THE BLOG

Eh!? Who needs sleep?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who needs sleep when you can stay up all night glaring at your partner saying to yourself, "I think I've made the biggest mistake being in this relationship...and now I'm trapped!"

This unfortunately is not an unusual occurrence in contemporary marriage. In conducting marriage and couples therapy for more than twenty five years I have found a very high percentage of couples where following an unresolved argument (in which both backed down before they said those cruel things that are difficult to take back) one partner lapses into a near coma of avoidance while the other tosses and turns alternating between glaring at their sleeping partner and staring into the darkness thinking to themselves, "What am I doing here?"

And then as the hours go on and on and on until about 5 AM and the wild-eyed partner thinks, "That's it, it's over" he or she finally falls asleep only to wake up in a couple hours and have the new dawn tell them, "I guess it's not so awful, just get up and start the day." (If this speaks to you check out my unfinished novella: "A Day in the Life of a Marriage."

What's going on here? My colleagues Morrie and Arleah Shechtman, authors of Love in the Present Tense: How to Have a High Intimacy, Low Maintenance Marriage (Bull Publishing, $14.95) have put their finger on it when they say, it's just another case of "conflict avoidance."

I spoke with Morrie a while back, and he shared one of the most amazing insights about this phenomenon with me. He said that people avoid conflict because they are afraid of admitting, to themselves and to others, how disappointed they are. It's as if they fear that admitting how disappointed they feel would push them into a corner where upon admitting it, they'd have to leave a job, end a marriage, stop loving a child or - maybe if it was aimed at themselves about all their bad choices - end their life.

Instead of admitting their emotions, they resort to one or both of two ways of avoiding them. They either shut down (as the sleeping partner does) or they become enraged (as the partner who stays awake all night becomes).

And the solution? Morrie and Arleah will tell you to call it what it is, i.e. "deep painful disappointment" and then just feel it, let it peak and subside (which it will if you just experience it).

There is a lot of neuroscience research to explain this phenomenon coming from the laboratory of Matt Lieberman, PhD, head of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. Matt said that if you apply "affective labeling" which means attaching the correct word to an emotion you are having, it lowers amygdala activation significantly.

The amygdala is the emotional "tipping point" region of the brain which when it becomes overloaded can "hijack" your brain away from thinking your way rationally through a situation you are in and finding and effective solution and throws you into your more primitive reflexes.

In the case of "grumpy" and "sleepy" above, their amygdalae hijacked them to fight (seethe with rage through the night) and flight (fall into a conflict avoidant coma) respectively.

All this talk about conflict is making me sleepy, so if you'll excuse me, I'll just take a nap.