Research says that whether you're an early bird or a night owl is linked to your genes, and about 75% of people identify as one or the other. A few months ago, however, I would have placed myself firmly in the remaining 25%. As someone who's historically gone to bed at 11 p.m. and (if given the chance) slept until 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., I've thought of myself for most of my adult life as more like a sloth or a koala bear, beyond willing to spend a full half of my life in bed. Until January of this year, my "morning routine," if you could even call it that, consisted of hitting snooze six times, grudgingly peeling my eyes open, grabbing my phone from my nightstand, surfing the web for half an hour, ripping myself out of bed (leaving it unmade, of course), hastily showering, and throwing on some brow gel in the 20 minutes that remained before I absolutely had to go to work.
The reason this changed in January was that it was right after my boyfriend of almost eight years and I decided to part ways. The split itself was as amicable as you could hope for, but even friendly breakups, especially after relationships as long and settled as ours was, flip your life upside down. The second he moved out of the apartment we'd shared, suddenly every part of my once-stable (read: kinda boring, stagnant) routine was called into question—from how and when I ate dinner to what I chose to watch on Netflix to how I approached my sleep schedule.
The latter change is what intrigued me most. After the breakup, without making a conscious effort, I found myself waking up earlier every morning, naturally feeling fully alert at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. I also started taking it upon myself to make the bed, fluff the pillows, and make sure everything looked nice before heading out the door. Again, this all came organically. And while I don't know if it's enough to put me in the "early bird" category, it was different enough that it made me want to take a step back and consider why it was happening. What about going through a breakup might cause a sleepy sloth like me to alter their sleep routine?
According to Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, the stress of separation can cause changes in one's sleep schedule. "Sleep disruption is rooted in separation anxiety," she explains. "When we're stressed, going through major changes, or life transitions, the first place we see symptoms is in sleep disruption." This makes sense when I consider my situation—no matter how justified a breakup might be, sleeping alone in the bed you shared with someone for nearly a third of your life is a disorienting experience. And even though the bed was fully mine now, I still stuck to my side of it, leaving a ghostly space to my left, which jarred me a little every morning when I woke up.
Walfish says this is a perfectly normal reaction to tough life events. "The break of a long-term, live-in relationship is traumatic," she explains. "Many people find themselves waking up not only during the middle of the night but also rising much earlier in the morning with extra energy. This burst of energy is driven by anxiety—a fancy psychological term for fear."
I would categorize most of what I felt after my breakup as liberation and relief rather than fear, but I can't deny that suddenly having no clue what my romantic future would look like felt intimidating, like a shock to the system—the same sort of shock that was now jolting me awake at 8 a.m. every day.
There may not be psychological proof backing this up, but I have another theory as to why I may have started rising earlier and making my bed post-breakup. In my experience, when you've been with someone for a really long time, you end up falling into certain roles in the relationship, fulfilling certain identities based on your dynamic that may not even really reflect the true you.
For example, my former partner instinctively woke up earlier than I did and was naturally a tidier person, and he thought of me as a sort of messy sleepyhead in comparison, so knowing that he had that impression of me, I fulfilled it—more and more extremely as time went on, in fact—even though I didn't really even think of myself as a messy or lazy person. In other words, my partner's impression of my behavior influenced my actual behavior, and it enabled (and exacerbated) any inherent sloth I may or may not have naturally possessed.
But then I was set free. Once the relationship ended and my ex's impression of me disappeared along with the rest of his stuff, I think I subconsciously felt permitted to be the tidy, slightly more morning-oriented person I may have always been deep down. And sure, maybe fear of the unknown is part of it, but if the beautiful, anxiety-provoking experience of newfound independence makes me greet the sun a little sooner in the day and situate my pillows nicely on my bed while I'm at it, then the early bird life might just be for me after all.