If you sleep next to someone, chances are there have been times when your partner’s sleep troubles become your problem. Truth is, working with the problem, rather than automatically heading for the couch when times get tough, is actually the most sustainable way to get better rest. Not only that, but the process is a powerful opportunity for couples to grow in resilience and deepen in intimacy too.
It’s not You, it’s Us
We tend to think of sleep as a solitary thing. But sleep is actually a social activity, with implicit rules that every couple or family enforce at the household level. The first maneuver is to stop thinking about your sleep as an individual right but a family concern.
Think “our” problem, not “your” problem.
If your partner is disturbing your sleep (by snoring, for example), sit down and tell him your concerns without blaming. There’s a healthy chance that organizing some aspect of your life together can result in better sleep for both of you.
Many snoring issues, especially related to sleep apnea, can be healed through lifestyle changes like increased exercise and healthier eating. Working together with meal planning and taking regular walks together are supportive ways to help your partner snore less, so you can both sleep more.
Sleep researchers also recommend that couples attend sleep doctor visits together and work together to improve the conditions that may be irritating the sleep issue.
Negotiation not Blame
When we had a newborn baby last year, my wife and I realized we were both losing sleep unnecessarily because of the baby’s erratic sleeping, and, like many first-time parents, we were concerned it may soon affect the quality of our relationship. We were both crabbing out at each other a lot more than usual because we were so sleep deprived.
We decided on a first shift/second-shift approach to diaper changes and soothing during the night. Of course, she still had to feed the baby intermittently, so I had the better deal. But I also took the baby with me when I made breakfast, giving her a bonus sleep cycle most mornings for the first two months after the birth.
The negotiation worked, and we both got better sleep and felt closer because we were tackling the problem together.
Hidden Expectations: Falling Asleep Together
Another prime territory for improvement is when you or your partner erratically stay up late to work, making it hard for the other to fall asleep. This is something we know well in our family, because I do the bulk of my work after the sun sets.
Guys need to know this in particular because it’s not in the relationship handbook that women may be especially sensitive to the social aspects of sleep, including the desire to fall asleep together.
This social aspect of sleep has only been recognized by scientists in the last decade, who are finding a relationship between sleep timing and women’s perception of the health of their relationship. Another group of researchers have found that women with a stable sleeping partner get better sleep and have less sleep conditions than single women.
Many women prefer to go to bed at the same time as their partner, even though they may not voice this expectation explicitly.
There’s opportunity here to make some new habits together. One compromise could be as a few nights a week where your partner comes to bed with you, and a few nights that he’s free to do his own thing.
Find the sweet spot, find what works.
Togetherness while winding down
If your partner is routinely a night-owl and you’re a morning person, switching up bedtimes could actually be a bad compromise, as many people sleep better with routine bedtimes.
An alternative could be to focus on other times to make up for the nurturing intimacy of going to bed together, carving the time out in other times of day to relax and be close.
For example, make a practice of a “togetherness ritual” before you go to bed and he heads up to the home office. Put away the computers and the tablets, and instead listen to music together while catching up on the day.
Or rub each other’s feet while watching a favorite sitcom.
Or make a small evening snack that is rich in carbohydrates and proteins, another healthy habit that improves sleep and brings us closer (and also can help us lose weight in the process).
Winding down and relaxing before bed is also a natural aphrodisiac. And let’s not forget that sex releases oxytocin, a neurohormone that also helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle. Cuddling leads to more sex, which leads to better sleep, which in turn can lead to even more intimacy and romantic energy to burn.
It’s a sleepy, sexy feedback system.
So before heading to the couch for a late night rerun, make a new commitment to sleep with your partner. Think about our sleep –rather than your problem–and your relationship might literally improve overnight.
What works for you and your partner? I’d love to hear your stories below.
PS There’s still time to ask questions to me and the other TEDMED sleep panelists about how to deal with sleeplessness in society (as individuals, families, business leaders, health professionals and policy-makers– we all have a role to play). Click here to add your question.
First Image: CC 2009 people sleeping on the couch are fair game by opacity