How Your Partner Might Be Making Your Insomnia Worse, According To This New Study

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I am not a good sleeper. I’ve struggled with both falling asleep and staying asleep my whole life — but now that I’m older and partnered up, it seems there might be another factor at play in my inability to capture those Zzzs which I hadn’t hitherto considered: Your partner can actually make your insomnia worse, according to a new study. What’s more, this can be the case even when your partner is trying to help you deal with your insomnia — and, in fact, might actually be more of an issue when they’re trying to help.

Led by Monash University postdoctoral research fellow Alix Mellor, PhD, who is also the coordinator for the Researching Effective Sleep Treatments project at the university's School of Psychological Sciences, and Sean P. A. Drummond, PhD, a professor of clinical neuroscience at Monash’s Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, the research team examined 31 partners of people who were seeking treatment for insomnia. Both the partners and the insomnia patients began by completing questionnaires: For the partners, the questionnaires completed were the Family Accommodation Scale, the Beck Anxiety Scale, and the Dyadic Adjustment Scale; meanwhile, the questionnaires completed by the insomnia patients included the Insomnia Severity Index. The insomnia patients also kept a sleep diary for the week prior to the beginning of treatment.

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According to the study results, the partners’ attempts to be supportive of their insomnia-suffering loved ones may actually have had the opposite effect of what they intended. Indeed, a number of the suggestions partners offered the insomnia patients run in direct opposition to what cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) supports as effective treatment: 74 percent of partners suggested that insomnia sufferers either go to bed earlier or wake up later — even though CBTI’s “sleep restriction” technique requires that patients go to bed at midnight or later and wake up at a regular time every day, restricting them to about six hours of sleep each night. (The idea is to restrict your time in bed in order to decrease the amount of time you spend awake in the middle of the night, according to the Stanford Health Center.) Additionally, 42 percent of partners encouraged the insomnia suffers to read or watch TV in bed, while 35 percent suggested naps, caffeine, or reducing daytime activities. CBTI, however, pays careful attention to sleep hygiene, according to the National Sleep Foundation — including making sure that your bed is only used for sleep and sex, as well as eliminating naps.

Said Mellor in a press release, “It is possible that partners are unwittingly perpetuating insomnia symptoms in the patient with insomnia.”

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Furthermore, the study showed that the accommodations many partners made in order to help the insomnia patients also had a bit of an adverse effect on the partners, particularly with regards to their own sleep and their lives outside of work. As a result, the partners also experienced more anxiety — although for what it’s worth, the insomnia patients often found their relationships more satisfying with their partners’ support.

Clearly there’s a lot more to unpack here, giving further research a few lines of inquiry to pursue. In response to the current study’s results, Mellor said, “It is therefore important for more data to be collected to determine whether insomnia treatments may better benefit patients and their partners by proactively assessing and addressing bed partner behaviors in treatment programs” — or, in other words, treating people with insomnia who are in relationships and who share a bed with their partners might actually benefit from including both or all partners in the treatment plan.

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And honestly, that makes a lot of sense when you think about it; how much sleep you do or don’t get can affect your relationship in some pretty dramatic ways, with at least one recent study having shown that the more sleep you get, the stronger your relationship will be. More broadly, if one person’s health suffers,the effects aren’t limited to just that one person; all the parties involved feel them. As such, insomnia might be one of those things that’s best tackled at least partly as a relationship challenge — with all partners coming together as a team to kick its butt. After all, what else are partners for?