Oliver and Jaymee had been together for 20 years and were the parents of two tweens. The first issue they brought up in couples therapy was a common one.
Jaymee always “collapsed at 9:30 and went to bed”, leaving Oliver alone in the living room. “I’m finally ready to start my evening and he’s already asleep,” Oliver complained.
“I can’t help it,” Jaymee countered, “I’m just exhausted. I beg Oliver to shift his sleeping patterns but he refuses. It’s like he’s avoiding being in bed with me.” “That’s exactly how I feel!” Oliver objected.
Many couples don’t go to bed at the same time. Some people are night owls who thrive at night and some are morning larks who are most energetic in the morning, and it is those preferences that most determine a couples’ co-sleeping patterns, also known as dyadic sleep patterns.
How synced a couples’ bedtime is can have a significant impact on their relationship but contrary to common assumptions, these effects can be both negative and positive and are often a mix of both. On the pro side of syncing sleep times, some people simply love to fall asleep while in an embrace because they find it physically comforting.
To others, having the same sleep time represents their relationship is in a good place. Being in the bed alone makes them feel anxious because they associate their partner’s absence as a sign of conflict or avoidance, reflecting relationship tension.
While that might be the case at times—and probably is when a partner who usually goes to bed at the same time chooses not to do so following an argument or with little explanation—feeling unsettled when our partner stays up late when there are no current tensions in the relationship can be a sign of a deeper psychological issue.
Studies have linked these kinds of anxious feelings to a person’s attachment – how one’s experience with caregivers in earlier life impacts our expectations regarding our adult partners’ ability to be consistently warm, nurturing, and responsive to our needs. Insecure attachment can cause us to feel anxious when our partner is present and to require more reassurance from them than the circumstances might suggest.
Attachment issues aside, for many couples separate bedtimes are the norm and bare no reflection of the state of their relationship. Other than a person’s circadian preferences, our sleep habits are often just that—habits we develop for a variety of different reasons.
In most cases, separate sleep times are simply the result of trying to manage our sleep, such as when one member of a couple snores, has a restless leg or makes frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom, or when a person has insomnia and they find it easier to fall asleep when they are alone in the bed. And given how important sleep is for health, mental health, and general cognitive functioning, making sleep a priority is a sound and important consideration.
Having separate sleep times can have other advantages. Some people value their alone time and being up when their partner is sleeping is their only way of getting it, and couples with younger children can rotate child care in order to divide parenting responsibilities more equally.
That said when a couple has different sleep schedules they do need to consider how it impacts their relationship and discuss ways to address any issues that might ensue from their discordant bedtimes.
10 Questions To Consider When Partners Have Different Bedtimes:
Each member of the couple should note which topics they would like to discuss. Start with the topics you both chose, then take turns discussing the ones only one of you chose:
- Do you need to find other times to talk and connect if you typically do so when you’re both in bed (and awake)?
- Do you need to find other times to have sex if you’re used to having it before bed?
- Should you consider spending an hour cuddling on the sofa before the lark collapses and leaves the owl by themselves?
- Are there other ways to find alone time so that your sleep schedules can be better synced?
- Do you need to get your kids to bed earlier so you have more time together before exhaustion takes over?
- Do you need to find alternative times to watch your favourite shows together?
- Should you schedule daytime naps on the weekend to allow for an intimate (or sexual) relaxed time in bed together?
- Do you need to communicate more clearly about your reasons for staying up later or going to bed earlier?
- Does one or both of you snore and need to consult a doctor for sleep apnea?
- Does one or both of you need to improve your sleep hygiene and go to bed at a consistent time every night and wake up at a consistent time every morning?
Differences in bedtimes can be managed but it takes communication to set mutual expectations and problem-solve issues that arise when couples are unable to both unwind and relax together before they go to bed. Set a time to talk and work together to get yourselves on the same page.
Dr Guy Winch had all couples nodding in agreement and completely surprised by the simplicity of the complaint sandwich and small bids at the 2019 Upgrade Your Life event. Re-live every moment of that talk below.