Opposing body clocks can wreak havoc on a relationship if you don’t take the time to understand why one of you just can’t bounce out of bed in the morning, and the other effortless rises before the sun.
Sleep researchers are becoming increasingly interested in chronotypes – that is, the body’s natural body clock – and the way they influence everything in our lives from our work performance to our relationship satisfaction.
Being romantically involved with someone whose body clock doesn’t sync with yours can come with obvious challenges – one of you might love the idea of a smashed avo breakfast date, while the other is planning a late-night movie session.
“You could say that an extreme morning person and an extreme evening person could share a bed but never see each other, because they have such extreme different rhythms,” Professor Stefan Volk, from the University of Sydney’s Body Heart and Mind in Business Research Group, tells Coach.
But by learning more about body clocks and understanding the legitimate biological differences that exist between morning and night-inclined people, sleep researcher Dr Elise Facer-Childs tells Coach our relationships could really benefit.
“There is clear biological, physiological and genetic differences between morning larks and night owls – their hormone rhythms are different,” says Facer-Childs, who is a chronobiologist at the Monash University Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.
“The hormone melatonin starts to rise in the evening and starts to help our bodies prepare for bed … and that happens a lot earlier in morning people than late people.”
Night owls aren’t sloths
Unfortunately, society tends to have a bias against night owls, labelling them lazy for having a sleep-in — even if they achieve the same amount in the day, just at a later hour.
“There’s a big stigma in our society that people who get up late are lazy,” says Facer-Childs.
“Say, a morning lark gets up at 6am, runs on the beach, walks the dog, plans the lunch, goes to work and comes home; you could take the exact same set of events and shift it three or four hours later, with the night owl getting up at 10am [and they would] not be seen as productive.”
So if you’re smashing your to-do list before your bed buddy rolls from bed, that doesn’t necessarily make you a more productive partner.
“We need to increase awareness and understanding of these differences, and get away from this stigma of, ‘If you’re late, you’re lazy’,” Facer-Childs says.
“There will be times when you both have to get up early, and that’s going to be hard for the night owl. But if you understand that, maybe you can be more sympathetic.”
So if they don’t greet your surprise breakfast in bed with the appropriate level of enthusiasm, maybe re-think when the best time to dote on them might have been.
“When your night owl partner gets up and feels awful, instead of reacting like, ‘Oh come on, we’ve had this planned for ages! Why are you acting like this?’, if you could understand a bit more about why they’re struggling, then that could change how you see that situation, and then going forward into that morning activity, you already feel different.”
How to make the most of loving a different chronotype
Facer-Childs says a lot of attention is given to the downsides of out-of-sync circadian rhythms in relationships — however it can be re-framed as a positive way of allowing each of you to keep your independence.
“Use it to your advantage,” she suggests. “If you both have hobbies that you don’t share, plan it around those times when you’re awake, without it affecting the time you spend together.”
Similarly, if kids come along, you could schedule yourselves to do the caring when you’re each at your optimum, so the lark gets up for the early shift while the owl does a late night feed.
“Forcing a night owl to do things earlier, you’re probably going to get less productivity and efficiency out of that person because they’re fighting against their own biological rhythm,” Facer-Childs says.
In fact, Facer-Childs says sleep habits should really be discussed when you first start dating.
“When you’re getting to know somebody, one of the things you should talk about is your sleeping habits – we spend a third of our lives sleeping!” she says.
“When you have those conversations about, ‘What do you do for a living? What are your hobbies?’ — why not allow yourselves to talk about sleep as well? Then you learn to appreciate the differences.
“If they feel like they can talk about how much they struggle in the mornings or how evenings is when they do their creative thinking or work, then you’re getting to know each other in a slightly different way. Then, it’s about coming together and trying to plan things that fit both of you.”