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When the Sex Is Great, but You Suck at Sleeping Next to Each Other

According to experts, 35–40 percent of couples are "sleep incompatible." Does this mean those relationships are doomed?

Sophie Saint Thomas

Sophie Saint Thomas

Photo by Mosuno via Stocksy

As an insomniac, I don't really fall asleep—I manipulate my body into depths of unconsciousness through routine, gear, and medication. I require a sleeping mask, ear plugs, and Ambien. Ideally, I'd go to bed sometime around or after midnight, and sleep as late as possible. Partner sleeping positions? Don't touch me. A sleepy attempt at snuggling will shake me out precious and rarely obtained slumber.

By contrast, my partner falls asleep instantly, around 10:30 PM, and loves to cuddle. We've joked about obtaining him a secondary partner—not for sex, but for slumbering spooning. "The sex is great, but the sleep... leaves something to be desired," he once told me.

According to the experts, we're not alone. "I would say at least 35–40 percent of couples are not sleep compatible," says sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus, the author of The Power of When who developed a quiz for determining your chronotype, or sleep pattern. "Match.com should have a section where you answer questions about sleep; you should have a sleep compatibility score."

Read more: It's Harder to Sleep if You're a Woman

"I was in a long-distance relationship where we had very different sleep schedules, and it more or less ruined our time together," Christina told Broadly. "I wake up at seven in the morning and go to bed at 10:00 PM, while my ex would stay up until three or four in the morning and sleep until noon. We'd travel to see each other, but our waking hours together were totally diminished, and we both spent a lot of time bored while the other person was sleeping."

Dr. Breus explains that the world isn't divided into early birds and night owls—there are four distinct chronotypes: dolphins, or light sleepers who are often diagnosed with insomnia; lions, or morning people; bears, whose body clock more or less follows the sun; and wolves, who like staying up late. "When you look at all four of those buckets, sometimes it's easy to sleep with one of those people and sometimes it's not, depending on where you are genetically."

In addition to chronotypes, personal preferences can also just get in the way. Unless you're engaging in "platonic" adult sleepovers, odds are you're going to have sex before you literally sleep with someone. But we rarely discuss the plethora of potential sleep differences: TV on or off? What about music or white noise? What side of the bed? Cuddling or don't fucking touch me? Extra blankets? Mattress type? Do you allow pets on the bed, or are you an animal-hating sociopath? Don't even get me started on snoring.

Competing snooze schedules can lead one partner to lose sleep and suffer the consequences, which further compounds the difficulties of sleep incompatibility. "The person getting less sleep is going to be more aggravated because they're sleep deprived," says Dr. Breus. "I've saved more marriages as a sleep doctor than I could have as a marital therapist just by working through this very issue." Not to mention the fact that evidence shows sleep deprivation negatively impacts your sex drive.

You're never going to be a person who hates cuddling and then all of sudden loves it.

Nevertheless, sleep incompatibility doesn't have to mean a doomed relationship, but how you deal with it can. "Sleeping patterns are a microcosm for other things in the relationship that people are very different about. The bigger question is: How do people resolve an issue that feels unresolvable?" asks Dr. Michael Aaron, sex therapist and author of Modern Sexuality: The Truth about Sex and Relationships. Aaron stresses that what breaks a relationship is not incompatibility, but an unwillingness to accept and work through such differences.

While a culture that teaches "early bird gets the worm," and stresses personal change would have us believe getting on the same sleep page is as simple as the night owl setting his alarm every once in a while, it's not that simple. As established with the 2001 discovery of sleep gene hPer2, while environment and lifestyle are factors, our sleeping habits are mostly genetic. "Because it's genetically based, there's not a lot of room for change," admits Dr. Breus. "People often ask me, can you hack your chronotype? There are ways to do it, but you are fighting genetics every single day, which means you have to use light therapy, melatonin, and caffeine in a very particular order to change yourself from a morning person to a night person," he says, adding that consistency is key in establishing a new sleep pattern.

There are also cultural factors to consider. Many sleep schedules are job dependent, and few of us have the luxury to choose a career based on when we'd like to wake up. Renee works in the food service industry, and her partner of a year and a half is a musician. "I go to sleep anywhere from 12:00 – 3:00 AM, but my partner sleeps from 6:00 AM until early afternoon, making the first pot of coffee around 4:00 PM. On days off I've forced myself back to sleep many mornings knowing he would not be up for a few more hours," she says. While Renee is currently trying to alter her sleep pattern to match her partner's, Christina ultimately found she was better matched with someone else. "Now I'm with someone on the same schedule as me, and it's a lot better," she says.

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Personally, with a genetic insomnia diagnosis confirmed by a doctor—after I spent an entire week spent without sleep before I gave in to the magic of pharmaceuticals—morphing into an early riser to match my partner is out of the question. But I'm also not ditching him because he's a lucky asshole who can fall asleep on the couch at 9:00 PM while watching Westworld. According to the doctors, when direct change is out of the question, the name of the game is education and compromise. "Understand the genetic principals. The first step is education in both directions," says Dr. Breus.

For some couples, a solution as extreme as utilizing the guest bedroom some nights may be necessary. For most of us, such an arrangement might be financially impossible, but you can still be understanding that if you wake up to find your partner asleep on the couch, it's not because you have cooties, but because they simply needed a cozy space to sleep undisturbed. If sharing a bed is important to you as a couple, Dr. Breus suggests reading, or, if your partner is okay with noise, watching television in bed while the one with the earlier bedtime gets their snooze on. While I rarely, if ever, fall asleep in my partner's arms, we've come to an understanding: I read in bed next to him rather in the other room, and he's finally convinced that my need to sleep in doesn't make me inherently lazy. "You're never going to be a person who hates cuddling and then all of sudden loves it," says Dr. Aaron. "The challenge of the relationship is: How do people with different genetic traits, different personalities, different sleep structures, and different relational needs work as a team to make this work?"