Not sleeping well? Your problem might be your partner. Sharing a bed with a loved one often means that his/her sleep problems create problems for you, too. Fatigue might not be the only fallout— poor sleep has been linked to increased risk for health problems ranging from heart disease to Alzheimer’s…and when a partner is the cause of poor sleep, relationships often suffer as well.
Some aspects of couples’ sleep issues are widely misunderstood. Here, five myths that cost couples sleep—and what to do about them…
Myth: Never go to bed angry.
Reality: Conventional wisdom holds that couples should always work through conflicts before retiring for the night. But the evidence suggests otherwise— going to bed angry often is preferable to arguing right before bed, from both a sleep and a relationship perspective.
Research conducted at University of Utah found that anger before bedtime does not disrupt couples’ sleep…but conflict before bedtime does. Nighttime conflicts are likely to escalate, potentially to relationship-straining levels. Partners tend to be tired as bedtime nears, so they’re not thinking and listening at their best—that may cause arguments to descend into unproductive bickering.
Better: When you and your partner start to get upset at one another late in the evening, put the matter on hold… even if that means going to bed while you are at odds. Say something like, “Let’s table this discussion—it’s too important for us to try to figure out when we’re tired and unlikely to listen well.”
Myth: One partner can tell how well the other slept.
Reality: Your observations about your partner’s sleep are not a fair assessment of how tired he/she is.
Example: Women suffer from insomnia at about twice the rate of men, so researchers at University of Michigan were shocked to discover that women actually sleep 23 more minutes per night than men, on average. While women get more sleep, they tend not to sleep as deeply as men—women’s brains remain more active during sleep, perhaps because throughout human history mothers have had to be attentive to their babies’ nocturnal needs.
Result: Women can wake fatigued even if they get lots of sleep.
Gender-related sleep misconceptions can work the other way, too. Example: Some women complain that their husbands fall asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow, while these wives struggle to rest—and that sometimes is exacerbated because their husbands snore. But snoring could be a sign of sleep apnea or a serious difficulty that’s reducing the quality of their partners’ sleep.
Myth: Sleeping apart leads to lonely, sexless relationships.
Reality: If you or your partner regularly cost each other sleep by snoring, thrashing or some other issue, sleeping together is more likely to leave you lonely and sex-deprived than sleeping apart. A series of studies conducted at University of California, Berkeley found that enduring poor sleep increased feelings of loneliness the next day. Researchers also found that when women sleep poorly, they report lower sexual desire and less sexual activity the following day…and men who consistently get insufficient sleep experience a significant drop in testosterone levels, reducing their sex drive. Sleep-deprived couples tend to be more short-tempered with each other as well, which can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and make sex even less likely.
Having separate bedrooms is not the solution for all couples’ sleep problems. Sharing a bed has benefits, too—it gives couples time to bond and boosts their levels of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and promotes feelings of comfort. But: Separate bedrooms should not be ruled out when couples struggle to sleep together. Most of the benefits of sharing a bed occur before sleep, so one option is to spend presleep bedroom time in the same bed, talking, cuddling and/or having sex…then one partner can move to a different room.
Myth: When one partner’s restless leg syndrome is keeping the other partner awake, the only effective solution is a prescription.
Reality: Iron deficiency is a common cause of restless leg syndrome. Taking iron supplements might prevent you from accidentally kicking your partner awake at night. Caution: Ask your doctor to test your iron levels to confirm a deficiency before taking iron supplements—too much iron is just as unhealthy as too little.
Myth: A compassionate partner should express concern for his/her partner’s struggle with insomnia.
Reality: Loving partners tend to voice their sympathy for their significant others’ sleeplessness. Many also suggest that their partners sleep in, nap or head to bed early.
Unfortunately, this concern is counterproductive. Insomnia is, in part, a “thought” disorder—the more the insomniac focuses on it, the more difficult it is to overcome. Partners’ concerned questions and sympathy encourage rumination on the subject. And while sleeping in, going to bed early and napping might seem like obvious solutions to offer an insomniac, spending more time in bed struggling to sleep only worsens insomnia. Instead, it is better for him/her to stick to a regular daily sleep schedule, and restrict his hours in bed to the hours when he/she is most likely to achieve sleep, probably at night.