With the first Valentine's Day of the pandemic era approaching, it may be a good time to reexamine some tired assumptions about couples' sleep strategies. I am a sleep researcher who studies sleep as it occurs in the “real world,” which for most adults means with a partner.
Even though sleep science has traditionally viewed sleep as an individual phenomenon, my work and that of others clearly shows that how well (or not well) we sleep is intricately tied to the quality of our closest relationships. COVID-19 has further highlighted the critical importance of both healthy sleep and healthy relationships. Sleep problems can be intensified by pandemic-related stress, which can create a double whammy when it comes to relationships, because science shows that poor sleep can compromise couples' relationship functioning, and poor relationship functioning can lead to poor sleep—a vicious cycle.
Since last March, stay-at-home orders have forced families to spend more time together than ever before. On the plus side, this extra “togetherness,” combined with the slowed pace of pandemic living, revealed for many the pleasures of simply being together. But there are also downsides to this extra time together, as pandemic-related stress and uncertainty can affect people's behavior. Disrupted sleep, increased irritability, and lower frustration tolerance can shorten people's fuses and when stuck in our homes, unfortunately, it is family members who may end up bearing the brunt of bad moods. Not surprisingly, since the pandemic began, there have been reports from China of spiking divorce rates as well as concerns about potential increases in domestic violence in the United States.
How well (or not well) we sleep is intricately tied to the quality of our closest relationships.Share on Twitter
There are times to sleep together and times to sleep apart—at least for those with the resources and the space—especially during a pandemic. As my friend and colleague, Dr. Lauren Hale, describes—one reason to sleep apart is to mitigate viral exposure, at least while asleep. Hale, a professor of public health at Stony Brook University, collaborates with a team of female scientists answering pandemic-related questions on social media at DearPandemic.org.
“Families are understandably concerned about how to keep their families safe. Unfortunately, there's a lurking risk that someone unknowingly contracts COVID-19 and spreads it to more vulnerable members of their household. One way to reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission is to encourage people to sleep in separate rooms, which reduces shared airspace for six or more hours a day. If this improves your sleep, this may have added benefits of improved immune function,” she said.
Even the healthiest of couples can benefit from some space away from each other, and that could happen at night. The key is to have open and honest communication about what your needs are to avoid making your partner feel hurt or rejected. Even outside of the pandemic, many couples struggle with the roughly one-third of their lives they spend asleep, and rarely are couples given the communication tools to know how to talk about these issues.
Whether the problems stem from a snoring spouse, to differing sleep-wake schedules, to little cherubs that weasel their way into your bedroom at night, couples face many challenges when it comes to shared sleep. As I describe in my upcoming book, “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep,” whether couples choose to sleep together or apart occasionally or more permanently is less important than how couples go about reaching that decision.
Whether you choose to sleep with your partner or not, as we manage through the pandemic, make this a time to prioritize both your sleep and relationship health. Here are a few simple strategies that could help.
Treat each other to a little alone time, whether that means sending your partner out for a walk around the block as you prepare dinner or gifting your partner a few extra minutes to read or unwind, as you prepare the kids for bed. And then swap, so both of you get the benefits of a few extra minutes of “me” time.
Taking small steps can promote a virtuous cycle with healthy relationships supporting healthy sleep and vice versa.Share on Twitter
Savor the moments together. As much as too much togetherness can cause strain, it is also important to make the most of the quiet moments you share together. Whether you sleep together or apart, sometimes it's the time before falling asleep that couples share that is most important for maintaining a healthy relationship. Instead of scrolling through social media or bingeing on Netflix, use this time to connect with your spouse. Ask about their day, how they are feeling, or maybe cuddle or hold hands. Real connection before bedtime can go a long way to supporting healthy sleep and a healthy relationship.
An exercise called high-low-compliment is a great way to kick-start quality time together. Start by sharing the high point and low point of your day, then give your partner a compliment or tell them one way in which you appreciate them. The partner's job is to listen and then do the same. Sometimes it takes effort to re-engage and listen, but it is worth it.
Taking small steps like this can promote a virtuous cycle with healthy relationships supporting healthy sleep and vice versa. What better way to show your love on Valentine's Day and throughout the year?
Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct faculty member in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
This commentary originally appeared on Psychology Today on February 8, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.