Check out the second part of this series: Your Bed or Mine? The Struggle of Sleeping Apart
People who struggle with insomnia face many challenges, and one of the biggest can be adapting their sleep issues when they sleep with a bed partner. A 2017 German study evaluated whether or not sleeping location affected sleep quality in dating couples. They discovered that male partners tend to sleep better when they sleep with a partner, regardless of whether or not they were sleeping in their own bed or their partner’s bed. For female partners, however, co-sleeping with a partner did not have an effect on reported sleep quality. This study confirms, once again, that the sexes are wired a little differently when it comes to sleep.
When I am working with someone who has insomnia, I often recommend that they have their partner join one or two of the sessions so that we can have everyone on the same page. (I have had some couples who treated behavioral therapy for sleep as couple’s therapy!) Here are my top 5 recommendations for sleeping well with someone else in your bed.
1. Time in bed needs to match your sleep needs.
Everyone has a different metabolism for sleep, much like we have a different metabolism for calories. When there are big differences in the amount of sleep needed, we need to decide where we might have some difference to schedule. For example, my husband and I differ in our need for sleep by almost two hours. I go to bed early, and then we both wake up at the same time because he has never been able to sleep beyond when my alarm goes off.
2. Don’t treat your partner like a living teddy bear.
We all have sensations that signal our brain that we are in our safe place for sleep. The senses that are involved are the sense of touch, hearing, and scent. Some people like the feel of being connected to their partner, but this creates major issues for a few reasons. For two, your partner’s natural movements at night are likely to cause awakenings in you as well. Any living thing that is associated with sleep (pets, kids) can also be the source of significant struggle. Concentrate on bedding and pillows for sleep onset association.
3. Watch out for performance anxiety.
Nothing can make you feel more frustrated and helpless than being unable to turn off your brain and go to sleep. This feeling of helplessness gets completely amplified when you have a partner who also shames you for disturbing their rest. I encourage my folks who struggle with insomnia to remind themselves that their partner is a support, and they can rest even if their brain won’t completely turn off.
4. Don’t play the blame game.
I will never forget a sleep study I performed early in my career at the sleep lab. A young man came in, desperate to have his snoring addressed because he said that his new wife was planning on leaving him if he didn’t stop snoring. He never snored once in the sleep study, despite my multiple efforts at trying to create conditions that would induce snoring! People with insomnia tend to have a lower threshold for wakefulness, which means that they can be easily disturbed by an even benign stimulus. Yes, snoring should be addressed when it shows up, but not all sleep problems can be blamed on your partner. Allow some space between you, and consider white noise to drown out annoying sounds, when possible.
5. Don’t sleep next to bears.
You absolutely cannot sleep deeply next to someone you don’t like, and our brain is doing its job if it doesn’t let us be fully unconscious when it perceives that we are in unsafe conditions. As you can imagine, sleeping next to a partner with whom you are angry or don’t trust will be disastrous for your sleep. Ideally, we resolve major struggles before going to bed, but it can also be a good idea to declare that the bedroom is a place of absolute safety- no arguments are allowed to enter. If there are significant issues in your relationship, your sleep might benefit from separate bedrooms until the issues have resolved.
In my practice, I see many happy couples who have decided that they are happier sleeping in separate rooms. I will cover the steps to doing that successfully in an upcoming installment.