Sex & Relationships

Help for couples with sleep incompatibility

Unable to get a full night's sleep because of a restless or snoring partner? Expert advice on how to manage when sharing a bed, and tips on maintaining intimacy when sleeping in separate bedrooms
By Sarah Treleaven
sleep, partner, problems Getty Images

Just because you love someone, doesn’t mean you can share a bed with him. Maybe your partner—who’s generally charming during daylight hours—tosses and turns as soon as the lights go out. Maybe he needs the soothing sounds of Jay Leno to help him fall asleep. Or maybe he does something really weird, like waking up at 3am to eat oranges in bed.

Let’s face it: you need your sleep. And I would know. I have dated several snorers, space hoggers and insomniacs, and none were a treat in bed. “Two people differ in a million different ways and lots of them have to do with sleep,” says Paul Rosenblatt, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing.

There are all kinds of issues that can arise when a couple tries to share a small space every night: some people like maximum contact while others can’t bear to be touched when sleeping; some like it hot and some like it icebox cold; some want to cuddle with the cats and some have terrible allergies; some like to thrash wildly and some prefer not to be smacked in the face while they sleep; and some are morning people and others are late-night infomercial watchers.

All of this sleep incompatibility can lead to big problems in the morning. “People lose sleep if their partner is snoring or if they’re stewing about their partner snoring,” says Rosenblatt. “Then you’re not a happy partner – and if you’re not feeling like you like each other, your sex life can really suffer.”

So why do so many couples continue sharing a bed even when they’re not compatible while unconscious? For couples, there’s a lot of meaning tied to sharing a bed, says Rosenblatt. “The average couple might talk 12 or 15 minutes a day with each other, and if they go to bed and have a conversation, that might be a lot of the sharing of lives and the planning for the next day and airing their differences,” he says.

The time a couple spends in bed is a different kind of quality time, and those hushed heart-to-hearts under the covers can often feel more intimate than sex. You have different conversations with your partner when you’re lying in bed than you do across a restaurant table. And so for many people, the idea of separate bedrooms sounds foreboding; like he’s out again with “his buddies,” and she listens to Patsy Cline records every night until she passes out after her fourth martini.


But many successful couples sleep in separate beds or rooms. “People who sleep apart often get a better night’s sleep – which can be a positive in the relationship,” says Rosenblatt. But if you decide on separate bedrooms, don’t neglect that level of connection (or physical warmth). “If you schedule some time to cuddle in bed or watch a movie, you can have that intimacy,” says Kimberly Moffit, a Toronto-based couples therapist.

But if you’re having sleep problems, fret not: lots of people find resolutions and people change, says Rosenblatt. Snoring changes from day to day, temperature preferences change, and someone who tosses and turns might settle down. Work tensions that drive nocturnal restlessness can also go away.

In the meantime, here are some tips for coping:

1. First of all, it’s normal: So don’t get all worked up and assume that incompatible sleep styles means that you’re not soul mates. “You can start looking on Craigslist for someone else, but almost anyone is going to be a challenge to sleep with some of the time,” says Rosenblatt.

2. Believe your partner: If he or she says that you grind your teeth or fling your arms around in the night, don’t fight it. “Just believe them and try to resolve it,” says Rosenblatt.


3. Be considerate: If you have to get up early for work, try getting dressed in another room so you don’t disrupt your partner, suggests Moffit. Or, if you like to stay up and watch TV, make sure the volume is at a reasonable level.

4. Schedule quality time in bed: “If one person likes to go to bed really late and the other really early, then make sure you’re scheduling some time together when you’re both awake and alert,” she says. (Awake and alert = cuddling and, well, you know…)

5. Sleep problems can be resolved: If you prefer warmer temperatures, for example, Rosenblatt suggests using an extra blanket or wearing socks instead of battling it out over the thermostat.

6. Sleeping well together is an art, and even if it’s going smoothly now it will likely change in the future: “Somebody will have a stressful job, or a woman will start going through menopause, or someone will put on a little weight and start snoring,” says Rosenblatt. So take the good nights, and accept that the bad ones will come and go.


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