How to Share a Bed While Getting the Best Night’s Sleep

8 minute read

Frank Thewes is used to hearing from people who wake up on the wrong side of bed because of their partner’s sleeping habits—but who don’t want to move into separate rooms. He was one of them, once. “It can be highly symbolic for somebody to consider a sleep divorce,” says Thewes, a couples therapist in Princeton, N.J. “For a lot of people, that’s scary territory, so they want to avoid it.”

Snoozing apart—for even just one or two nights of the week—often ends up being the best decision for a couple. But it’s not the only solution. Thewes has transformed his own sleep life thanks to a variety of new technologies (plus buying the biggest bed he could find), and now he and his wife both enjoy sleeping next to each other. “A heavily-equipped couple is a couple that can have great sleep without a sleep divorce,” he says. “You don’t have to wake up resenting your partner.”

The first step to figuring out a way to make it work is understanding that sleep is highly individualized: we all need a different amount and prefer different hours, says Jeff Kahn, CEO of the sleep tracker app Rise Science. If one person wants to go to bed at 9 p.m. and their partner would rather turn in at 1 a.m., there’s nothing wrong with either of them. “It’s a genetic thing, not a behavioral trait,” he says—and treating it as such can improve relationships. Your wife likes to sleep in until 10 a.m.? She’s not lazy; she needs it, Kahn says. Approaching conversations with that in mind can help you have more empathy for each other and talk out ways to coexist without sacrificing either of your zzzs, he adds.

With that goal in mind, we asked experts how couples can turn a few nightmare scenarios into sweet dreams.

Try a vibrating alarm

Couples who rise together, stay together? Not exactly. Plenty of people who share a bed go to sleep and get up at different times—and it’s important to have a conversation about how it’s working out, says Cali Bahrenfuss, a clinical sleep health educator who owns Delta Sleep Coaching in Sioux Falls, S.D. Ask your partner: “If I come to bed at 11, am I waking you up? Should I come in a little earlier, or a little later?” “A lot of people don’t have that conversation, and making a few small changes can go a long way,” she says.

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For example: If one of you gets up way earlier than the other, ditch the screeching loud alarm clock. Instead, opt for a vibrating alarm, advises Shelby Harris, a clinical associate professor of neurology and psychology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. If you wear a smartwatch to bed, you could configure it there; you could also test out the Shake-N-Wake Vibrating Alarm Clock, or one of many similar options available online. Vibrating alarms are typically designed to slide underneath your pillow, and they’re popular among people who are hard-of-hearing, as well as early risers who don’t want to disturb their partner. “They’re really useful for some people,” says Harris, who’s the author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. “I try to get people away from regular clocks if the other person is really sensitive.”

Buy more pillows than you think you need

If your partner is creating light that bothers you, it’s time to build a pillow wall. Everyone should have at least two comfortable pillows, so that couples aren’t fighting over who gets the best one, Thewes says. Then invest in extras that can line the space between the two of you. “If you’re trying to go to sleep and your partner is watching their devices, it's like a tiny wall there, because you can't see over it,” he says.

Test out an eye mask

These days, they come in many different styles, Bahrenfuss points out. Some are marketed as “blackout” masks and designed to block all light; others are made out of silk or are weighted. “Smart masks” are equipped with features like bluetooth headphones and even soothing heat and vibration, taking the eyemask experience to the next level.

Change the temperature of your bed

Thewes runs cool, while his wife tends to be warmer. So who gets the final say on the thermostat? It turns out it doesn't matter: The couple invested in a dual-zone temperature system for their bed. A variety of companies offer contraptions that pump warm or cool into the bed, allowing each person to choose whatever temperature they like best for their own side. BedJet’s system, for example, can blast air that’s between 66°F and 104°F—at the same time. It’s brilliant,” Thewes says. “You can’t feel the other person’s [settings] at all. I go on vacation now, and it doesn’t matter how nice the bed is, I’m like, ‘I’m missing the ability to control the temperature.’”

Buy two duvets

If you’d rather stay low tech, consider the Scandinavian sleep method—a fancy term for using two separate duvets (or other covers). That way, you can choose the fabric and weight you like best, or even shake the blanket off altogether. And no one will get mad at their bedmate for hogging the covers. “With two separate blankets, we get to be together in the bed and have individualized control over the sleep experience,” Thewes says. “A blanket is not designed for two opposing styles—‘I roll this way and you roll that way.’ The people don’t have the shortcomings; the blanket does.”

Push two beds together

Some people perform elaborate gymnastics routines while they’re asleep—tossing and turning like it might earn them a prize. If you’re tired of all that motion, consider pushing two XL twin beds together, Bahrenfuss suggests. You can even use a mattress connector to create a practically king-size bed. “The easiest way to remedy the situation—and also remedy temperature control—is to put two beds together,” Bahrenfuss says. “That way your movement isn’t disrupting your partner, and you have access to your own sheet set and comforter. It’s a better way to be able to move around at night without fear of disrupting your partner.” It often works well, she adds, for people with insomnia who frequently leave the bedroom overnight but feel guilty about annoying whoever is on the other side of the bed. It can also be a solution for those who want to share their bed with a pet, much to their partner’s chagrin.

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Another option, Bahrenfuss adds, is costlier: Shop around for mattresses like Tempur-Pedic’s that are designed for motion isolation, which means movement on one part shouldn’t be felt elsewhere. You can check out online reviews to help determine if they live up to their claims. But not everyone can afford a new mattress, Bahrenfuss acknowledges—or want to splurge without knowing it will work well for them.

Silence the snoring

Sharing a bed with someone who snores can be disruptive. But keep in mind that snoring—which is caused by an obstruction in the airway—sometimes signals sleep apnea, in which people repeatedly stop and start breathing while they sleep. If the dull roar of your partner’s snoring is keeping you awake, encourage him or her to see a doctor for a sleep study, Harris advises. Treatment with a CPAP machine could make a world of difference for both of you.

Beyond that, take a cue from Thewes and get acquainted with a pair of foam or silicone earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones. “This is the first line of defense if you have a snorer in the bed or somebody who likes to watch TV,” he says. As headphones get more advanced, they’ve also become more comfortable, he notes; he knows people who sleep in Apple AirPods Max, which slide on over the ears, but there are also lots of smaller, in-ear options that you’ll barely feel overnight.

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You might consider, too, enlisting the services of a white noise machine. Thewes has been using one for more than 40 years, since he was 5. It helps create a “neutral sound in the room” that can conceal light snoring and other sounds, he says. Keeping a box fan on can also be helpful—some people find it soothing, he says, and it can drown out a good bit of sound. 

Experts agree it’s worth experimenting with a number of options until you figure out what works for you and your partner. “Getting good sleep is a foundational piece of mental health,” Thewes says. “If you can get good sleep and be well-rested, you’re more prepared for internal and external challenges the next day, and that includes being part of a relationship or going to work or being a parent or any other part of your life.”

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