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.
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: