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Is Your Partner Ruining Your Sleep?

December 14, 2013
Lisa LaValle Overmyer

Snuggling up with a loved one at night? Sharing that bed is likely affecting your quality of sleep — for better or for worse. Of the 61 percent of Americans who share a bed, many report being somehow disturbed by their partner during the night. Sure, spooning’s great, but is it really worth it?

Forty Winks — The Need-To-Know

There are plenty of reasons so many couples have trouble sharing the sheets. Get two people in one bedroom and chances are, they’ll have different sleep/wake patterns — a fancy term for being either a morning person or a night person. But sharing sleep space with someone on a different schedule isn’t just about being startled awake by a banging refrigerator door at 4 a.m. In one study, spouses who had opposite sleep/wake patterns reported more relationship issues, including less frequent sex, less time talking, and more conflict in general.

More problems can start once bed partners are finally asleep. If one partner has a problem such as snoring or sleep apnea (a condition when breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep), it’s a good chance his/her bedmate will be disturbed. One study found that when snorers’ symptoms were treated, their partners’ sleep efficiency (i.e. how much they’re actually sleeping and not just lying in bed) increased by 13 percent — even if the partner had gotten used to the snoring over time.

More often than not, men are responsible for disturbing their partners’ sleep. (It’s worth noting that most research on couples’ sleep habits has been conducted on opposite-sex couples, so it’s unclear how these findings apply to same-sex partners.) Not only do men snore more than women, but they also tend to be rowdier in bed. In two different studies, both of which used a device called an actigraph to measure wrist movement, women were more frequently disrupted by their partners’ movements than men were. Sounds like a recipe for separate beds like Lucy and Ricky had, right? Maybe not.

Sweet Dreams — The Answer/Debate

In both studies mentioned above, women reported sleeping better with their partner than without, regardless of what the actigraphs said about their sleep quality. And strangely enough, another snoring study found that when female partners of men who snored slept separately, there was still no difference in the females’ sleep efficiency.

The women’s preference for sleeping with their disruptive partners suggests there are plenty of positives to sharing a bed that could override the negatives. One possibility is the sense of security that can come from being snuggled up next to someone. Recent research suggests that feeling of bedtime security leads to a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in the so-called love hormone oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm. Honking nasal passages and poking elbows can’t cancel that out!

Couples who share a bed also report that bedtime is an important time to communicate and reconnect at the end of the day. When two people have demanding jobs and busy lives, those moments at the end of the day might be the only time they have together to catch up and make decisions, so sharing a bed can really benefit the relationship.

Catch Those Zzz’s — Your Action Plan

So what can two partners do if they’re bad bed buddies? Start off with at least a queen-size mattress, and go bigger if one partner is a sprawler. Couples with different body temperatures can also try separate blankets. And if one partner moves a lot more than the other, go for memory foam or a mattress that allows each person to adjust the firmness of their side individually.

But what about partners that have different body clocks — or different work schedules that mean they have to go to sleep and wake at very different times? Try to still have a bedtime conversation when the first partner goes to bed. Then the night owl can leave the room and come back when it’s time for him/her to hit the hay. (Just be careful about leaving on too many lamps, since exposure to light around bedtime can mess up our sleep quality.) That way the couple can still bond, but no one gets cranky from staying up too late or getting up too early.

For problems such as snoring, avoiding alcohol and sleeping on your side can help, but it’s best to see a medical professional to make sure there aren’t any underlying health issues.

Are you "early to bed early to rise" or vice versa? Is your partner different? We'd love to hear your thoughts!