Your bed-sharing partner is sound asleep and starts moaning, breathing rapidly, and twitching. She or he cries out, while still asleep, "Stop! Look out! No! Help!" Your partner's nightmare has awakened you. What can you do to help your partner? What can you do to help yourself to have good, uninterrupted sleep if your partner often has nightmares?
Should You Awaken Your Partner?
A person having a nightmare is obviously in distress, and so rescuing the partner from the nightmare can seem to be an act of kindness. And with some nightmares things seem to get worse as the nightmare goes on. But it's hard to know what to do, because anything you do could become part of the nightmare. Your touching, your words, or your gently rocking the bed could make the nightmare more terrifying for your partner. But over your history of sleeping together you may learn what to do. One woman I interviewed for my Two in a Bed book had once been sexually assaulted and couldn't be touched when having a nightmare because that could become part of a nightmare sexual assault. She and her husband learned that what helped her to get out of a nightmare was for him to say gentle, reassuring words. Other people had other approaches for helping to get a partner out of a nightmare. But then some people did nothing to awaken a partner who was having a nightmare, trusting that the partner's stressful dream would soon end.
Risks in Doing Nothing about a Partner's Nightmare
Sometimes it seems that doing nothing about a partner's nightmare is too risky. The partner may be at high risk for a heart attack, or the partner may be about to act in ways that could hurt him or herself. I have interviewed people who had while still asleep fled the bed in terror and crashed into furniture and walls. I have also interviewed people who during nightmares lashed out physically in ways that injured their partner. So some people feel that they have no choice but to wake up a partner who is having a nightmare, to defend the partner or to defend themselves.
Talking the Partner Down and Reassuring the Partner
In the interviews I did for my Two in a Bed book, it seemed that most partners were glad to be awakened out of a nightmare. And sometimes awakening a partner who has been having a nightmare was all that was needed. Once the partner was awake, she or he was ready to go back to sleep. But some partners needed calming, and that might require five or ten minutes of conversation. Some partners also needed reassurance, because they woke up not being sure what was true. ("Is there a war outside our house?" "Is there a giant spider in our bedroom?") Sometimes there needed to be quite a process of calming the partner down and getting her or him into a mindset that would make it possible to go back to sleep. For example, one woman who had terrifying nightmares and her partner would get out of bed together and go to the kitchen for a cup of hot chocolate and a rather long conversation.
Can Something Be Done to Make the Nightmares Less Frequent?
If frequent nightmares are a problem in your bed sharing, you and your partner might do some detective work to try to figure out how to cut down on nightmare frequency. If you can identify what sets off the nightmares maybe it will be clear how to prevent most of all of them. The nightmares might, for example, be set off by watching certain kinds of television programs at night, reading certain kinds of things at night, or eating certain foods for dinner. Then changing to evening routines that avoid what sets of the nightmares will benefit you both.
In some cases, the nightmares come not from what the person who has them does before going to sleep but from what her or his partner does while asleep. For example, in one couple I interviewed a woman's nightmares would sometimes be set off by her husband's snoring. The sound of his snoring would become, as she slept, the snarling of a wolf or the roaring of a giant gorilla. If that's an issue for you and your partner, what will help reduce the nightmares is to reduce the snoring. For example, get the snorer to sleep on his or her side rather than back or to stop drinking alcohol in the evening.