a man and woman holding hands and balancing on the middle of a scale measuring their narcolepsy related stress versus their love

Relationships and Narcolepsy: Managing Emotions

When it comes to relationships, every couple will have their issues - but when one of you has narcolepsy, this can bring up some unique challenges! As a person with narcolepsy, mental health professional, and experienced dater, I’m writing a series on the relationship issues that have come up most frequently; in my own life and in conversations with other people with narcolepsy!

Today I’ll be focusing on emotional regulation and how important it is for both partners in maintaining a healthy relationship, especially when narcolepsy is involved.

Why emotional regulation gets hard

As most people with narcolepsy will probably admit, being frequently exhausted means having more challenges when it comes to keeping a lid on your emotions. Like an overtired toddler, the sleepy brain is not at its most logical or empathetic and is liable to uncharacteristic outbursts. And guess who’s most likely to be on the receiving end of those outbursts? Your partner.

This would be fine if it was just once in a blue moon, but due to the ongoing daily nature of narcolepsy, we know that’s unlikely to be the case. A lot of the time, people with narcolepsy may not even notice we are doing it, as it often happens when we may not be fully alert, or simply not realise quite how hurtful it can be to be snapped at for no real reason on a regular basis.

Maintaining empathy and avoiding warning signs

Personally, I have at times found it hard to empathize with my partner’s perspective, because I know that my comments are only coming from my narcolepsy brain and I don’t mean them at all. However, it’s important to remember that even if they understand the reason, it can really wear down your partner over time if the person who is meant to love them most is frequently being critical or mean.

Research from the Gottman Institute (a leading researcher on relationships) suggests that there are four big, red flags for relationship breakdown, with criticism and contempt comprising two of those warning signs.

Criticism

Criticism is the most common issue found in relationships, and it’s easy to see why.1 When two people come together it will never be a frictionless experience, and any partner is likely to do some things that we don’t like. However, it’s important to voice these issues in a way that invites conversation and compromise, instead of attacking your partner as a person.

Contempt

Contempt has been found to be the number one predictor of divorce in married couples.2 This includes any times where we put our partner down; using sarcasm, mimicking, and name-calling to make them feel less than us.

Taking responsibility and making change

With this in mind, as the partner with narcolepsy, it’s essential that we develop strategies to manage our emotions at these times. While we never asked for these emotional regulation problems, they are still our responsibility to control.

Often this will mean simply practising greater self-awareness and knowing when to take a moment for a nap (or just to collect yourself) before engaging with another person! Personally, I always try to take a nap immediately when I get home from work, as I know that’s when I’m liable to get snappy.

We can also use relaxation techniques, such as meditation, to try to ease the feelings that build up before they burst, or find activities that help you release the frustration in more productive ways - like kickboxing! Anything that helps you feel more in control of your feelings.

Maintaining good faith

At the end of the day, despite all my self-awareness and techniques, I know I am still inclined to slip up and make harsh comments when I’m sleepy. Narcolepsy is unpredictable, and no matter how self-aware I am, or how many strategies I employ, I can’t control everything. It’s just not realistic.

Luckily, my partner is very forgiving and understands that sometimes these things are beyond my control. We have had several discussions on this topic and he knows how hard I try to keep things contained because he has seen the improvement over time. This gives him the confidence that my occasional crabby comments are the exception in our relationship, not the rule.

On the flip side, of course, there are still times when he will bug me as well! While he knows that I get frustrated or upset when I’m asked to make decisions when overtired, or that certain types of music put me to sleep and I hate it, there will be times when he forgets.

In the moment it’s difficult not to perceive these things as a lack of consideration, but realistically I know that he’s not doing it on purpose to hurt me. So we each try to give each other the benefit of the doubt and talk through any issues as they happen (so I don’t end up trying to explain how I feel when I’m already out of energy!)

Keeping a positive balance in the emotional bank account

In addition to maintaining good faith when it comes to the actions of our partner, the final way to keep the negative effects of our exhausted outbursts at bay is to ensure that even in moments of weakness, your partner is still 100 percent clear that you love and respect them - because the positive ways you interact with them far outweigh the negative.

At its core, this concept is simply about being mindful to fill the relationship with positive moments, not putting all the focus on avoiding the negatives (as these are bound to pop up).

The Gottman Institute refers to this as a couple’s “emotional bank account”.3 Each of you tries to make deposits as often as possible so that when withdrawals need to be made, the overall balance keeps growing!

Every tiny interaction you have with your partner counts: being interested in their weird hobby, listening while they vent about work, picking up that specific brand of chocolate you know they love for no reason at all, showing appreciation for the things they do every day. Every hug, kiss, and kind word makes it easier to recover when you have a momentary slip into unhelpful behaviour.

This is a common issue

At the end of the day, people with narcolepsy are just humans, and the issue of emotional regulation is by no means limited to us alone! I truly believe that couples of all types would benefit from being more self-aware and responsible for their own feelings.

However, after plenty of personal experience and conversations with others with narcolepsy, this is a problem that seems to come up a lot, so I hope that people will find some of these suggestions helpful.

I’d love to hear any more ideas about how other people cope with these emotional regulation issues in their relationships, so please leave a comment!

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