Dealing with a case of chronic insomnia can mess with a lot of things in your life. It can interfere with your health, your ability to do your job well, and your capacity to hold a conversation about any topic except how tired you are. But for those of us in relationships, chronic insomnia can mess up our love lives, too.
In fact, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that insomnia can impact the romantic partners of insomniacs almost as much as it impacts the insomniacs themselves; they found that people (women in particular) were made more likely to grow frustrated and short-tempered with their partners after not getting enough sleep, which sometimes lead to greater relationship problems down the road. If you’ve ever battled with chronic insomnia yourself, this probably makes perfect sense — perpetual exhaustion plays havoc with your emotions, and sometimes makes dating feel impossible.
I should know — I’ve been on both sides of that bed. When I met my boyfriend five years ago, he was a chronic insomniac, prone to fidgeting in the middle of the night and waking me up. As a light sleeper, his insomnia drove me up a wall; we often fought about his sleep patterns, fights made all the worse by both of our ragged, sleep-starved emotions. Several years later, my boyfriend had gotten a handle on his sleep issues, but I was the one who now couldn’t get six hours sleep to save my life. Luckily, we had learned what to do and what not to from our previous tangle with insomnia as a couple; those lessons saved our relationship.
The support of a partner can mean everything when you’re dealing with insomnia — their ongoing love can mean the difference between hope and despair, the difference between going to a sleep specialist and resigning yourself to a life where you spend the hours between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. looking at the Wikipedia page for popular cat names. So if your partner is currently struggling with insomnia, here are seven tips to help you both.
1. Treat Insomnia Like The Chronic Illness It Is
When I first encountered my boyfriend’s insomnia early on in our relationship, I assumed that it was somehow his doing. Can’t normal people just sleep because they’re tired? What was he doing to keep himself up? Yeah, I know, I was a real peach. My boyfriend certainly deserves sainthood and also a very nice TV for slowly and patiently explaining to me that persistent insomnia is a chronic illness, not a bad behavior that is someone’s “fault.”
Insomnia is often painted as a character flaw in popular discussions — something that insomniacs inflict on themselves by using electronics before bed, or drinking tea after 2 p.m. I won’t deny that there are certainly factors that help and hinder chronic insomnia, but if your partner is struggling with several sleepless nights a week, know that this probably isn’t an issue of something as simple as going to gym more often. Extend sympathy, not blame, to your insomniac partner. They’ll appreciate it (especially since they’re almost definitely blaming themselves for their insomnia as well).
2. Agree To Support Them In Healthy Sleep Behaviors
The only way your insomniac partner can find out if exercise or another sleep hygiene technique will help them out is to try it — and since insomnia can make trying new things difficult (on account of the way that you feel like a hollow shell of a human being), they could use a cheerleader — or better yet, a partner — in establishing healthy sleep behaviors.
Yes, it can be a drag to agree to the arcane restrictions of sleep hygiene — like only using the bed for sleep, or staying away from booze before bed — when you yourself have no trouble sleeping. But if you can bear it, try to join your boo in these activities. Insomnia can be socially isolating because you have to approach sleep differently than everyone else you know — i.e. you’re the only one of your friends who has to say no to an after-work movie, because you have to be home at 8 to get in bed by 10 to try to be asleep by midnight. This can end up driving wedges between the insomniac and a lot of the people close to them … which, in turn, can create more anxiety, which can lead to more persistent insomnia.
So, if you can bear it, tag along with your lovah while they do dorky sleep hygiene things like journaling or meditation. If you can’t offer an insomniac sleep, offering to help them feel less alone is the next best thing.
3. Help Them Stay Hopeful
When you’re really being wrecked by insomnia, it’s easy to believe that things will never end. You feel so out of control and so helpless, it is very easy to become convinced that lying awake all night, fruitlessly trying to remember the lyrics to 98 Degrees’ “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” is going to be your lot in life forever. An easy, simple, and immensely helpful thing you can do for your partner is to gently remind them that it isn’t.
Ten to 15 percent of all adults struggle with chronic insomnia — remind your partner of this when they feel like the only person on earth who can’t sleep. Remind them that there are always new methods, medications, and techniques to try. Remind them that plenty of people suffer from insomnia and then come out the other side. And then…
4. Remind Them You Love Them
Because they might not be feeling like their best self, remind them that you’re not going anywhere. When you’re chronically underslept, you often feel like a total beast, someone that no one would want to love, cherish, or watchGilmore Girls with. Being forthright about your commitment can be a tremendous source of hope, too.
5. Keep A Cool Head In Arguments
Insomnia makes you act like a jerk. There, I said it. Of course, not all insomniacs become total d-bags; but when you’re underslept, it’s easy to think everyone in the world is sleeping eight hours a night, on a bed made of money, in a nightgown made of even more money, BECAUSE LIFE IS NOT FAIR, and then take it out on everyone who crosses your path —including you, the supportive partner.
I don’t think you should take anyone’s crap, sleep-deprived or otherwise. But instead of getting sucked into name-calling or other fight behaviors that quickly escalate, try saying something like, “I know you are very tired, but please do not talk to me that way. That was not very respectful.” In my experience, this can pull you from the frustration-daze that many insomniacs exist inside — and remind you that your partner is on your side.
6. Get The Best Bed You Can Afford
Sometimes, insomnia can come down to something as simple as a crappy bed that shakes like jelly every time that you fart, or a mattress that’s so old it sags, and keeps your partner up all night with aching joints. So agree to get the biggest, most stable bed that you can purchase. Stay within your budget, but prioritize getting the best bed that you can — sometimes a new mattress really can make the difference between a good night’s rest and wishing that you had never been born.
7. Be Open To Unconventional Sleeping Arrangements
You’re young, you’re in love — of course you want to sleep in the same bed. It’s romantic, and maybe even more importantly, you’ve been led your whole life to believe that it’s what people who are in love do. Some people get so wedded to the idea that sharing a bed is what loving couples do, that they’ll flip their lid if their insomniac partner suggests sleeping separately.
Hey, I get it — separate beds are an emotionally loaded concept in our culture (though some experts believe that separate beds are the key to a happy relationship). Some people view a partner’s request to have their own bed or sleep on the couch as a rejection of them, or a cause for hurt feelings. This is, unfortunately, the worst possible thing you can do an insomniac partner, who’s just trying to find a place where they can finally rest.
If your partner is telling you they need to sleep on the futon because of their insomnia, don’t try to read a secret meaning into it about the health of your relationship — just let them sleep on the damned futon. Sleeping apart doesn’t actually ruin relationships; but separate beds might be your partner’s only shot out of this hell that is insomnia. So don’t begrudge them it, and especially don’t ask them if it means they don’t love you any more. Of course they still love you. They’d also just love to get some sleep.
8. Trust That They’re Trying
Sometimes, a person can try every healthy sleeping tip around with no success. It doesn’t mean they’re not trying, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to get better — it just means that insomnia is a tricky, hard-to-beat disorder. But don’t think we’ve given up, just because we get a little down in the dumps about it sometimes — we’re trying everything we can to sleep better, and we’re trying our hardest to remain decent partners. And just knowing that you know that can feel sweeter than a 3 mg Lunesta.