My boyfriend’s sporadic sleep schedule means he’ll probably die young of intestinal cancer. His shifts at work begin anywhere from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night, meaning there’s no true pattern to his sleeping hours — or time spent with me. Not to mention, he can’t manage to fall asleep unless the room is 65 degrees, a beanie is covering his eyes and 1,000 newly consumed calories are sitting in his stomach, whereas I could probably pass out at a noise concert. I take comfort, though, in knowing that I will die at a ripe old age, peacefully in my sleep, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Science has shown time and again that having a consistent sleep schedule is an essential aspect of one’s health, even if the number of hours slept remains the same. In 2015, for example, a study found that those with significant differences in their sleeping hours between work days and days off tended to have reduced metabolic functions, leading to higher body fat, cholesterol, insulin resistance and waist size. A more recent study last month found that with each hour of variability in one’s sleep schedule, these risks increased by 27 percent. Meanwhile, long-term shift work, where one has to work at night, has also been linked to heart disease, stomach ulcers and cancers.
The trouble is, most of us aren’t freaking robots — we’ve got other stuff to manage besides just working and sleeping, and even if your own schedule is semi under control, there’s no guarantee that your partner’s will be. Say, for instance, you’re working night shifts, and you’ve kinda figured out a way to make that work — what happens when you end up with a partner who works 9 to 5?
First up: Talk about your sleep needs. “It’s critically important that both sleepers respect their own need for sleep as well as their partner’s need for sleep,” says Terry Cralle, a clinical sleep educator. “The majority of adults need between 7 to 9 hours daily. That should be carved out of the daily schedule and viewed as a non-negotiable item.”
While it might sound romantic to try and survive off four hours of sleep in order to spend some quality time together, the sad fact is, you’ll quickly become someone your partner doesn’t even want to be around: Sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in negative emotions like anger, irritability and sadness, as well as a decrease in attentiveness, decision-making abilities and reaction times. Basically, not getting enough sleep makes you too moody to care about your partner.
Getting good sleep, then, is important for both of you. But in order to do so, says Cralle, you’re going to have to plan ahead. “Couples have to approach differing sleep schedules proactively — don’t wait until bedtime, when one or both are tired, to figure this out. Do so during the day, or at a time when you’re not exhausted and ready to go to bed.”
It’s not just couples with radically different sleep schedules who should follow this advice, either. Sixty percent of all people sleep with another person, and naturally, most don’t manage to close their eyes and pass out at the exact same moment. “Some couples sleep well together — others do not. If not, it’s no reflection on the state of the relationship,” says Cralle. Many couples have different preferences for temperature or mattress type (usually easy fixes) while some people are just genetically wired to want to sleep at a time when their partner would rather be up making scrambled eggs.
If sleeping incompatibilities can’t be fixed with the purchase of a new mattress, “Simply sleep separately,” says Cralle. “I don’t like the term ‘sleep divorce’ because of the negative connotation with sleeping separately — whether all the time or some of the time, it should have no negative connotation. Sleep deprivation should be the only thing with a negative connotation.”
While sleeping together can feel like a bonding experience, Cralle believes that quality sleep is far more important to a relationship. “Well-rested people make for happier relationships,” says Cralle. “Sleep deprivation can lead to health problems (both physical and psychological) as well as irritability, job dissatisfaction, problems communicating, decreased libido, risk-taking, poor judgment, poor job performance, pessimism, lack of motivation, problems concentrating, fertility problems, memory problems — a host of things that can negatively impact a couple’s well-being.”
And so, the most important thing is for couples with different sleep schedules to simply respect each other’s needs. That means being quiet when your partner is resting, but also being willing to wear earplugs when it’s your time for bed. Like most areas of a relationship, compromise is key.
As for us, after a few years of working those overnight shifts multiple times a week, my boyfriend has figured out how to tweak his before-bedtime routine. He falls asleep soon after he arrives back home, meaning we get to spend time together when I’m home from work. The fact that he’s not able to sleep the same hours every night is still potentially a harbinger of intestinal cancer, but at least we’ll get to experience his metabolic decline with each other.