. Sbarra.