When it comes to relationships, they say opposites attract, but that can sometimes make for challenges at bedtime, especially if one partner is a night owl and one is a morning bird.
Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is one of the most important things you can do when it comes to overall well-being, but this can be difficult if you share a bed with someone who has a mismatched sleep schedule or a sleep disorder. And these difficulties can increase if they are causing you to lose sleep. Poor sleep can add up, negatively impacting the skills you need in a relationship, from communication to problem-solving.
So you might be thinking: is it more important to maintain your schedule or prioritize time together in bed? We asked Dr. Wendy Troxel, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep”, to share.
Benefits of Sleeping Together: Better Health, Mood, and Relationships
Research has long shown that people in long-term relationships or marriages often live longer, happier, and healthier lives, and clinically, psychologists and doctors have long sought to pin down exactly why. For Troxel, who has spent much of her career studying the impact of sleep on couples, sleep was an illuminating area of research.
“[The time that couples spend in bed together at night] was the one part of coupled existence that was really being neglected [in studies about relationship benefits],” she says. “I already knew sleep was vitally important for our physical and mental health, so it seemed like that was an obvious place to look for a possible pathway linking relationships and health outcomes. It’s the only health behavior we regularly share with a partner. We might occasionally share a meal together or go for a run, but sleep is routinely shared with a partner and vitally important to our health.”
And sharing a bed with a partner does seem to improve a relationship and each partner’s sleep.
Researchers in Germany studying heterosexual couples found that sleeping together allowed couples to spend longer in REM sleep with less interruption of REM cycles. Although all sleep stages are important, REM sleep (when dreams occur), is when the brain replenishes itself.
Partners can also clue someone in to issues like sleep apnea or snoring, which can have impacts on health and longevity.
“One way partners are important to health is by identifying a problem with the other’s sleep. If snoring is driving you to sleep in another room, or thrashing is waking you up during the night, that’s a good signal that maybe you want to encourage your partner to talk about this issue with their doctor. Sleep apnea is often called ‘the disease of listeners’ because partners are the one that often motivate people to get treatment,” says Troxel.
How to Get the Benefits — Even When You Have Different Sleep Schedules
Sharing a bed seems easy in concept: hopping into bed, reading side by side, then switching off the light. And when it works, sharing a bed offers health benefits, too.
“On a night-to-day level, what we’ve found, particularly for women, is that on nights when she went to bed at the same time as her partner, the next day she reported better relationship functioning. So that suggests that there is a benefit to at least going to bed together,” says Troxel.
But the equation changes quickly if each partner has a different ideal bedtime. While it’s great to sleep in the same bed at the same time, the truth is that it won’t always be possible. Our natural sleep patterns (when we feel awake and when we feel sleepy), are largely genetic, and some couples might just not be wired the same way.
“The truth of the matter is there are mismatched pairs, and they don’t need to run off and despair,” says Troxel.
Changing your body to go against your natural sleep cycle is likely to leave you exhausted from trying. Forcing one partner to stay up (or go to bed) at a radically different time than their natural sleep cycle could cause insomnia, frustration, and ultimately relationship issues — the opposite of the goal of sharing a bed with a partner.
The solution, according to Troxel, is preserving “bedtime” without forcing both partners to go to sleep.
The most valuable benefits of sharing a bed with a partner actually come before sleep anyway: Time in bed before sleep is when partners can cuddle, chat, and be intimate away from the busyness of the rest of the house and daily life.
Troxel’s suggestion is to preserve that time by getting ready for bed together, and then allowing the later-sleeping partner to slip away until they’re ready for bed. “You can get out of bed quietly, go to the rother room, and do a relaxing activity until your natural bedtime, then return to bed,” recommends Troxel.
Can It Be Better for Partners Not to Share a Bed?
Not every couple sleeps together. While sharing a bed has benefits, what matters most for our long-term health, and the health of our relationships, is getting decent sleep.
“Some couples will try to come up with some type of arrangement that actually just ends up sacrificing both of their sleep... if they can’t sleep together or sleep well together, the focus should shift to the real goal, which is making sure you have some quality ‘just us’ time... you need to consider sleep health,” Troxel says.
In fact, a sleep divorce is not as taboo as you may think. Separate beds or even separate rooms have been reported to be a relationship saver. After all, most couples slept in separate beds until the mid-20th century!
Rather than spending months or even years sleeping poorly, Troxel suggests utilizing other strategies like cuddling together during the day, napping or lying in bed together without sleeping. While sharing a bed is wonderful, a well-rested couple is a happier couple, and you can set up your relationship for success while you’re awake by getting good sleep.
If sleeping together is only sometimes challenging, there are creative ways to adjust the situation. Some couples sleep in the same room during part of the week, like weekends.
If your snooze situation doesn’t bring much tension — as in you just want to read for an extra 30 minutes before sleeping or need a little elevation to ease snoring — be sure you have a mattress that doesn’t transfer motion, or opt for an adjustable base bed. These flexible frames allow each partner to adjust their mattress as they please.
Sleeping Together Is Good for Partners, But It Isn't Everything
Research by scientists like Troxel has shown that sleeping together in bed for at least some portion of the night can have positive benefits for long-term relationship health (and even individual physical health). It’s not a golden ticket to a happy relationship, though. Sleep is key to our long-term physical health and our emotional wellness, so if you’re not sleeping well alongside your partner, you shouldn’t hesitate to find another solution.
Whether you are struggling to sleep together due to snoring or simply a difference in your natural sleep schedules, you don’t have to torture yourself by lying awake next to your snoozing partner. Give them a goodnight kiss, tuck them into bed, and head out to the living room to catch up on your book, guilt-free.
Plus, not all of your cuddling time must be in bed — especially if you and your partner sleep with your pets. Other bonding activities that can increase taking a bath together, going stargazing, or even exercising.