One of the little-known benefits of marriage is that it’s been scientifically proven that couples have healthier sleep and better quality sleep. Though the reason behind this isn’t clear, sleep experts believe that marriage stabilizes sleep routines and that couples tend to keep each other in line regarding the times that they go to sleep and the times that they wake up. But what about couples that sleep on different schedules? What happens when an early bird marries a night owl, or work schedules are in conflict?
According to recent studies, when couples don’t stay on the same sleep schedule they show a much reduced level of satisfaction with their relationship as compared to those who go to bed at the same time. They fight more, engage in fewer activities together, and talk less. They also have less sex. In light of this, it is important to try to figure out whether it is the relationship problem that causes the lack of sleeping together, or whether the lack of sleeping together creates stress in the marriage. A study conducted by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh followed almost thirty married couples for a full week, asking them to wear motion sensitive wrist devices and to keep sleep diaries as well as to provide feedback on their interactions with their spouses, and their overall feelings.
The results of the study were published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, and showed some interesting gender differences. Where men’s satisfaction within their relationship was reflective of a good night’s sleep, women’s sleep quality was a reflection of the way that they felt about their relationship the previous day. Women also indicated less satisfaction with their relationship following nights where they slept at different times from their husbands. According to Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and behavioral and social scientist for Rand Corporation, “Women are more sensitive to the highs and lows of relationships, so women show a link between relationship functioning and sleep. For men, sleep has an effect on their functioning, so that affects their relationships.”
Dr. Troxel is hard at work on further studies into this topic, and her studies so far reveal that the likelihood of women having higher satisfaction in their relationship is increased by going to sleep at the same time as their partner the previous night. The same is not true of men. So should couples try to rearrange their schedules in order to improve their relationships?
Many couples are already in sync with each other’s sleep patterns, and this is no accident. People’s preferences and habits often dictate where they meet their partners, so people who go to bed early are not likely to find each other in the same places as those who stay up late, and it is generally thought that people who sleep in sync do so more as a matter of personality and preference than of habituating to one another.
One of the reasons for this is that sleep rhythms appear to be innate, and are therefore difficult to adjust. People’s circadian rhythms are programmed genetically, so making a complete adjustment from night person to morning person would be biologically challenging. That does not mean that adjustments and accommodations can’t be made. Couples who are on different schedules but who are creative and motivated to spend more time together tend to figure it out, and their relationships benefit. Those who find that their schedules are distinct enough to be causing problems need to pay special attention to whether there are adjustments that can be made to things like light and noise in order to reduce conflict. Another solution is to sleep in separate rooms.
Though this may seem a bit extreme, it can actually work well as long as both partners agree that it is a workable solution. Dr. Troxel says that it is important that the topic receives a thorough discussion. “Some couples end up sleeping apart out of desperation, because one partner is not sleeping at all. But there is no conversation involved. When that happens, the other partner may feel abandoned.” If you are going to make this switch it is important to address all of the important areas of your relationship which will need to be addressed, including when and how you will be able to engage in physical intimacy, as well as any concerns that either of you have about it. “It’s the time that you are awake together in bed that might be more important than the time you are asleep,” she says. “Don’t sacrifice the quality couple time before bed.” Dr. Troxel suggests creating a schedule for spending time together in bed, even if it has nothing to do with sleep or sex. Being in close proximity to each other stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin, a powerful stress reducer that also makes you feel closer to one another.
Finding a way to make different sleep schedules is critical, both for the relationship and for each partner’s sleep health. Even when a couple’s schedules are widely disparate they each need to be able to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night in order to function at their best both cognitively and physically. Lack of adequate quality sleep has been linked to a variety of ills ranging from obesity, diabetes, risk of stroke and cardiovascular problems to higher rates of depression. There have also been a number of studies that have shown that people who do not get enough sleep have difficulty learning and are at a disadvantage cognitively. The risk of accidents while operating machinery or driving are greater as well.
As with so many other issues in relationships, the key to negotiating these conflicts is keeping open lines of communication about each other’s needs and wants. This will keep you, and your relationship, as healthy as possible.