Can't sleep without your partner? Here's what to do about it

Experts have revealed why some people struggle to sleep without their partner.
Experts have revealed why some people struggle to sleep without their partner. Photo credit: Getty Images

Over the last few years, couples going through a "sleep divorce" has been all the rage -- or just the realization that partnered sleep isn't always the harmonious thing people think it should be. But what if you actually have trouble falling asleep or sleeping when your partner isn't there?

That's also common, especially among people whose partners have passed away, said Dr. Wendy Troxel, a Utah-based clinical psychologist and senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Some of the reasons this happens have to do with the partner alone, while others are more about the bedtime routine you have with them, which might be more conducive to sleep than the one you have without them.

"There has been so much focus on couples sleeping apart but it was sort of missing the other part of the story about why many couples do prefer to sleep together and why there tends to be this psychological drive to sleep with a person," Troxel, author of "Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep," said. "At the basic level, sleeping together provides a sense of safety and security, which can really facilitate healthy sleep."

The sound of a partner's breathing, the weight and warmth of their body next to you, and the feeling of being more secure and protected -- especially for women -- all can put your mind at ease, a necessary state for good sleep, she said.

"Our brains want to feel safe and secure in order to fall asleep, and one of the best ways to feel safe and secure is to have relatively predictable routines and environments," Troxel said.

There's also the positive physiological effect of cuddling, holding hands or having sex before falling asleep, which can stimulate feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, which is stress-reducing, Troxel said.

Doing these activities likely also mean you're spending less time on screens before sleep, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, associate professor of clinical medicine at Huntington Health in Pasadena, California. Sleep experts recommend turning off screens at least half an hour before going to bed.

Additionally, "partners also become part of the ritual and routine of going to bed," Troxel said.

The routine aspect is key for a good night's rest, since it helps regulate our circadian rhythms and signal to our brains that it's time for sleep, experts said.

When you're missing out on that shared experience with your partner and feeling less safe, that can increase your stress levels, experts said.

What you can do about it

"Sometimes it is possible that a person may feel the need to master sleeping alone, even though they prefer to sleep with their partner -- just for the sake of logistics and continuity when their partner isn't there," said Dr. Joshua Tal, a New York City-based clinical psychologist specializing in sleep issues.

One of the problems in trying to improve your sleep health alone is that the partner typically isn't gone long enough for you to substantially develop the skill of sleeping independently, Tal added.

"After a couple of nights of not sleeping well, you will sleep. So, it's important to give yourself a chance to experiment without the person in order to learn that you can sleep properly without them," Tal said.

Whether you take more time for yourself to practice or not, there are things you can try to obtain the comfort you need and make sleeping alone easier.

Those can include stretching, yoga, meditation, a warm shower, aromatherapy or breathing techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, 4-7-8 breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, experts said.

If you need to feel your partner's presence in some way, keep near you a photo of them or an object that has their smell, Tal said. Maybe that's one of their recently worn shirts or a pillow with their cologne or perfume sprayed on it.

A body pillow can help replace their weight in the bed, Troxel said.

If you're anxious about the room feeling too quiet without the sound of your partner's breathing, "fans or using white noises are really good for simulating breathing noises," Tal said.

Some couples sleep apart -- or at least start the night that way -- because of different sleep habits even though they want to sleep together.

If you're a morning person but your partner's a night owl, perhaps they could cuddle with you in time for you to fall asleep, then quietly leave the room to do whatever they please until they're ready for sleep, Troxel said.

If your bodies don't agree on the bedding or mattress, try using different blankets. If you have the means, two mattresses of a different firmness can be pushed together, or you could look into a mattress with technology that allows different textures and elevation levels on separate sides.

Some couples have a habit of calling to say good night right before sleep, but for some people this can be more harmful than helpful if it increases feelings of longing and loneliness rather than comfort, Troxel said. Pay attention to what works for you.

And of course there's the age-old guidance for a healthy sleep routine, Dasgupta said. It's important to not eat or drink alcohol or caffeine too late; to have a cool, dark and quiet environment; and to wake and sleep at the same times on a regular basis, he added.

Doing all these things even while your partner is there can make your chances of maintaining a healthy sleep routine even better, experts said.