Sleep Compatible? How To Deal With Conflicting Sleep Patterns

When owls and larks get together (and live happily ever after)
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Sleep incompatibility is an age-old problem among couples. You know the story: one of you wants to stay up until the early hours binge-watching Netflix, the other is dancing around the kitchen to breakfast radio by 6am.

And often the problem doesn’t get detected in the early days (when you’re up all night having sex, anyway). It’s only when you move in together that the reality hits: the ‘morning lark’ is doing an impression of a nodding dog on the sofa by 9pm, the ‘night owl’ huffily burying their head under the pillow at “some ungodly hour of the morning” to the crashing sound of the dishwasher being unloaded below.

So, if successful relationships are all about compromise and meeting in the middle, shouldn’t we be synching our sleep schedules like we might our iPhone calendars?

Not according to the sleep experts.

Larks v owls

In 1976, there was a flurry of interest in the old notion of “night owls” and “morning larks” when researchers came up with the pioneering Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire, comprised of 19 questions to determine a person’s chronotype (their propensity to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period).

The upshot was that you’re either “a morning person”, “an evening person”, or “somewhere in between”. But more recent research, reported in The Atlantic, has indicated there are not two basic chronotypes but four. In addition to ‘larks’ and ‘owls’, scientists at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences identified ‘hummingbirds’ as those who had energy peaks in both the morning and the evening, and ‘lazy birds’ as those who felt lethargic during those periods.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The New York Times, Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, compared chronotypes to thumb prints, suggesting there are an infinite number because everyone is unique.

So, with so many variations on the ‘lark-owl spectrum’, it’s hardly surprising few of us find our perfect chronotype match. And although research shows chronotype is affected by factors, such as gender and age (parents: add to that, kids!), it’s largely dictated by genetics. And try as we might, it’s hard to argue with the gene pool.

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Synch with nature (not each other)

To further complicate things, our individual internal body clocks, which control our circadian rhythms, have become increasingly screwed over the years.

According to the Institute of General Medical Sciences, the body’s ‘master clock’ (SCN) controls our circadian rhythms, which take their cue mainly from light – and this ‘master clock’ controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy:

“Since it is located just above the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, the SCN receives information about incoming light. When there is less light—like at night—the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy.”

Then along came the lightbulb. Ever since its invention – and since then the glare of TVs, and now laptop, tablet and smartphone screens – those natural signals have become significantly weakened.

It’s no wonder we’re having trouble sleeping. So, rather than trying to switch our schedules to the opposite end of the lark-owl spectrum to fit in with our partner’s demands, we should be making a joint effort to reset our body clocks to fit with Mother Nature’s schedule. After all, better sleep equals a happier relationship.

Here are some tips for when your sleep schedules just don’t marry:

Use Dim Lighting
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“If you don’t want to sleep separately, be considerate. Replace any bedside lamps with reading lights as they are less disruptive,” says chartered physiotherapist and author of The Good Sleep Guide, Sammy Margo. “You should also both invest in an eye mask to block out all light.”
Wear Earplugs
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“Earplugs are ideal for blocking out noise but as one of you needs to be able to hear an alarm, it’s probably best if only one of you wears them,” says Margo. “As we sleep more lightly in the morning, it’s easier for a lark to sleep through when an owl goes to bed than it is for an owl to sleep wakes up.”
Plan Ahead
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“Larks who sleep with owls should try to put their clothes out ready the night before in another room so they don’t rustle around in the morning when they’re getting dressed,” suggests Margo. “Owls should return the favour at night by getting ready for bed in another room.”
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Try and work out the most conducive way of sleeping for the least amount of disturbance, such as a clear pathway around the bed so nobody crashes into anything when they’re creeping around, or putting the morning lark closest to the window.

“Work out which side of the bed you need to sleep at so the owl doesn’t have to pass the lark’s side of the bed at night,” adds Margo.
Go Camping
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Your best chance of finding a happy medium without compromising your own natural sleep times is by resetting your body clocks with nature’s own cues.

A 2013 study found that a week-long camping trip could reset a person’s internal body clock.

"After camping, the night owls in the group showed the greatest shifts in the timing of their internal clocks… Night owls looked more similar to earlier morning types," said study researcher Kenneth P. Wright, Jr., an associate professor of physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Sleep Separately
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“If incompatible sleeping habits are keeping you awake at night, and this is causing you to feel anger and resentment during the night and to feel irritable, tired and moody during the day, the sensible advice is to sleep in separate rooms,” says Margo.

It might sound like the beginning of the end but if you make time to have sex at other times than the usual obligatory bedtime hook-up, you could even shake things up a bit. And research does suggest that those who sleep well have better sex lives.

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