Early Bird or Night Owl?

One issue that can create conflict between partners, roommates and even between parents and children is the bedtime hour. In some homes, dorms and other communal living situations, there are disagreements almost every night with respect to when to go to bed. One person may need at least seven hours of sleep in order to function well at work or at school. Another may need far less. Some “night owl” partners get angry when their “early bird” partners go to bed before them, because they hold the belief that “couples should go to bed together” — meaning, “at the same time.”

While it may seem at first glance that it’s related to stubbornness and refusal to comply, there may be another more complex reason for these scenarios — our circadian clocks. Each of our bodies has an internal “clock” that dictates our sleep preferences. It’s something we’re born with, like our temperament. Our circadian clock tells us when we prefer to go to sleep, and how long we need to sleep. This explains why some people are early risers while others just can’t seem to get their act together until after Noon. It explains why some people believe that at 9:00 p.m. “the night has just begun,” while at that hour others consider the day to be done, and are dragging themselves off to bed.

When you think about it, it’s easy to understand how problems can arise among dwellers of a household due to discrepancies in their circadian clocks. But, knowing about the “clock” can also help us to develop tolerance for those on a cycle different from ours. Parents may not want their night-owl children prowling around the house at all hours of the night, but if they recognize they have a “night owl” on their hands, perhaps they can be more lenient on weekends and allow the child to stay up later and sleep later the next morning. Couples might stop imagining that their partner is staying up late to avoid sex, and occasionally request that their partner join them in bed earlier that night. The disappointment of night owls when they see others going off to bed can be tempered by the understanding that their partner or child simply needs to go to bed early, in the same way that the night owl needs to stay up.

Think about the people you live with now, or that you lived with at other times in your life. Do you remember having arguments about bedtime?  Now think about it in terms of your circadian clocks. It will probably help you to have more empathy for yourself and for the others than you may have had.


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