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Lifestyle & Life Moments

How to Sleep Like Your Relationship Depends on It

A man and a woman laying together on a bed with their arms around each other.
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We all know sleep is essential for good health. But what happens if we can’t get into a groove with our bed partners? Or if we’re too tired to be good-tempered due to nighttime caregiving or changes in our sleep habits caused by aging? Not only can sleep deprivation trigger an avalanche of health concerns, but it can also negatively impact the emotional and physical aspects of our romantic relationships.

So, if you’re losing sleep over sharing a bed and your sex drive is suffering, read on to better understand what’s happening and how to handle it.

The importance of good sleep

Sleep benefits us in more ways than we can count. It allows the body to switch from the high-alert state of waking consciousness to a calmer state where it can focus on cell repair and the mental processing of all the information the brain gathers daily. When we sleep, our brainwave activity changes, our heart rate slows and our blood pressure lowers. It’s also when our bodies manufacture hormones, which regulate everything from our sense of alertness to our hunger. Good sleep helps keep us fit by enabling us to better respond to insulin, which means the muscles and fat tissue cells get the message to stop breaking down glucose, thereby stabilizing blood sugar levels. Sleeping well also helps us think clearly, so yeah, you really want to make sure you’re catching quality Zzz’s as often as you can.

Obstacles everywhere

Unfortunately, sleeping well isn’t always easy. First off, our sleep habits change as we age, resulting in more difficulty falling asleep and more wakeups throughout the night. By middle age, 8% of women and 16% of men suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, which can result in snoring and fitful sleep. In addition, women of all ages report worse sleep quality and sleep hygiene than men. Women also have a harder time both falling and staying asleep than men. So, it’s no surprise that they sleep for shorter periods of time and feel sleepier when they’re awake. Studies indicate that approximately 50% of midlife women struggle with insomnia that can be triggered by hormonal changes during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. On top of all of this, if you’re a new parent brace yourself for broken or fragmented sleep, perhaps for up to 12 years in early parenthood.

Holding to outdated cultural customs can also stand in the way of decent sleep. First, there’s the notion that women are more nurturing and therefore are better equipped to perform nighttime childcare duties. Then there’s the belief that since men (especially in a heterosexual relationship) will be the partner performing paid work outside the home, domestic labor should fall to women, even if it impedes their sleep. Add on the antiquated cultural emphasis on the tradition and importance of a shared marital bed, and there’s a lot that might weigh on you when you think about bedtime. “Whether or not we enjoy sleeping in the same space as our partner is often held up as a litmus test regarding the health of a relationship,” says Wendy Troxel, author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep,” guest expert on the Mattress Firm podcast “Chasing Sleep” and a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies the links between close relationships and sleep.

Too tired to tango

When the body doesn’t get good sleep, things go awry pretty quickly. Sleep deprivation affects the production of hormones. In men, it leads to reduced testosterone, which is one of the principal reasons for erectile dysfunction, and in women it can hinder orgasm.

Our emotions are also impacted by sleep. When we’re sleep deprived, we tend to be more stressed, angry, sad and mentally exhausted. Our communication skills also suffer, which means we might be shorter with our partners. “Sleep deprivation has profound consequences on our mood, irritability levels, frustration, tolerance and propensity to conflict,” says Troxel. “That can make us more likely to lash out at our partners. And having relationship conflicts can further create stress in a relationship, which can also disrupt sleep. It can be a real, vicious cycle.” Accordingly, studies show that a lack of sleep severely curtails sexual desire, thereby decreasingly the likelihood of participation in partnered sexual activity.

How to fix sleep in your relationship

Obviously, the best fix for relationship woes caused by sleep deficiencies is to get more and better-quality sleep. That might seem easier said than done, but there are some strategies for making it happen.

Reframe how you think about sleep

Remember that sleep is a health behavior, similar to eating a balanced diet, getting exercise and engaging in self-care practices like yoga. More importantly, remember that members of a couple can—and should—determine how to engage in those activities on an individual basis. “From a health behavior standpoint, we would never say that working out with your partner is the only good kind of exercise,” says Troxel, and we need to move away from that perspective when it comes to sleep, too. Her advice? Treat sleep as an essential, non-negotiable task that you perform to protect your well-being, just like brushing your teeth or applying sunscreen.

Break with tradition

Be honest with yourself about how you and your partner will get your best sleep. For some, this could mean big changes.

Forget about what you “should” be doing and do what works for you, no matter what friends or family might say. After all, they’re not in the bedroom with you, your partner and the variables challenging your sleep. “You don’t have to kowtow to what your parents or grandparents did,” says Cyndi Darnell, a New York-based sex therapist and clinical sexologist. “You get to choose.” Furthermore, it’s long past time to acknowledge that domestic and romantic compatibility are not the same thing. “How you sleep has nothing to do with whether or not you’re in love,” says Darnell. So, do what you need to do to get the quality sleep you need. This can look like:

Sleeping in separate rooms

Sometimes called a “sleep divorce” or “sleeping royal,” this arrangement is a surefire strategy for improving sleep issues if your living space can accommodate it. In your own space, you get to decide your ideal temperature, mattress feel and bedtime without distractions or compromise. If you don’t have enough space for each person to have their own bedroom, consider adding a Murphy bed in another room or even a sofa bed, which each partner can use on a rotating basis, so that everyone gets time in the location they prefer.

Sleeping in separate beds

If your partner’s tossing and turning is the main problem, try sleeping in separate beds, on a bed with a split mattress in one frame, or on a motion isolating mattress. This will allow you to stay close but to sleep independently. Individual bed covers can also help limit midnight battles over the duvet or comforter, which might inadvertently force you into a more wakeful state.

Using sleep accessories

Spooning and cuddling might work for some couples, but noise machines, ear plugs and weighted blankets are the romantic gesture of choice for others. Use them without guilt if they help improve the quality and duration of your sleep because, as Darnell says, neither sleep-improving accessories—nor sleeping apart—are a comment on whether you and your partner love each other or not.

Let go of the idea that intimacy needs to take place in bed at night

Movies and books make it seem like the best time to be intimate with your partner is late at night, after the kids are asleep and the dishes are done. In real life, however, the best time is when you’ve got the energy to hit the sheets and don’t feel a sense of obligation. “A lot of people white knuckle through sex and then wonder why they don't want to do it,” says Darnell. “But trying to make your body go through an endurance test when it's tired is the worst thing to do for your libido.” Instead, she recommends making time for sex and intimacy when it fits your schedule and rhythm, like in the mornings, if your work schedule permits, or while the kids are at afternoon activities.

More than anything, if not being able to sleep is impacting your relationship with your partner, strategize together and communicate openly. Because if you're in a committed relationship but are too intimidated to address what’s preventing you from sleeping well and working with your partner to find a solution, “then you have a bigger problem than a sleep problem,” notes Darnell.

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