In the continuum of odd couplings, somewhere between Mary Matalin’s pairing with James Carville and a vegan shacking up with the meatiest of ‘cue masters, there are those who sleep like the loudest of the dead and those who can’t sleep at all. Never the twain should meet, except they do, because generally no one puts sleep preferences on their Tinder profile. And once you fall in love and move in together and invest in 300-thread-count sheets, what’s to be done when it becomes all too clear that one of you takes twelve alarms to get up and the other is startled awake by the slightest movement? Is the pain of bed-sharing simply part of the pain of coupling, even if it is a true and intense pain? I once dated a high-decibel snorer who bed-hogged but couldn’t be woken, even with jiu-jitsu style punches to the torso. I have felt that pain.
Given that we spend an approximate one-third of our life spans sleeping, it’s not surprising that there’s often some difficulty in this area—particularly because it’s customary for couples to sleep in the same bed, for reasons that run from the financial to the romantic. (Those twin-bedded couples you see in TV shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s were on account of the Hays Code, which kept bed-sharing from the public eye for “moral” reasons.) But of course, in even older days, entire families would sleep in the same bed, and maybe there only was one bed. Today, it’s the norm for couples to sleep together for relationship connection and communication. Historically it’s also been a matter of security, Joe Methven writes in The Atlantic, though “in modern times, sleeping together has less to do with being afraid of witches or burglars, but rather the fear of a different, social demon”—being judged for not having sex. Hey, there’s a reason “sleep together” is synonymous with “have sex.”
But back to the original question: What if you’re paired brilliantly in terms of the sex part, but less so for sleep? I spoke to Dr. Dianne Augelli, a specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who shared the comforting news that if you’re having this problem, you’re not alone. She’s even seen couples break up due to snoring. “It‘s not typically the only reason! It can speak to larger problems in the relationship,” she explains. “Most people won’t divorce but there can be fights. I’ve been told I’ve saved marriages.”
Because we all have different temperature preferences and variations, different sleep schedules, different abilities to hear and wake up from that teeny-tiny creak down the hall, “the honest truth is, we sleep better when we’re alone,” says Augelli. But you can improve your “sleep hygiene.” Limit your alcohol and caffeine consumption, especially right before bed. Don’t sleep with pets or electronic devices in the bed or the room. Go to bed and wake up at consistent times. Keep the room dark enough. Augelli suggests earplugs or white noise to reduce sound, and even different comforters, or different beds in the same room. (The Hays Code wins again.) “Some people push two twin beds together and that minimizes motion from a partner, or the stealing of the covers,” she says. “A king bed can also help.” Get snoring and insomnia checked out by a professional; snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, which means you stop breathing repeatedly during sleep and may not be getting enough oxygen.
Alas, the heavier sleeper will often need to accommodate the lighter sleeper, even if the heavier sleeper has no idea what’s going on when the lighter sleeper bashes through his REM in a fury. “I’d wake him up yelling questions about politics,” says a friend of mine about her heavy snorer boyfriend. “Literally once it was, ‘Do you think enhanced interrogation is unethical?’ And he’d wake up mid-snore and give amazingly lucid and earnest responses. I’d then remember this is a nice man I like and he has no idea of the emotional wringer I went through while he was unconscious.” They downloaded SnoreLab, an app that records and ranks snores on a decibel meter, and then talked to a doctor and found there were treatments for the problem. “It’s still not perfect,” says my friend. “But he relents when I force him to sleep in snore-resistant positions, or lets me fall asleep first.” Or, as he says, “Sometimes the light sleeper will follow the heavier sleeper when he leaves the room to sleep in the other bedroom, because she now can’t sleep with OR without him.”
If an app doesn’t cut it, “sometimes sleeping in different rooms is the best choice; you can talk before bed and then go to your own room,” says Augelli—which, honestly, sounds sort of amazingly luxurious, if you’ve got an extra room on hand. That’s what Chrissy decided to do after her sleep-opposite husband started traveling for his job. “He is a deep sleeper and a heavy snorer. I’m a light sleeper and vindictive kicker of snorers. When he doesn’t sleep well, he just goes about his day. When I don’t sleep well I get resentful, short-tempered, and lazy,” she says. Going to sleep earlier didn’t work for her because she couldn’t relax until he came to bed. Then he went out of town, and “I suddenly discovered I was sleeping so much better. I was rested and refreshed, and I wasn’t spending my entire weekend binge napping. It was like coming out of a fog I didn’t even know I was in.” While her husband was worried they might lose part of their physical connection, sleeping in separate rooms has worked better for them both. “We make more of an effort now to hug each other during the day or cuddle on the couch. Instead of just defaulting to sleeping next to each other, we are consciously trying to build that connection. And I'm not super crabby all day which is a win for everyone,” she says.
Another woman I spoke to makes it a point to find out early on in any relationship how potential boyfriends sleep. “I once went on a date with a guy who shared that he’s had trouble sleeping through the night for the past 5 years and had no explanation for it,” she said. “I asked him if the problems correlated to any life event. He did seem to acknowledge something happening with his mother. At that point, I decided that guy was just not in tune with himself and probably too much of a project for me. With relationships being challenging already, I like to watch out for that one and steer clear … unless the person is entirely perfect otherwise, which is impossibly rare,” she says. And, of course, just because they’re perfect at sleeping doesn’t mean they’re perfect for you. I once dozed in dreamy bliss next to a man who didn’t make a noise once he settled into his corpse-pose, but unfortunately, sleeping was the best part of our relationship.
When they are perfect—or perfect enough that we don’t want to give them up—take a lesson from Emma. Her husband has a series of lights installed in the bedroom that dim and change from warm to cool tones, a fan for white noise angled in a specific direction, and electric tape over other lights in the room. She dresses quietly in the dark each morning because she has to go to work earlier, and puts her bags in the hall the night before so she doesn’t wake him. “I don't want to guilt him for being bad at sleep,” she says. “The only time it's really come up was once when he had to get up earlier than me for a flight and he got dressed in the dark. He called me later to tell me how hard it was and how grateful he is that I go to that trouble every day. That warmed me enough to keep me from getting bitter about it.”