Get advice from relationship experts and couples on how to live happily and improve your sleep when you and your partner work opposite schedules. This print article was originally published in Centennial Publishing’s The Science of Sleep magazine.
When my now-husband and I first started dating, he worked “midnights” as a first responder and I was a freelance writer working days, including a part-time editor job in an office. Though I found him charming, his schedule was unappealing to me. I tended to wake up around 8 a.m. and go to bed around 11:30 p.m. He went to work around 10 p.m. to start his 11:30 shift and finished around 8 a.m.
Throughout our courtship, he would text me things he saw or did on his overnight shift and let me know he was thinking about me. I kept my phone in another room with notifications turned off so I wouldn’t wake up, but occasionally, I’d wake up for a bathroom trip and take a peek at my phone to make sure he was okay. I’d text him hello in the morning when I got up and he was taking the train home from work and then he’d go to sleep and we’d text or talk later in the day when I was done work and he’d be getting ready to start his day. (Why being on your phone interferes with your sleep.)
Besides the communication struggles, getting together in person was a challenge, too. My husband would be a total champ—sleeping during the day to go out with my friends for dinner and socializing—but then he’d be awake during the night when I slept. The next morning, he’d be sleeping in and I’d have to scale back any early activities to give him time to rest. He was probably extremely tired during many of our dates but he didn’t complain. Though he was doing most of the sleep switching, I wondered how long we were going to have to follow this schedule—the rest of our lives?!
This type of partnership is more common than you might think—especially amongst nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers, truckers, and factory night shift workers. (Get more sleep tips here.)
“Some couples can find this to be a strain on their relationship and others adapt to it well,” says Rita Aouad, M.D., sleep medicine/ psychiatry expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “How [successful you are with it] is how well you handle the stress in a relationship,” she says.
“If there is a strain in the relationship, it’s usually either in communication or intimacy,” Dr. Aouad says. “The individual who’s working the night shift may find changes in their mood, most likely related to sleep quality.”
I sought out how other couples make it work by interviewing two women who’ve each been working night shifts for over a decade, and advice from relationships experts on how to make the best of this situation.
April S. has been working the night shift for about 14 years and says she prefers it to working days. She and her live-in boyfriend work opposite schedules in rural Pennsylvania. “I work from 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. He works from 8:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m. We both have about 20-minute commutes to work,” she says. “I get home at 6:30 in the morning and crawl in bed next to my boyfriend for about 30 to 45 minutes before he wakes up and is getting ready.” April then sleeps until about 4 p.m. so she has enough time to get ready for work and have a meal with her boyfriend before leaving for work at 6:30 in the evening. “I see him for about an hour or so every Monday through Thursday, and then we have the weekend off together,” she says.
“I’ve been on this schedule since before I met my boyfriend,” April says. “I try not to change my schedule too drastically because I’ve seen what happens when you do the turnaround for the night shift, switching from day to night, day to night incessantly. You really mess up your internal clock,” she says.“When you don’t have time together it can be hard to stay connected,” says Robert Solley, Ph.D., couples therapist in Noe Valley, Calif. “Most people like to have some time together every day where they can check in. Not having that can create distance.” Some couples even compare this type of partnership to a long-distance relationship.
Make the most of the time that you do have together, suggests Solley. “For example, if you both are working during the week, but have some time during the weekend, plan fun activities together. Set aside time to synchronize logistics for the week ahead as much as possible. Some of that time together might need to be set aside to discuss difficulties in their relationship or things you need to be talking about to maintain the relationship,” suggests Solley.
As I mentioned earlier, it was always nice to wake up to sweet texts my husband sent while he was working. I used to occasionally slip a note into his backpack or lunch for him to find later at work.
“Stay in touch as much as possible during the week by leaving notes for one other, messaging each other, and calling each other during work times if that’s at all possible,” advises Solley. Touch base and let your partner know you care about them, says Solley.
When’s the last time you wrote your partner a nice note that didn’t have to do with chores or a “reminder” of something to do? “Some of the ingredients of romance are sacrifice, surprise, and attention for the other person,” says Solley. “It’s a small sacrifice to write out a note instead of just texting it. It takes more effort and is fun to receive. That makes it more meaningful,” he says.
April lives in a town with a 24-hour grocery store so she tends to shop late at night and her boyfriend occasionally joins her for the trip—at 1 or 2 a.m. In previous years when she and her partner worked opposite schedules in April’s home state of New York, they’d go driving around at night and make a game out of finding out what was open for 24 hours.
Eve K. worked as a night nurse since 2004 in Philadelphia while her then-boyfriend/ now husband worked a regular 9-to-5 in northern New Jersey. She kept that overnight schedule until this April when she got a job as a psychiatric nurse practitioner and said she’s “still adjusting” to being on a ‘normal schedule.’ “I’m trying to train myself to sleep like a normal person [at night], but I just want to nap during the day,” she says.
“When I was a nurse, I did 12-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and worked three nights a week,” Eve says. “Then I went only worked two nights a week when I went back to school,” says Eve K. “My husband and I saw each other while living together in 2006. But my issue was that I couldn’t go to sleep at a normal time, ever. Before we had kids, I would stay up until at least 2 in the morning on my nights off,” she explained.
Within about 10 months of us dating, my husband switched to a more “normal” schedule–3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. It’s been better, but it’s still a challenge in many respects. He gets home in the early hours of the morning and I’m usually passed out by then. He’s tired but needs to wind down. (Imagine trying to go to sleep soon after you commute home from work at night.) Occasionally I’ll stay up to see how he is and chat—or we’ll have a conversation in bed that I don’t remember well the next morning—but then I’m still trying to get up around 8 the next morning to start my workday.
I’m fortunate that my husband is always quiet and respectful of my sleep when he comes into our bedroom in the dark. In the morning, I try to get dressed as quietly as I can without turning lights on. We try to make it work but there are many days/nights when our sleep is messed up by his work schedule.
“My sleep was getting worse over time,” says Eve. “I used to sleep really well during the day before we had kids and then I had a really hard time making myself sleep during the day once we had children [now ages 4 ½ and 20 months]. Flipping back and forth–I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I almost became obsessed with getting sleep and didn’t want to be disturbed,” says Eve. “I would have my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ but set so my husband and emergency people could get through. There were a few times when he would call me because he forgot I’m working that night and I’d pick up, angrily asking, ‘Why are you calling?’”
Eve says her husband was good about trying to keep the children quiet in the morning when she was sleeping. And at night, she’d try to be quiet with whatever she was doing in another room while her husband slept, making sure the TV wasn’t too loud. Learn natural ways to fall asleep faster.
Even if you and your partner work regular shifts, when one of you isn’t sleeping well, you might see that reflected in their mood, irritability, and energy.
When one person is doing shift work, that may mean that sleep is difficult in for either of those partners if their circadian rhythms are off, says Solley. “There are studies that show how sleep deprivation increases emotional reactivity, which makes it more [challenging and stressful] when difficult things come up.”
I am admittedly quite sensitive and have to remind myself that when my husband doesn’t feel like talking much before work, or if he seems irritated, it’s likely due to his lack of sleep or a poor night’s sleep. I try to remind myself how my mood and energy would be if I had to wake up before I was ready to and someone wanted to talk to me then. I know it’s not personal and I try to practice more patience.
“Try not to be cranky and take your mood swings out on others,” April advises other couples. “There have been times when my partner accidentally woke me up earlier when we first started dating because I told him to. And then I’d wake up super cranky and blow up at him like, ‘Why did you wake me up? I’m getting such good sleep.’” She recognizes that she’s not herself when she first wakes up. “I’ve never been a wake-up-and–go person. You have to give me 15 minutes to get up. It’s like poking a bear,” she says.
“Take it easy on each other, says Dr. Aouad. “Working variable shifts, or night shifts can disrupt sleep quality during the day and can make the other person irritable. Try not to be too sensitive, since there are mood changes related to a sleep disorder,” she says. You know you’re going to fight. Here’s the right way to fight with your partner.
These days, my husband and I usually hang out together before he goes to work. It’s his “chill” time—whereas others watch TV and relax after their workdays, he moves this time to the morning hours. It’s the time we catch up on what happened on one another the day before and have more leisure time for any important discussions.
When you and your partner are on opposite schedules, finding time to actually “talk” can be a challenge. “It can be harder to coordinate about practical things to work out if you don’t have time to work on it close to the real time it happened,” says Solley. Everything becomes more difficult. If one of you dented the car or over withdrew on the bank account or wanted to make a big purchase and the other was sleeping, it can be tough to discuss these things during the bookend hours of someone’s work shift.
Some people might like a kiss goodbye, even though they’re asleep or maybe partly asleep, while another person might not want to be disturbed, says Solley. You’ll have to discuss with your partner what they want. Even though I want to give my husband a kiss in the morning if I’m heading out for the day, I (usually) stifle the urge because I know it’ll wake him up from sleep he needs.
“Any kind of physical gesture can be a moment of connection at those in-between times when you’re crossing paths,” says Solley.
Having different schedules was difficult when it came to sex, says Eve. “When I was working nights and he would be interested in the morning, I’m like, ‘Get away from me. I’m tired.’ And then at night, I am sitting alone because he’s passed out asleep. Trying to get on the same page with that is definitely a struggle. My advice is to talk about it and try to come to a compromise.” Afternoon delight, anyone?
“It’s good with any relationship to just discuss needs and expectations for intimacy,” says Dr. Aouad. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to making time for sex in your relationship; it’s just personal preference, says Dr. Aouad. “Communicate your needs and expectations in that area, and come to a consensus as a couple. Keep in mind that the disruption of sleep quality may lead to mood changes and a desire to be intimate,” she says.
Think your partner’s going to be his or her usual chipper self at the family barbecue you’re dragging them to midday when they’re used to sleeping? Guess again. Just as you probably wouldn’t be super happy to get up and go socialize in the middle of the night when you went to bed at 10 or 11 p.m., remember that this is how it can feel to do activities during the day for someone who works the night shift.
“The social aspect definitely was difficult,” says Eve. “People would want to do things with my husband and me on the weekends and I couldn’t. Occasionally, I used to try and stay awake to do social things during the day but I would be so tired, it would make me feel sick if I did that. So, I stopped [pushing through] and just had to say no to things. I missed a lot of parties, get-togethers and holidays, and that was kind of tough.”
Be mindful and pay attention to when your partner isn’t sleeping well, April suggests. “When you can tell that your partner isn’t sleeping well, don’t push an activity on them if they really need to sleep. Sometimes that’s more important than anything else,” she says. Get cheap date ideas to try when you’re both feeling rested.
When one person works three nights or four nights a week and then has three days off, they might flip back to being awake during the day for that time off and then sleep at night, says Dr. Aouad. “The benefit of that is, you get to interact with the people you love and care about and be on the same schedule as them for a bit. But, that can cause some disruption to your sleep schedule. You might have difficulty falling asleep and difficulty waking up at the right time,” she says.
Some people find it easier to stay on a nighttime sleep schedule, even on their nights off, says Dr. Aouad. “That can also be isolating for some people because everyone else is asleep.”
Both Eve and April said that it can be lonely being awake at night when it seems that the world is asleep. “Working nights can be isolating for the person on that shift and isolating for the partner who’s left alone at home at night,” says Dr. Aouad.
“Planning ahead and making quality time together, without any distractions, just the two of you is so important.”
Many couples have figured out how to make this work and the perks—I don’t have to share the remote with my husband at night! As with any relationship, communication and trying to understand your partner’s situation can go a long way. It’s important to make time to talk and to let your partner get the sleep they need so they can function at their best.
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