For years, I’ve lived with an oddly specific, self-diagnosed sleeping condition. Here’s what happens: Anytime I try to watch a movie with someone I’m dating, I fall asleep within 30 minutes — with the exception of Point Break, of course.
Though I’ve been a bit embarrassed by my romance-induced narcolepsy, a recent series of TikTok videos suggests that feeling sleepy with your romantic partner is actually a sign of a healthy relationship. Because you wouldn’t just snore through The Return of the King with someone if you weren’t already comfortable with them, right?
Or as therapist Simone Saunders puts it, when you’re around someone who makes you feel “safe,” it can activate your parasympathetic nervous system. When this happens, your heart rate drops, your breathing slows and your blood pressure lowers, promoting relaxation and digestion. It’s essentially the opposite of fight-or-flight mode, and is often called “rest-and-digest,” which many of these TikTokers claim induces a lot of sleepiness, too.
Saunders refers to this as “co-regulation,” a concept in psychology that refers to parent-child bonds as well as connections between romantic partners, wherein the two individuals become so intertwined that they influence each other’s emotions, physiology and behaviors. However, according to senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation Wendy Troxel, who has researched co-regulation extensively for her book Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep, the TikToks are an “extreme over-simplification of what is scientifically meant by co-regulation.”
As much as being in the presence of a loved one can make you feel relaxed, which might help with your ability to fall asleep, those feelings don’t “induce sleepiness.” This is because sleep is mostly driven by two key processes: circadian rhythms and sleep drive, “which control the timing and propensity to sleep, respectively,” Troxel explains.
That said, Troxel’s work has shown that couples in healthy relationships have sleep patterns that are largely co-regulated. “When we studied couples’ sleep, we found that on a minute-to-minute basis, they showed a 75 percent rate of concordance in their sleep-wake states throughout the night,” she notes, adding that romantic partners play a unique role in helping each other unwind before bedtime. “Just spending time together before bedtime, talking, cuddling or being intimate can promote healthy sleep by increasing positive emotions and by promoting the release of the so-called ‘love’ hormone, oxytocin, which is known to reduce anxiety and promote feelings of connection and security.”
But again, being sleepy isn’t automatically a sign of emotional intimacy — it could just mean you’re tired. In fact, there’s usually a sleep adjustment period for new relationships after a couple first starts sharing a bed, Troxel points out. Along those same lines, people in budding relationships may also experience a psychological phenomenon known as “new relationship energy,” which brings a heavy dose of dopamine with it. As such, people tend to get less sleep during this time.
So while I may feel comfortable enough with the new guy I’m dating to pass out in his lap, this doesn’t mean I’m in love. It just means I’d rather be watching Point Break.