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All the Ways Circadian Rhythms Influence Sex

Whether or not a couple goes to sleep at the same time can have a huge affect on their relationship

As far back as I can remember, my parents have slept in separate rooms. This devastated me as a child — why couldn’t they be “normal” like my friends’ parents? Were they not in love? 

At the time, my dad would work either all-day or all-night shifts as a limousine driver. But in recent years, he’s changed careers, and with his relatively better hours, I’ve noticed that my mom stays up until he gets home in the late evening, even if she’s exhausted. They’ll talk and talk until the early hours of the morning, when they finally head to their separate bedrooms to sleep. 

Now that I’m older, I know that choosing to sleep separately isn’t necessarily due to a lack of intimacy — it can be a decision based entirely on love. I can see that in the way my mom has changed her sleeping habits to suit my dad’s, and in how he stays up extra late just so they can have some time together. Theirs is a relationship in which their respective sleep patterns have created an intimacy that’s stronger than most, even if outside of the sheets.

Sleep researcher Heather Gunn noticed a similar trend when she studied married couple’s sleep-wake cycles in 2015. “How couples sleep together may influence and be influenced by their relationship functioning,” she told the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, explaining that marital satisfaction was often associated with more synchrony in the hours a couple was both asleep and awake together. 

In other words, a couple’s sleeping patterns play a big role in satisfaction, affecting everything from physical intimacy to emotional connection. Does that mean, then, that we subconsciously fall into relationships with people whose sleep patterns are more compatible with our own?

Not exactly. There’s little to no evidence that attraction is based on shared sleep-wake cycles, and circadian rhythms function nothing like one’s natural musk (i.e., there’s no innate impulse that attracts night owls to other night owls). But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as sleep compatibility, and how well a couple matches in that department can have a big effect. 

“Couples who are on different sleep schedules face a number of challenges,” explains Tynan Rhea, a Toronto-based sex and relationship therapist. This can be due to differences in their natural sleep patterns or some disparity in their schedules, but it can also be the result of other stressors like money or discrimination. “These things can impact on our mental health and energy levels,” Rhea continues. 

All of which is to say: It’s not just when you sleep, but how. For example, your partner might have a snoring habit that keeps you up at night. Or one of you might suffer from insomnia or be a restless sleeper. Maybe you like to be the big spoon, but your partner does, too. What if one of you is a sweater, or the room is too hot, but you don’t like the windows open? Whether physiological or mental, any of these factors can lead to a general dissatisfaction that can breed annoyance, resentment or disinterest. 

These preferences don’t always have to end in discord, though. For sleep-discordant couples like Rhea and their partner, it’s really just a matter of meeting in the middle. “In my own relationship, my partner’s optimal sleep pattern is to go to bed by 10 p.m. and wake up at 6:30 or 7 a.m.,” they say. “Regardless of when he goes to sleep, he wakes up at that hour. So if he goes to bed later, he’s wiped for the next day. He also finds the mornings to be the least stressful and most sexually enticing, because he’s not yet thinking about all the things he has to do in the day.”  

Meanwhile, Rhea’s optimal sleep pattern is to go to bed around 1 or 2 a.m. and wake up around 10:30 a.m. “I absolutely hate getting up in the morning, and due to muscular pain in my vagina, morning is the most painful and unappealing time for me to have penetrative sex,” they continue. “I prefer the night, because I’ve finished all my tasks and my vaginal muscles have had a chance to relax throughout the day, which opens up the variety of sex I can enjoy.” 

Their compromise is simple: Squeeze in quick cuddles throughout the day, and a potential “sex break” in the afternoons and on weekends. 

To be sure, it does seem like those who sleep or wake at different times are more likely to have less sex than couples who get up and go to sleep at the same time. As Paul C. Rosenblatt, a professor at the University of Minnesota, writes in his book Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing, couples who share a bed at the same time say it’s “easier to have sexual encounters with each other” and that sex functioned as part of their “going-to-sleep routine.” But for those who slept apart or at different times, scheduling sex a la Rhea became the favored option.

And if that doesn’t feel right? Invest in a pull-out couch with your beautiful, well-rested head held high. “There’s a lot of stigma around the idea of couples sleeping in separate beds, because people think it’s a sign that there’s something terribly wrong in their relationship,” says Rhea. “But sleeping in separate beds (or taking turns on a comfy couch, like my partner and I do) can help mediate the impact of stress and energy levels. Our bodies do a lot of important healing, restoration and resetting during sleep, so getting good sleep for everyone in the relationship will only benefit it.”

After all, it’s a tough thing to try to change your natural circadian rhythm, and it’s not always healthy to try. It’s based on factors you can’t control like genes and your environment, and it influences things like your hormone levels, metabolism and weight. So, to make a significant change to your sleep patterns — or merely to sync them to your partner’s — could rattle your entire system and leave you feeling worse in the long-term than if you’d slept by their snoring head all night. 

Thus, being open to sleeping apart, scheduling sex or just respecting each other’s needs can make a big difference. There’s also always my parents’ route. As my dad says, in utter confusion when I ask why he sleeps separately from my mom, “Who cares if we don’t share the same bed? No one is closer than we are.”