Partners And Sleep: When Your Patterns Just Don't Match Up

Using Technology At Night in Bed
Sam Diephuis via Getty Images
Using Technology At Night in Bed

Not everyone will know the pain of running on a different sleeping schedule to your significant other. But those who do will understand it's not just simply annoying, it can actually be detrimental to your health, as well as your relationship.

There are a number of reasons two people might have trouble sleeping together (and we actually mean sleeping, people), from external factors such as shift work to simply preferring different routines.

The bad news is it's not a problem that's likely to go away all by itself. The good news? You're not alone.

"It's quite a familiar story. In fact, I'd like to know how many couples actually go to bed at the same time," sleep expert Dr Dev Banerjee told The Huffington Post Australia.

"I know in my case, my wife goes to bed an hour or so before I do, then I have to try and tip toe in without waking her. It’s actually quite a problem in society, and in my personal situation I am only talking about an hour's difference.

"It's a whole different thing if one person is on night shift and they are coming back to bed when the other person is just getting up. One person is drawing back the curtains, ready to get the light through and start the day, whereas the night shift worker is ready for a full night's sleep. Everything is disrupted."

Of course, the simplest solution to this kind of mismatched sleep schedule would be for the couple to sleep apart, but as CQ University sleep researcher Drew Dawson points out, this is often considered a last resort.

"Culturally and emotionally there is a lot of value placed on co-sleeping. It's quite interesting, because relatively it's only a fairly recent thing," Dawson told HuffPost Australia.

"Typically, the key issues that are going to impact a couple [in regards to differing sleep patterns] are if one of them snores, if they have preferential timing -- that is to say, someone is a night owl and the other isn't -- or there is imposed difference such as shift work or even a new baby.

"You could argue the solution is actually really simple, and that is to sleep in different places so you don’t interrupt each other. However, the idea of having 'your bedroom and my bedroom' is difficult for most people to get used to.

"Men in particular get really funny about it. From a clinical perspective, what you hear from people who work in the field, it seems men are more upset by their partner moving out of the bedroom than vice versa. I think it's something to do with evolutionary psychology -- that idea of 'if she's not next to me, someone else is bonking her!' Whereas in actual fact, I would argue sleep deprivation is the best contraception ever invented."

Nocturnal sexual activities aside, there does seem to be a real problem when a couple doesn't want to (or don't have the option to) sleep in separate beds, but their quality of sleep is still being affected.

"How much a person is disturbed by the other partner's activities is really dependent on how light or how deep their sleep is," Banerjee said. "It needs to be established whether someone shuffling around the house is going to actually wake them up or not.

"Usually most people go into a deep sleep around 30 to 60 minutes after initially falling asleep. So if it's a case of one person going to bed a bit later, it might be a good idea for them to just wait for half an hour or 60 minutes before joining the other in bed, in order to let them enter a deeper sleep.

"In terms of something like night shift, I think the best thing is for them to try and work as a team. It's about behavioural lifestyle compromise and the teamwork that's in play when it comes to the arrangements people have.

"I would advise they plan their scheduling in advance. Night shift workers might want to share their timetables and rosters so the other is aware of what their shift is like on a particular night. It's very much a case of 'this night you are working until this time, so we will follow this particular routine'. Planning is essential."

Of course not all sleeping discrepancies have anything to do with external factors. According to Banerjee, one partner having insomnia is a common cause of sleep anxiety and, in a cruel twist, can actually be made worse by the co-sleeping environment.

"If one member of the couple can't sleep, typically they are very conscious of waking up their bed partner," Banerjee explained. "It brings a lot of anxiety into the mix, because the person having trouble sleeping becomes anxious about trying to keep still and fall asleep. Which, of course, makes it more difficult."

If snoring is a factor, Dawson suggests trying one of the many treatments currently available on the market.

"There's CPAP treatment, mouth guards, and, in extreme cases, the possibility of surgical intervention," Dawson said.

"But at the end of the day, it really comes down to common sense, respect and negotiation. If one of you is a night-owl and the other isn't, don't get into bed and read with the lamp on or have a screen glowing for hours on end. If there's a newborn in the house, taking turns to be the one who looks after the baby for a night so the other person gets a decent sleep, that kind of thing.

"I would also encourage people to realise, if it really isn't working, there is nothing personal about having to sleep in separate beds. Especially as people get older, it's not like they are having sex multiple times per day. In fact it could reinvigorate the idea of the 'afternoon delight', or inspire people to get a little less traditional in when and where."

Banerjee agrees that separate beds can sometimes be the best option for those who are co-sleeping challenged, and sometimes discovers people even prefer it that way.

"I have certainly seen cases where, whatever the problem was, it has been sorted out and they are now free to go back in the same bedroom only to have them say, 'no no, we’re quite happy in our own bedrooms, thank you very much'," Banerjee said.

For those still struggling to develop a co-sleeping arrangement that works for both parties, Banerjee says seeing a sleep physician is your best bet.

"If the problem is a sleep disorder you can correct, that then would solve the issue, which I think would be a good thing," Banerjee said.

"If one person is a night owl or has delayed sleep stage syndrome, you can sometimes treat that with melatonin, for example, in a bid to try and normalise sleep patterns. If it's clearly an issue where one can sleep when the other can't sleep, then get some advice from a sleep physician.

"It's worth pointing out sleeping issues of this kind are really quite common. I often see couples together who both have sleep apnea and they'll spend the whole consultation arguing about who snores the loudest. They do. I have to try and not go down the marriage counselling route and steer them back onto the topic at hand, and that is, the matter of sleep."

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