Illustrations by Erin Taj

People Can Change, Sleep Cycles Can’t

Why you’ll never sleep like your partner

Sleeping Together is a four-part series that examines the science behind that other thing couples do together in bed: sleep. We will publish a new installment every morning, starting Monday and ending Friday.

My husband’s and my sleep habits have always been pretty similar. I always sleep on the side of the bed facing the corner of the room opposite the door; he always sleeps on the other side. We both regularly stay up too late; we both regularly lament the fact that we can’t get up earlier. Our only real difference when it comes to sleep is that in the summer — no matter how hot it is — I still need to have some sort of blanket or sheet over me, a habit he wants no part of.

Why do we sleep this way?

The first one is easy. When I was a little, I got it in my head that Nosferatu lurked somewhere between my bed and the wall, and I had to sleep facing that direction so he wouldn’t sneak up on me during the night. My twin sister had the other side of our shared bedroom covered, so I figured I only needed to worry about the corner. I’ve been sleeping that way ever since.

As for the blanket, Lauri Leadley, clinical sleep educator and president of Valley Sleep Center in Phoenix, says our sleep preferences are largely a result of the self-soothing we learn in infancy. “Blankets, sheets, a comfortable pillow, there are certain things we need to have in order to relax so the brain can fall asleep,” she says. “A lot of people, for example, need a heavy blanket because that provides security.”

Since we spend a lifetime honing our own personal sleep settings, having to change them when we decide to share a bed with someone else can be a problem. Especially when our partners have decidedly different sleep habits. “Our bodies are adaptable, but it’s hard,” Leadley says.

Not to oversimplify things, but almost all of this comes down to how similar our internal biological clocks are. Women tend to have faster circadian rhythms than men, but the difference is very individual and, in part, determined by genetics. If your internal clock is faster, you get up earlier and go to bed earlier. If it’s slower, it’s the opposite. This is essentially the reason why some people are early birds and others are night owls. When couples are mismatched — one’s a night owl, the other’s an early bird — they often find themselves fighting social jetlag, or the misalignment of biological and social time. An example of social jetlag in practice: An early bird might think their night owl partner is lazy for not wanting to get up at 7 a.m. to hit the farmers’ market. Meanwhile, a night owl might find their early bird partner boring because they want to go home after just one drink.

Aside from genetics, our environments and lifestyle habits also play a role in setting our circadian rhythm, namely light exposure and daytime schedules. A 2013 study revealed that camping for one week without electronic devices can reset your biological clock to be more in tune with the natural light-dark cycle — shifting bedtimes and wake-up calls nearly two hours earlier. Since we can’t all regularly unplug from our lives and sleep under the stars for that long, waking up at the same time each day is one of the most common things sleep experts recommend to people who want to reset their biological clocks.

The good news is that your circadian rhythm can be changed — or at least nudged in a direction that can make you and your partner happy. Maybe it’s compromising on when you both get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night, or dedicating some quality time together before one person goes to sleep, even though the other plans to stay up later. “What do you do if you marry a vegetarian and you love steak?” Leadley says. “You just have to work it out.”

It’s also reassuring that, unlike other habits that seem to coalesce over the course of a relationship — watching the same movies, using the same language, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes — we don’t just pick up our partner’s sleep habits by osmosis. Research has drawn a correlation between sharing a bed with a romantic partner and your overnight sleep-wake cycles becoming more similar, but it doesn’t apply to our sleep preferences for actually getting to sleep.

In other words, the way we sleep — position, temperature, bedroom accouterments — is our way of making ourselves comfortable. And since these habits are ingrained in us since childhood, we have to be really intentional if we want to change them. To do so, some couples see sleep specialists like Leadley, or devise their own nightly system of checks and balances such as synchronized bedtimes or investing in a dual-adjustable bed. For others, the answer is sleeping separately.

Sleep disturbances do increase with age — snoring, more trips to the bathroom, hot flashes — so a lot of older couples opt for separate beds. But ironically, research also has shown that sharing a bed with a partner can have long-term health benefits such as lowering cortisol levels (which, in turn, lowers stress) and increasing oxytocin (which makes for a healthier heart). The most reliable way to increase these benefits is by having sex. But even just touching (i.e., cuddling in bed together) can have a similar effect. There’s also evidence that married people or those in long-term, happy relationships live longer, healthier lives — operative word being happy. If you haven’t figured out how to sleep well with your partner, you’re probably not happy.

Right now, happy is a foreign concept for me. That might sound a little melodramatic, but hey, I’M TIRED. My view on happy is a little skewed at the moment.

Making sleep a priority is something that my husband and I talk about almost daily, and I think a huge part of my current sleep issues (all my issues?) have to do with acceptance. I haven’t accepted that I need to make a bigger effort to get more sleep. I haven’t accepted that my kid still gets up at least twice a night and I need to prepare for that reality instead of just hoping he won’t. I haven’t accepted that my husband falling asleep on the couch has less to do with me and our relationship and everything to do with the fact that he’s exhausted, too. Once I accept these things, I can start acting appropriately to my limited-sleep reality.

All the while, I’m trying like hell to solve my insomnia. The healing crystals still aren’t working. Neither is the lavender-scented EVERYTHING in our room. But thanks to some wonderfully relaxing ASMR videos on YouTube, I’ve now cut the amount of time it takes me to fall asleep to about 30 minutes. Rearranging my daily schedule — in bed by 10 p.m., not hitting the snooze button over and over again when it goes off at 6 a.m. — has helped, too. So has a much welcomed uptick in sexual activity. In a lot of ways then, things aren’t looking so bad anymore.

But I’d be lying if I said all these efforts to improve my sleep weren’t exhausting in themselves.

Jennifer Sanchez is a freelance writer in Portland.

More from our four-part series on sleeping with your partner: