What does your bedtime routine say about your relationship? More than you might think. In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vinderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, breaks down the science behind bedtime.
I am someone who has a very strict, and very early bedtime of around 9 pm every night. That doesn’t mean that I go to sleep at 9 pm, but it does mean I start my bedtime routine at that time, even on weekends. My husband, however, is of the opinion that sleep is a waste of time, and he enjoys having his space at night. We both work from home and we have a child, so getting alone time can be difficult—but it’s something we both value and want each other to have.
The reality is that not having the same bedtime can be difficult. I get to take some time away from screens and go to bed in a dark quiet room. When he gets to bed, considerably later than me, he now has to do his whole routine with me asleep. If that involves scrolling through social media on his phone, it means he may interrupt my sleep with the light from his phone or the sound of videos playing.
He tries to avoid this disruption to my sleep by spending his wind-down time on the couch. Inevitably, he falls asleep while watching his latest Netflix documentary and wakes up in a daze around 2 in the morning to stumble to bed. I feel guilty about him falling asleep on the couch every night and try to accommodate his bedtime needs with my own. With this routine, we're not getting the quality sleep we probably need.
Our bedtime conundrums are not uncommon. It seems like everywhere you look, there are articles and news stories about the importance of sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the optimization of your environment to promote the best sleep outcomes possible, such as through limiting technology use, sleeping in a dark room, having a set bedtime and wake time, and having a going-to-bed routine. Something that you may not know, however, is that your bedtime routine with your partner can impact both your quality of sleep and the quality of your relationship.
How your bedtime routine affects your relationship
Research has identified that how couples spend their leisure time together is one of the biggest predictors of their relationship satisfaction. Bedtime is an obvious time of day to get to spend with one another. It is usually free of children and work responsibilities and provides a space for couples to interact with one another. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for couples to build intimacy together. It may seem fairly obvious, but some of the ways in which people build intimacy include engaging in sexual activities together and having conversations with one another, which can be encouraged by having a shared bedtime routine. An individual’s satisfaction with their bedtime routine predicts how frequently they have sex and their satisfaction with their sex life and relationship.
In addition to the relationship-building behaviors that occur during bedtime, leisure time behaviors can also occur. Specifically, with technology use becoming more commonplace as a relaxation behavior throughout our day, it also may creep into our evening leisure time routines. When two partners use technology independently during bedtime, it is associated with lower satisfaction with that relaxation time, as well as increased experiences of conflict. When partners use technology together, it doesn’t have any meaningful impacts on perceptions of satisfaction with that time or experiencing conflict, and some research finds that this shared use may promote relationship satisfaction. This technology use can include phone or social media usage, as well as TV or movie watching.
Nearly 65% of sexual encounters between couples occur at night according to one study. When one partner feels that the other’s media use is interfering with them spending time together, or is leading to their partner not listening to their conversations, they will also be more likely to feel less satisfied with their sex life. This is particularly true for women in heterosexual relationships. Men in these relationships may be less aware of how problematic their technology or media use is during bedtime and how it may be interfering with intimacy in their relationship.
What about going to bed at different times? Research finds that couples’ discrepancies in bedtimes and behaviors can impact individual psychological outcomes. Specifically, couples who had different bedtimes experienced greater perceptions of psychological distress than couples who had similar bedtimes. Interestingly, on weekends, couples who had different wake times in the morning reported worse quality sleep than couples who had similar wake times.
How can you foster a better bedtime routine as a couple?
Sometimes there are unavoidable complications with trying to establish a bedtime routine. It may not be feasible to go to bed or wake up at the same time as your partner. It may also be the only time you have as individuals to unwind. So, how can you optimize your bedtime as a couple in light of real-life circumstances?
I would recommend having a conversation with your partner about what your ideal bedtime looks like. It might be a fun exercise to individually write down what the best bedtime routine looks like for each of you beforehand and then discuss what you each wrote down. Some things to consider in your bedtime routine:
Bedtime and wake time: what are your ideal bed and wake times during the week and on the weekend? Would you go to sleep and wake up separately or together?
Technology use: would you and your partner use technology in bed together or separately? Would you try to remove technology from the bedroom all together?
Communication: would you take the time to discuss your day or your upcoming plans? Do you leave certain topics at the door (like work or parenting concerns, for example)?
Intimacy: do you cuddle together or do you like your space? Do you have sex or is that for another time?
Other activities: do you read in bed or engage in other wind-down hobbies (like knitting)?
Consider the ways in which you and your partner have similar and different ideal states for bedtime. Also, consider the ways in which your desired bedtime states align with your current bedtime routine. Are you both generally satisfied with bedtime today or is there an opportunity for improvement?
An easy way to experiment with improving your bedtime routine is to put away the phones and turn off the TV. Try to spend 30 minutes together talking with your partner instead of scrolling endlessly on your phone. If you aren’t going to sleep at the same time, you can still schedule time together in your room before you separate into your own activities. As you consider setting goals for the new year, think about improving your bedtime as a couple!