One of the known benefits of marriage is better sleep, but what about couples who are on different sleep schedules? Should they try to sync up? WSJ Personal Journal deputy editor Laura Bird joins Lunch Break with Sara Murray. Photo: iStock / dolgachov

T.J. Roberts is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. Often, he’s in bed by 9 p.m. and up before dawn to hike, run or go fishing.

His wife, Morgan, often stays up working past midnight on weekdays. Then she hits snooze repeatedly until 7:40, when she crawls out of bed to get the children to school. On weekends, she sleeps until 11. (Now that she is expecting the couple’s third child, she says this remains her pattern, unless she is too tired to stay up late.)

Over the years, Mr. Roberts has developed a series of strategies for getting his wife out of bed earlier. He’ll yank the pillow out from under her head, set a cup of freshly-brewed coffee on her nightstand, yell from the kitchen to ask if she wants chocolate chips in her pancakes and even tell their 4-year-old, “Mommy really wants to be tickled right now.”

T.J. and Morgan Roberts have differing sleep schedules. Mr. Roberts is a morning person, and Ms. Roberts is a night owl. The Southbury, Conn., couple has a system for making it work.
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

If all else fails (and only when she isn’t expecting), he does “the steamroller”: He gets on top of her and rolls from side to side until she gets up. “She’s my best friend,” says Mr. Roberts. “When I go hiking or fishing, I would love to have her come with me.”

Many studies have found married people generally have healthier sleep than single people, with fewer problems like insomnia. Experts think couples tend to have more stable sleep-wake routines and help co-regulate each other.

But what about couples with out-of-sync sleep schedules? Researchers found spouses who go to bed at different times report significantly less relationship satisfaction than those on the same schedule. They have more conflict, spend less time in shared activities and serious conversation, and have sex less frequently than couples with similar sleeping schedules.

Which comes first, though—mismatched sleep, or poor relationship quality? The answer might depend on whether you are a man or a woman.

Ms. Roberts and Mr. Roberts have adapted to their differing sleep schedules. They often sleep apart, and on weekends, they each have a morning to themselves. Ms. Roberts sleeps late, Mr. Roberts gets going early.

In a 2010 study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, University of Pittsburgh researchers followed 29 heterosexual couples for a week, looking at their sleep quality at night and their relationship satisfaction in the day. The couples kept sleep diaries and wore motion-sensitive wrist devices, and they assessed interactions with their spouses up to 6 times a day using digital palm devices.

The researchers found men reported more relationship satisfaction after a night of sleeping well, while women slept better at night after a day of reporting higher relationship satisfaction. Also, women reported less relationship satisfaction after a night when they and their partner went to bed at different times. “Women are more sensitive to the highs and lows of relationships, so women show a link between relationship functioning and sleep,” says Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist, behavioral and social scientist at Rand Corp. and a co-author of the study. “For men, sleep has an effect on their functioning, so that affects their relationships.”

The family eats breakfast around 11a.m. at home in Southbury, Conn.
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

In a yet-to-be-published study, Dr. Troxel and colleagues found that when women reported higher relationship satisfaction, they were more likely to have been asleep at the same time as their partner the night before, almost down to the minute. This effect wasn’t true for men.

The findings beg a question: If you and your partner sleep at different times, should you try to sync up?

Mr. Roberts make pancakes.
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

Experts say partners often share the same sleep pattern. People tend to pair up with others on the same schedule, perhaps as a matter of opportunity: Early birds aren’t often in bars after midnight, nor are many night owls in the gym at dawn. The tendency to share sleep schedules is independent of the length of the relationship—meaning it isn’t as if one partner adjusts to be like the other.

In fact, it really isn’t easy to change your innate sleep rhythm, experts say. Circadian preferences are genetically driven, in part, so change would be stressful for both the individual and the relationship—and very difficult to accomplish without professional help, if you are at one extreme or the other. Most of us can adjust our sleep a bit based on need, such as to get up early for work. But this doesn’t mean we’ll get the optimal amount of sleep.

Couples who have mismatched sleep schedules—and a lot of problem-solving skills—can achieve relationship satisfaction, research has found.

If differing sleep patterns are a source of conflict, partners can start by asking whether simple steps, like minimizing noise and light while the other is asleep, will help. Experts offer a surprising next step: Try sleeping separately.

The rest of the family picks herbs while Mrs. Roberts sleeps.
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

But first, Dr. Troxel cautions, be sure to have a conversation about why you think this might be best. “Some couples end up sleeping apart out of desperation, because one partner is not sleeping at all. But there is no conversation involved,” she says. “When that happens, the other partner may feel abandoned.” Base your decision on what works best for you as a couple, not what family members or friends think.

Dr. Troxel says it is important to discuss physical intimacy and plan how you will avoid losing it, if you decide to sleep apart. “It’s the time that you are awake together in bed that might be more important than the time you are asleep,” she says.

Remember that cuddling and pillow talk are important. “Don’t sacrifice the quality couple time before bed,” Dr. Troxel says. Many couples find time in bed is the only time they have to talk alone. Come up with a plan for when you’ll spend time together in bed, including when you’ll have sex. Physical closeness, even without sex, stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which reduces stress and promotes bonding. So go to bed together once in awhile, even if just to catch up and be together.

After one too many 7 a.m. pancake breakfasts, Ms. Roberts proposed a compromise: On Saturdays, her husband gets to wake up early and do whatever he wants. Often, he takes a long hike and then runs errands. She gets up with the children, and the family eats lunch together at their home in Southbury, Conn.

On Sundays, Ms. Roberts sleeps late. Her husband gets up early but stays home to take care of the children. “I get to come downstairs whenever I see fit,” says Ms. Roberts, 30, a children’s-clothing designer. Typically, she appears around noon.

Sometimes Mr. Roberts sends the children to try waking Mrs. Roberts up on Sunday mornings. But usually he lets her sleep.
Julie Bidwell for The Wall Street Journal

The couple says they sleep apart most nights, she in the bedroom, he on the family-room couch. Ms. Roberts hated waking her husband up when she came to bed late. “And I just couldn’t deal with his alarm going off at 5 a.m. and him rummaging with everything,” she says.

“My background tells me that’s wrong to do,” says Mr. Roberts, 36, a high school special-education teacher. “But the way our day and personalities work, things just work out better.” They say their sex life is active and spontaneous. “Whatever, whenever,” Ms. Roberts says.

The spouses say they feel they balance each other out. Mr. Roberts says he has become more flexible, and Ms. Roberts says she has become more productive.

“If I married someone who was not a morning person, I think I would be half as productive,” she said. “I would never get up to catch the sunrise or be at the beach in the morning.”

—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at elizabeth.bernstein@wsj.com or follow her column on Facebook and Twitter at EBernsteinWSJ.