Maybe they work nights and you work days, or one of you is a night owl and the other is an early bird. Regardless of whether you're on the same sleep-cycle page or not, hitting your personal REM requirement is tricky when your bedmate keeps waking you up. So how can you manage a healthy, happy relationship with them in the midst of it? Not to worry—experts have tips to help.
3 tips for relationship success with a partner with a different sleep schedule
1. Communicate about your feelings and needs
As with most relationship challenges, the first and perhaps most important step to take is simply talking about what’s coming up for each of you. “Give each other permission to be honest about how easy you are each finding it to get a healthy, restorative night’s sleep,” says clinical psychologist and sleep medicine specialist Holly Milling, PsychD, founder of the Sleep Practice. She suggests considering how your sleep is affecting your relationship, whether sleeping separately (at least some nights) might be a better option, and how changing things up might benefit your own lives and the health of your relationship.
"Couples who sleep together harmoniously can report greater emotional and intimate connection, but when sleep becomes disrupted by a partner, it can have the opposite effect." —Holly Milling, PsychD
“While it’s true that couples who sleep together harmoniously can report greater emotional and intimate connection, when precious sleep becomes disrupted by a partner, it can have the opposite effect, raising feelings of resentment and all of the consequences of sleep deprivation in the disturbed party,” Dr. Milling says. “The goal is to find what works best for you and your partner in your current situation.”
2. Prioritize quality intimate time together outside of sleeping time
If you have a partner with a different sleep schedule or sleep separately for another reason, you may miss certain components that tend to come with that territory, like cuddling. In that case, spending cozy time together, even if you aren't sleeping at the same time, can help.
“Make time for one another when you have shared days off," says individual and relationships counselor Jennifer Kowalski, LPC. "Eat a meal together, plan date nights, and make sure to make each other a priority outside of work and sleep.”
3. Brainstorm how to address sleep disturbances
If you want to continue sleeping with your partner, get creative and consider other workarounds for your conflicting schedules. “Sleep divorce,” aka sleeping in different rooms or beds, is an option, but Kowalski “generally recommend[s] trying other lifestyle shifts first.” For example, Dr. Milling suggests that "if you want to go to bed at different times, you could agree that the night owl gets ready for bed in a different room in order to minimize any disturbance when they creep into bed.”
When sleeping separately may be legitimately helpful
Ultimately, if lifestyle shifts with your partner who has a different schedule doesn't move the needle on your sleep quality and you can’t get things done the next day, you and your partner may consider separate bedrooms or sleeping areas. Some signs Kowalski says this might be a good idea include poor work performance, being unable stay awake, an inability to concentrate, and struggling in caretaking roles.
Another sign is resentment. “A single bad night’s sleep can impair functioning, but when this happens repeatedly, it will change a person’s mood and start to damage the relationship, particularly if one of them blames the other for how badly they feel,” Kowalski says.
You also don’t have to do this every night, necessarily. “Perhaps it makes the most sense to do this during the workweek and to share the bedroom on weekends,” Kowalski says.
Does a lack of sleep compatibility mean a lack of physical compatibility?
Even if you decide to move forth with a sleep divorce, that doesn’t mean your relationship itself or sex life is shot. “The majority of couples I work with that sleep separately have made the best of the situation,” Kowalski says. “They respect each other’s need for sleep and have a clear understanding of the differentiation between any sexual activity and rest. Some have shared that visiting each other’s rooms is a clear indication that the visitor is initiating sexual activity, which has added spontaneity back to their relationship."
And whatever situation you ultimately decide works for you and your partner on different sleep schedules, just know that it is possible to find that workaround. Not being able to sleep well with your partner can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be an ongoing issue or a relationship ruiner.
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