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When a partner’s snoring wrecks your sleep, these tips can help

Ear plugs and masking noise work well together; and if you have been sleeping apart, adapting gradually to being in the same bed can help

An illustration of two chickens at night time. One has it's mouth open making noise. The other is trying to sleep, with one annoyed eye open.
(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)
7 min

Most Americans prefer to sleep in the same bed as their romantic partner. There are costs and benefits to such arrangements. For example, noise and movement are disruptive to sleep, but the comforting presence of a loved one and hormones associated with intimacy and sex can promote sleep.

But being willing to bear such costs is not the same as bearing them lightly. It is no small sacrifice to accommodate a partner who snores, kicks, volubly comes to bed late or wakes early to an alarm clock or who can’t sleep if you are reading.

On the other side of the dynamic are those who worry about disturbing their partner’s sleep.

Bed sharing amid such challenges is not always optional. Some reasons for a lack of choice include:

  • Limited money or space.
  • Travel.
  • In-laws in the home.
  • Needed proximity to children.
  • A partner’s need for assistance during the night.
  • Cultural or personal proscriptions against sleeping separately.
  • An expectation of harmful consequences for oneself, one’s partner or the relationship.

As a sleep psychologist, I often hear about the disruptive effects of a partner’s snoring on sleep.

I recently saw a patient who had insomnia made worse by a snoring bed partner. Anxiously anticipating the disturbance was as bad as the disturbance itself. She was able to restore her sleep to fragile normalcy with insomnia techniques and her partner’s willingness to sleep on the couch for a few weeks.

Her partner also was willing to seek medical evaluation for sleep apnea. But meanwhile, she faced sharing the bedroom again.

Here are some suggestions that were helpful to her and which may help others facing similar situations.

Mitigate sound with ear plugs and a noise machine

Every sensory disturbance that couples impose on one another — including noise, light, movement and uncomfortable temperatures — lends itself to particular interventions.

When it comes to sound mitigation, I have found that the combination of ear plugs and masking noise works better for my patients than either one alone because it affords both relative quiet and protection from sudden changes in the soundscape.

This can be a magical discovery for those sleeping next to a snorer. This strategy may also be safer for hearing and sleep than masking noise alone. It should still be approached with some caution and in consultation with your doctor for a few reasons:

If the risks are acceptable in your case, you will have some choices regarding products.

Selecting a sound color — white, brown or pink noise

White noise (which contains frequencies from across the sound spectrum equated for intensity) sounds like hissing static because of our greater sensitivity to moderately high frequencies matching the hiss.

Most people will prefer sounds of other “colors,” especially those that are weighted toward the low frequencies. These include brown and pink noise. The ideal sound color will not only be pleasing (or at least not displeasing) but will also mask the offending frequencies, so you may need to experiment.

Sound machines, apps and websites

There are apps and websites that can generate these and other sounds (check out the web version of myNoise — which is better than its associated apps — for its sound library and customizability). Many people, though, prefer the simplicity, sound fidelity and offline virtues of a noise machine. The LectroFan EVO generates a broad range of sound colors (and fan sounds) that can be adjusted from soft to loud.

Always choose the lowest volume that does the trick. A sound of safe volume with ear plugs may be unsafe if either partner is without them. I would not flirt with the 70-decibel safety threshold; individuals differ in their sensitivity, and decibels are logarithmic units, meaning that an increase of a few decibels represents a manyfold increase in intensity.

Choosing ear plugs or alternatives

Optimal ear plugs depend on the size of your ear canal and tolerance for an object in your ear, as well as the amount of attenuation you seek and any allergies you have.

They come in foam, moldable silicone, plastic and other materials. Some of my patients have had them custom-made. Many prefer porous, foam cylinders. Check out the versatile range of products offered by Mack’s.

The nuclear option is noise-canceling ear buds at the maximum setting, but these also block out crying children and smoke alarms, and they may present issues with cost, comfort and battery life.

Adjust to sharing the bed

If you have been sleeping apart and now feel ready to share the bed again (or if you are in a new relationship and want to be able to sleep well together), it may be straightforward to do so right off the bat.

But some of my patients need to acclimate gradually, especially if they have recently overcome devastating insomnia. Insomnia can breed hypervigilance about anything that might disturb sleep.

To desensitize yourself to sleeping beside your partner again, it helps not to rush the process and to have a clear plan. The approach is like the “camping-out” sleep method, which is a technique used to help children fall asleep by gradually diminishing the parents’ presence. But in this case, your partner gradually increases their presence in the bed you share. It is a collaborative technique.

As an example, they might join you in bed for 15 minutes as each of you reads preparatory to sleep. They would then leave to sleep elsewhere. Once you feel completely comfortable with their presence, they might increase the duration of their company until you feel sleepy. Eventually, they would stay until you fall asleep. Then they might stay until you awaken in the night or ask them to leave. And the final step would be for them to remain all night.

Use conflict constructively

Incompatibilities in sleep are common, and can strain both sleep and relationships. Yet we do not expect right-handers and left-handers to use the same scissors, and we cannot expect couples’ sleep always to mesh.

But we are not always on our best behavior when it comes to our sleep. Most of us are guilty of awakening a snorer to implore them to roll onto their side or snapping at a night owl for awakening us or gracing our partner with some morning snark about blanket hogging or kicking.

And most of us have probably procrastinated seeking professional help when exhausted and overwhelmed. Even the most treatment-compliant patient can’t be expected to avail themselves of challenging interventions with exacting discipline.

If you want to go easier on your partner or yourself without sugarcoating the problem, and to find mutually satisfactory solutions (a process that can itself bring you closer), it helps to recognize two things: first, that both partners need and deserve their sleep, and second, that neither sleep challenges nor upset over them is a character defect.

Behavior that can look selfish or self-destructive usually has more nuanced explanations. It may help if both partners strive not only to listen well and not pathologize each other but also to self-examine.

Lisa Strauss, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the Boston area. She specializes in sleep disorders.

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