Sleep Deprivation Is the Subtle Abuse Tactic You Didn't Expect

Having trouble falling or staying asleep is pretty common. In fact, it's estimated to affect more than 50 million people in the United States. But if ongoing sleep issues stem from a manipulative partner and you're chronically exhausted, you may be experiencing sleep deprivation as a subtle abuse tactic.

Unlike other forms of abuse, sleep deprivation can be easy to overlook, says Deborah Gilman, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in adults and families impacted by trauma. "In these cases, sleep deprivation is being used as a form of control and manipulation within the intimate relationship," she says. "The abusers disregard their partner's need for rest and use disruptions in sleep patterns to assert dominance."

Laura (whose name has been changed at the request of the interviewee) was unaware of her partner-inflicted sleep deprivation for years. Her husband's late-night disruptions became routine and she became accustomed to getting only three to four hours of sleep a night. "I came from a really happy upbringing with rose-colored glasses, but when I got married, I found myself in this web of doing everything because it was expected of me," she says. "I can't tell you how many times I would go to sleep and my husband would wake me up at 4 a.m. because he couldn't find his wallet or keys or needed me to do laundry because he needed clean socks or underwear."

Sleep deprivation as an abuse tactic has also been bubbling up on TikTok, sparking conversations with people who've dealt with it, as well as mental health professionals who've spotted it in clients. "Abuse and coercive control can be found in all relationships and abusers can be women or men and can occur in same-sex or non-romantic types of relationships," says Victoria Latifses, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and trauma specialist. "Abuse happens on a spectrum."

Ahead, POPSUGAR talked with experts to break down what you need to know about sleep deprivation as an abuse tactic, including what it looks like, how to spot the signs, and when to seek help.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

As the name implies, sleep deprivation occurs when you aren't sleeping enough, or when you aren't getting good, quality sleep, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "Enough sleep" is subjective, but most adults consistently need at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Typical signs of sleep deprivation include daytime drowsiness, repeated yawning, reduced cognitive function, mood and memory impairment, and visual sensitivity, adds Michelle Rose, PhD, a clinical mental health professional at University of Western States.

After all, sleep is regenerative and allows for optimal brain and bodily functions, says Dr. Rose. "Good sleep reduces the likelihood of heart disease and high blood pressure, mood disorders, and visual discomfort, and is correlated with healthier romantic partnerships, improved social and career functioning, and familial relationships," she explains. Adequate sleep also reduces stress, boosts mental sharpness and problem-solving abilities, and supports mood regulation, Dr. Gilman adds.

How Is Sleep Deprivation an Abuse Tactic?

Abuse occurs when relationship conflict is managed with physical or psychological aggression, Dr. Rose says. To get more specific, subtle abuse tactics are manipulative behaviors that are often covert and disguised within seemingly normal interactions, Dr. Gilman adds. "These tactics are used to control, manipulate, or undermine someone's confidence, sense of self-worth, or independence," she explains.

Unlike physical abuse, the effects of sleep deprivation may not manifest as visible bruises or injuries, making it less conspicuous and therefore easier to dismiss, says Dr. Gilman. "Sleep deprivation is a form of subtle abuse when it's employed as a means of control or manipulation within a relationship, and abusers may employ subtle tactics to disrupt sleep without overtly acknowledging their intentions," she explains. "The repercussions of sleep deprivation accumulate over time and the more you're deprived of sleep, the more significant the toll it can take on your life."

Laura saw these long-term effects firsthand when at 45 she found herself in the hospital thinking she was having a heart attack. The doctors realized her blood pressure was through the roof due to stress and a severe lack of sleep. "I wasn't going to bed until 2 a.m. and I was definitely up by 6 a.m., and what happened between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m wasn't always sleep," she tells POPSUGAR.

What Does Sleep Deprivation as an Abuse Tactic Look Like?

Sleep deprivation can take a variety of forms, but the following scenarios are common abuse tactics that may camouflage into regular interactions, according to Dr. Gilman.

  • The Deceptive Routine: At first glance, late-night conversations or activities might seem innocuous, but these habitual late nights can slowly morph into a tool for control, disrupting the natural sleep cycle, explains Dr. Gilman.
  • The Nocturnal Disturbances: It's normal for screens to creep into the bedroom, but Dr. Gilman says constant scrolling through a phone or laptop or turning on the lights can become disruptive, ultimately hindering the tranquility necessary for a restful night. This can also include behaviors like intentionally tossing and turning or aggressively pulling off the covers, Dr. Rose adds.
  • The Emotional Entanglement: If conversations take a turn and constantly veer into emotionally charged territory as bedtime approaches, this is a red flag, Dr. Gilman says. "What seems like heartfelt discussions can be a guise for coercion, making it difficult to disengage and rest," she explains. This also includes your partner demanding a resolution or agreement prior to you going to sleep, Dr. Rose adds.
  • The Guilt Trips: Phrases like "If you loved me, you'd stay up a little longer" can display coercion, Dr. Gilman notes. "Such subtle guilt trips manipulate the partner into sacrificing their sleep for the sake of the relationship," she explains.
  • The Intrusive Monitoring: If your partner is constantly checking-in or monitoring you during the night, these frequent awakenings can create an atmosphere of vigilance which leads to disrupted sleep patterns, Dr. Gilman says.
  • The Noisy Intrusions: Whether it's in the bedroom or on an entirely different floor, activities like cleaning, putting away dishes, or engaging in noisy hobbies late at night disrupt the peace necessary for quality sleep, says Dr. Gilman.

How to Spot the Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Recognizing sleep deprivation as an abuse tactic can be difficult, but remember that it typically involves behavioral patterns and a shift in sleep routine within a relationship, Dr. Gilman says. "It's more than just an occasional disruption and there is a consistent pattern of sleep interference aimed at exerting control or manipulation," she explains.

Here are common signs that someone might be using sleep deprivation as a form of abuse, according to Dr. Gilman.

  • Consistent Interference: Your partner consistently interrupts or prevents you from sleeping by making noise, keeping you awake, or waking you up intentionally.
  • Gaslighting About Sleep: Your partner blames your fatigue or emotional response on your lack of sleep, causing confusion or making you doubt your own experience.
  • Control of Sleep Schedule: Your partner dictates or controls when you can sleep, imposing strict rules or limitations on bedtime routines.
  • Dismissal of Sleep Needs: Your partner belittles or dismisses the importance of your sleep needs and undermines your request for adequate rest.
  • Manipulative Justifications: Your partner uses justifications like "it's for your own good" or "I need you to do this for us" to justify their interference with your sleep.

What to Do If You Experience Sleep Deprivation as an Abuse Tactic

If you suspect your partner is utilizing sleep deprivation as an abuse tactic, "trust your gut," stresses Dr. Rose. If you're unsure, keep a private log of the occurrence and include a timeline of the behavior, she says. Then, reach out to a therapist, counselor, or mental health professional who specializes in relationship dynamics and abuse, Dr. Gilman adds. From there, they can provide guidance, support, and resources tailored to your situation.

If you feel safe, try communicating your need for adequate sleep with your partner, says Dr. Gilman. "Before the conversation, reflect on your feelings and what specific behaviors concern you, and establish clear boundaries that you want to communicate to your partner," she explains. "Express your feelings and experiences using "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory," she adds. For example, "I feel upset when . . ." instead of "You always . . ."

Creating stronger boundaries was crucial for Laura's mental health, which includes sleeping in an entirely separate room. "Going to my room is not a punishment and I create peace in my space," she explains. That being said, these solutions may not work for every relationship.

If your partner is dismissive and/or refuses to acknowledge their behavior or your boundaries, assess the possibility of leaving the relationship if the situation doesn't improve or your safety is at risk, Dr. Gilman says. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line for immediate support and guidance, Dr. Latifses adds.

Lastly, if you are in physical or sexual danger or your partner is hurting or scaring you, Dr. Latifses says to call 911 or the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The Bottom Line

"Sleep deprivation, when used as a tool for coercion, is an infringement on basic human rights and is a subtle form of abuse that requires attention and understanding," Dr. Gilman says. "Shedding light on these covert tactics empowers individuals to identify and address such behavior, fostering healthier relationships grounded in respect and empathy."