Sharing a Bed With a Restless Sleeper: How Couples Can Sleep Better

My husband is a restless sleeper. He thrashes around, yanks the comforter up to his chin, then flings it off seconds later — at which point he is often covered in sweat.

When I asked him whether this was an accurate description of his sleep habits, he told me not to leave out that he consistently wakes up around 2 a.m. and fiddles on his phone.

Fortunately, I have always been a heavy sleeper. But as I move into middle age, I am more sensitive to his restlessness. Now, when I’m feeling rundown after a night of interrupted sleep, resentment creeps in.

Sleeping well is complicated when more than one person is involved, said Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and the author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.”

Many people relish the sense of safety and security that can come from sharing a bed with a partner, she said, but in some couplings “the level of disturbance starts to override the psychological benefits.”

A January 2023 survey from SleepFoundation.org found that 53 percent of those polled who had decided to sleep separately said it improved their sleep quality. But a so-called “sleep divorce” isn’t the only option. We asked Dr. Troxel and other experts for some practical strategies for managing bedtime with a restless sleeper.

“Restless sleeper” is a broad, nonclinical term that people tend to use for someone who drifts in and out of sleep or moves around a lot, said Philip Gehrman, an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at Penn Medicine. But sometimes “restless” sleepers really have an underlying sleep disorder.

Encourage your partner to check in with their primary care physician, he said, who may recommend a sleep clinic or specialist to perform an overnight sleep study, which looks for conditions like restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea or chronic insomnia.

“People are so afraid to get a sleep study, because they think they’re going to have to sleep in a lab and have all these wires” attached, said Shelby Harris, a clinical associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. But, she added, noninvasive home-based sleep studies are common, too.

Sometimes, restlessness is simply a sign of discomfort, and a few tweaks can have a major payoff. It may help to attach two twin mattresses with a connector, Dr. Harris said. That lets you and your partner determine how soft or firm you want your mattresses to be — which can cut down on tossing and turning, and being jostled by your partner’s movements.

Separate blankets can also help, Dr. Troxel said, noting that her clients will sometimes drape a large comforter over both if aesthetics are a concern.

Some beds have technology that allows couples to adjust their sides for comfort, Dr. Harris said, or you can invest in individual mattress pads with heating or cooling capabilities.

Sleep patterns are partly hard-wired, and couples may run into issues when trying to sync up. Night owls may be fidgety simply because they’re not really tired yet, and that can keep a morning lark awake.

“There’s this idea that, ‘Well, we have to go to bed at the same time, or else there’s something wrong with our relationship.’ No!” Dr. Gehrman said. “Maybe one person just needs to get into bed earlier than the other and get into a good, sound sleep before the night owl comes in.”

Most deep sleep happens in the first third of the night, he added, so giving the earlier-to-bed partner 30 to 45 minutes before you sneak in is a good rule of thumb.

Dr. Troxel has worked with couples in which one partner has insomnia or some other issue, but misattributes his or her awakenings to a bed mate.

The experts said it can help to look at your own sleep habits and hygiene and consider whether there are steps you can take to sleep more soundly — even if your partner is up. Are alcohol or caffeine fragmenting your sleep, for instance? Is stress causing you to spiral mentally any time you wake up?

Some partners are simply happier and more rested if they agree to sleep in separate beds, the experts said, especially if one person cannot tame their restlessness or snoring. Dr. Harris encourages such couples to reserve a few minutes for intimacy before they go to bed — maybe reading next to each other or spooning for a bit.

Both partners should have their own comfortable bed or bedroom to sleep in, she said, though she acknowledged that is not always possible.

Be deliberate about when you discuss sleep issues and potential solutions, too: “Not at 2 a.m.!” Dr. Troxel said — and emphasize how valuable good sleep is for each party’s health, and your overall connection.

“It really is a pro-relationship behavior to openly discuss challenges that arise in that roughly one-third of our lives that we spend asleep and with our partner,” she said.

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