When Your Partner Affects Your Sleep


Cindy Kuzma

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You share so much with your spouse or partner—treasured memories, children and pets, a cozy home, a comfy bed. But if one of you is affected by a sleep disorder such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome (RLS), or sleep apnea, you may also be sharing its harmful effects. The consequences of sleepless nights—including heart disease, depression, and diabetes—can be severe for you both.

“We’ve learned now that sleep is as important as diet and exercise. We have to put a priority on sleep in order to maintain health,” says Michael J. Decker, Ph.D., R.N., R.R.T., a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and an associate professor at Georgia State University. That means getting help if you or your mate is suffering from a sleep-related issue.

Nighttime Trembles and Terrors

Far from the dream of peaceful slumber, some sleep disorders actually involve physical movement that can awaken or threaten a bedmate.

For instance, the uncomfortable leg sensations of RLS can cause a person to toss and turn. About 80 percent of people with RLS also have periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS), in which a sleeper’s arms and legs twitch and jerk every 15 to 40 seconds.

People with sleep apnea snore frequently and stop breathing periodically throughout the night. Often, their spouses—kept awake by snoring—lie terrified, waiting for them to inhale again.

Less common but equally frightening is rapid eye movement behavior disorder (RBD), in which people act out their dreams. “Bed partners of RBD patients have been thrown out of bed, seriously injured by unintentional punching or kicking, or hit by lamps being knocked off the table,” Dr. Decker says.

Missing Your Zs

RLS or other sleep disorders often contribute to insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep. Stressful events, travel, irregular work shifts, and medical problems like acid reflux or chronic pain can also steal our snoozes.

Insomnia affects 30 to 40 percent of us each year. And when it does, chances are it affects our spouse as well. For one thing, tossing and turning can interrupt a partner’s rest. “Bed partners can actually end up with insomnia-type symptoms, too, because their sleep is also disrupted all night long,” Dr. Decker says.

The effects of insomnia stretch into the daylight hours. People who can’t sleep at night tend to be tired, depressed, irritable, and unfocused during the day. Their mood swings strain relationships, and they might not enjoy regular activities with their families.

Spotting the Problem

Many of these conditions remain a mystery to the actual sleeper. “Many times it is the bed partner, rather than the person afflicted with the disorder, who first recognizes that something is wrong,” says Dr. Decker.

Even then, some people with sleep disorders remain in a state of denial. Spouses have turned to recording their partner’s nighttime habits to prove their case. Others sleep in another room or bed.

“A surprising number of men in our clinic say they’ve chosen to see a clinician simply because their spouse has threatened to leave if they did not get their sleep problem corrected,” Dr. Decker says.

Finding a Solution, Together

Sleep disorders can threaten relationships, but there’s a positive side to sharing a bed. A partner who cares about your health can motivate you to get help. The most important thing a mate can do is understand that sleep disorders aren’t signs of weakness but real medical conditions.

“People who have these disorders are really suffering, and they’re suffering in silence while the rest of the world is asleep,” Dr. Decker says. “Partners who believe in them and support them empower them to get help and get better.”

RLS, insomnia, and other sleep disorders are treatable. Many therapies take effect the first night they’re used, Dr. Decker says. The first step is talking with your primary care doctor. Medications, counseling, and lifestyle changes can let you—and your partner—drift off to dream once again.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 5, 2017

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