Research by the Gottman Institute shows that many marriages end due to loss of intimacy and connection, especially 10 to 12 years into the relationship. But a “silent drift apart" typically starts much earlier: One person starts to feel unhappy with the lack of closeness in the relationship—less connection, less intimacy, less conversation, less time spent together, less appreciation, etc.
About three-and-half years into a relationship, couples also tend to stop going to bed at the same time.
There are many ways to “drift-proof” your relationship, such as regular date nights, surprising each other, filling each other's "emotional bank account," or thanking each other. However, one of the easiest habits to adjust is to go to bed at the same time, at least a few nights a week, with plenty of time to connect before falling asleep. But research shows that a full 75% of couples do not go to bed at the same time, usually because one person is surfing the web, working, or watching TV.
Researcher Jeffrey Larson found that
"[C]ouples whose wake and sleep patterns were mismatched (e.g., an evening person married to a morning person) reported significantly less marital adjustment, more marital conflict, less time spent in serious conversation, less time spent in shared activities and less frequent sexual intercourse than matched couples."
Another reason to go to bed at the same time? It makes female partners view daytime interactions more positively the next day. It's pretty amazing that such a simple, easy gesture of togetherness provides a female partner with rose-colored glasses for the following day's interactions. (For male partners, simply getting a good night's sleep makes them feel more positive about interactions with partners the next day (Hasler & Troxel, 2010).)
Licensed clinical psychologist/sleep medicine specialist Wendy Troxel said, “For many couples, that time in bed before going to sleep is sometimes the most precious time and the most important time.”
This time is often key for cuddling, which research shows helps people feel nurtured and relaxed. It can also inspire feelings of love, happiness, comfort, satisfaction, bonding, and feeling appreciated. Cuddling is also a time during which many people talk about relationships, the future, work or school, movies, and friends and family (van Anders, Edelstein, Wade, & Samples-Steele, 2012). Research also suggests that when couples talk after sex—“pillow talk”—oxytocin can make it more likely that they will disclose positive feelings for each other, which is associated with trust, relationship satisfaction, and closeness.
But keep your cell phone out of the bedroom, as looking at your phone while talking to your partner can lower relationship satisfaction. When drifting off to sleep, consider staying close, as one study found that partners who slept less than an inch apart were more likely to be content with their relationship than those maintaining a gap wider than 30 inches. More couples that made physical contact through the night were also happier than those with a "no touching" rule while sleeping.
And what if you are stuck in an impasse between a night owl and a morning lark? What if you really want to de-stress and relax by yourself before focusing on time with your partner? Compromise by going to bed earlier, and at the same time, at least a few nights a week. If you find it difficult to break or tweak a mismatched bedtime habit, start the new habit on vacation (as Charles Duhigg suggests in The Power of Habit); adjust your cues (such as setting an alarm clock to go to bed); or start a discussion with your partner about the potentially powerful long-term benefits of going to bed at the same time, at least sometimes.
Erin Leyba, author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017), is a counselor for individuals and couples in Chicago's western suburbs: www.erinleyba.com. Sign up for blog updates at www.thejoyfix.com, or follow her on Facebook.
Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD