When Sleeping Together Drives You Apart
Heather threw off the covers in frustration and propelled herself out of bed. For the last 45 minutes she had repeatedly shoved her husband, Rick, to roll him over and stop his snoring. Her efforts had met with temporary success, but as soon as she would fall asleep again, his snoring would wake her. In defeat, she grabbed her pillow, yanked the blanket off of Rick with a smug smile, and trudged bleary-eyed downstairs to begin another night on the couch.
When we marry, we dream of contentedly drifting off in each others’ arms. Yet numerous culprits conspire to rob us of this bliss. Snoring is by far the most common, affecting close to 30% of all marriages. Other people flail their legs in their sleep, leaving their beloveds black and blue. Still others work staggered hours, or are repeatedly paged throughout the night. And then there are the little ones, flailers extraordinaire, whom one parent, much to the chagrin of the other, may insist share the bed. Few things disturb sleep more than the presence of a two-year-old.
Every night, for countless couples like Heather and Rick, the sleep wars begin anew. Yet unlike traditional marriage conflicts, one side of this war often doesn’t even realize the battle is waging. Oblivious to the havoc they’re causing, they doze peacefully as their spouses fume.
The Need for Sleep
Even though God designed us to need sleep, sleep problems are rarely considered major health epidemics. Yet Dr. James Maas, author of Power Sleep, says that sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s not just the amount of sleep that’s important, Maas says, it’s the type. Even if you’re in bed for ten hours, you may not be able to reach all the stages of sleep if you’re constantly being jolted awake. You may awaken feeling as if you haven’t slept at all. And if you don’t reach all the stages of sleep, you’ll be prone to more viral infections, mood shifts and emotional stress. Even your safety is jeopardized. The National Sleep Foundation claims that sleep-deprived drivers cause 100,000 traffic accidents each year.
For most couples in conflict over sleep, these problems affect only one person. Though between 5 and 10% of snorers have apnea, which can be life threatening and requires medical treatment, most who disturb their spouses don’t hurt themselves—they just keep their spouses awake. These spouses then become grumpy, resentful, and even desperate. And when one partner is chronically sleep deprived, the effects on the marriage can be devastating.
What we Need to Sleep
Before we look at solutions, let’s look at what causes the problem in the first place. After all, snorers, babies, even flailers wouldn’t be a problem if we could all sleep through any disturbance. Yet we can’t. As children we learn to associate certain things with falling asleep. If you learn to sleep with silence, it is very difficult—if not impossible—to learn to sleep properly in the presence of intermittent noise.
A 1999 study by the Mayo Clinic confirms that people don’t adjust to sleep disturbances. Studying couples where one partner was a chronic snorer, Dr. John Shepard, Medical Director of the 1999 Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Study, reports that "eliminating a patient’s snoring…significantly increased bed partners’ quality and quantity of sleep." Researchers found that when a partner snores, the nonsnoring partners woke up on average 20 times per hour, even if only briefly. In total, they lost an average of one hour of sleep per night, leading Dr. Shepard to suggest that partners of chronic snorers suffer from a sleep disorder themselves. Yet it’s not only snorers that can cause these problems; the presence of other constant disturbances can be just as debilitating.
To Sleep Again
You want the intimacy of sharing a bed, but you just can’t seem to sleep together. Here are some strategies to help save your marital intimacy—and preserve your sanity in the process.
Sleep Child Free
Parents often allow babies to sleep in bed with them for comfort and convenience (it’s much easier to nurse them when they’re right there!). Yet studies show that men, unlike women, often have difficulty sleeping with infants for fear they may roll on them. A compromise may be placing a bassinnette next to the bed, so the baby is still near, but is not disturbing dad.
A far more intractable problem occurs when toddlers, most of whom will do anything to snuggle in between mom and dad, are permitted to sleep there regularly. The conflict comes when one parent wants to evict the child from the marriage bed, and the other wants the child to stay. Not only is reaching a solution between yourselves difficult, you also have a toddler who will fight tooth and nail to stay put.
Nick and Julie had such a problem. After Julie finished nursing Alison, she wanted to put Alison in her own bed. Nick didn’t want to deal with Alison’s protests, and thought Alison should stay. But Julie, the lighter sleeper, felt Alison interfered with their intimacy and with her sleep. When Chase was born, and they had four people in one bed, Julie couldn’t stand it anymore. Nick eventually agreed to move the children, and Julie feels like she has her life back.
Not all experts agree with Julie’s solution. Dr. William Sears, author of The Family Bed, says that co-sleeping (where the family sleeps in one bed) is the most natural form of sleeping, one that has been the norm for thousands of years. While this arrangement may have worked well when families had only one bed and needed each other for warmth, it doesn’t work as well now. Some families certainly enjoy sleeping together. Wayne Gretzky once reported that when the children were young, he and his wife Janet slept with all three of them in a king-sized bed. They managed to adjust to the chaos, but they are the exception. Most of us will be unable to sleep with small thrashers, because we’re not used to sleeping with others kicking and crawling on top of us.
Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, in their best-selling book On Becoming Baby Wise, present a strategy for teaching children to sleep in their own room. It may take some time before children adjust, but they will emerge with an ability to comfort themselves and they will respect order and schedules, realizing the world does not revolve around them. In the process your marriage, and especially your sex life, are bound to improve.
Buy the right bed
If your bed squeaks everytime somebody rolls over, or is so narrow that your spouse knocks you everytime he or she moves, a simple solution may be to buy a new bed. Lisa and Derek Wood recently purchased a king sized one, and Lisa says it’s changed her life. She had struggled getting to sleep with Derek, who often comes and goes at odd hours because of his job. Now he doesn’t disturb her at all. "If our house were on fire," she says, "you’d see me pushing the bed out the door."
For many couples, the main sleep problem they face is noise, whether due to snoring or due to periodic interruptions like phone calls. A University of Minnesota study found that some snorers are so loud they can even reach 55 decibels, exceeding the government’s standard for noise in the workplace. You can take some steps to reduce snoring, as suggested in the sidebar at right. But if you’re plagued by noise, of whatever sort, consider wearing earplugs. When I was in university, I could not sleep with the background noise in the house. Earplugs took a few nights to grow accustomed to, but they helped drown out the constant chatter. Using them can reduce the chance phone calls, pagers, or snorers will wake you up. And for spouses who have trouble falling back asleep after being disturbed, this can be a great relief.
If none of these solutions works, you may have to consider sleeping apart. Many of us balk at this idea because we’re scared of sacrificing the intimacy of sharing a bed. It’s often while lying together that we have our most important conversations and hash out our differences. It’s where we plan our vacations, our families, and our retirement, and where we share our most intimate moments.
But if you put your mind to it, you can preserve these moments and still protect your sleep. Try retiring together, in bed, a little earlier than you usually go to sleep. Use that time to do something together, such as watching the news or sharing a Psalm. Then take some time to talk about your day and to share what’s on your mind.
After you’ve spent some time together, separate before actually going to sleep. Some couples find that having the light sleeper go to sleep half an hour before the other helps. The light sleeper has time to reach a deep sleep before his or her spouse comes to bed. But if the trouble continues throughout the night, prepare a second bed. Put a comfortable one in the guest room, or tuck a pillow and blankets into a basket by the couch, so that no one has to struggle in the middle of the night to put a bed together.
If sleep is only an intermittent problem, keep this bed simply as a back up. My husband and I have such an arrangement, and it usually only gets used once a week. But if sleep is a problem every night, go to sleep separately. This removes nightly tension, because each night is no longer a test to see if he or she will keep you awake. To avoid any lingering resentment, take turns being the one to leave the bed, so that both spouses get to enjoy the bedroom. And be sure to tell your children and others who need to know about the sleeping arrangements, so they won’t assume your marriage is on the rocks.
Finally, ensure the process is devoid of blame. Remember, the problem takes two: she snores/thrashes, and he can’t sleep with that disturbance. My grandfather married a horrific snorer, but he was deaf without his hearing aids in so it made no difference to him. Snoring alone is not the problem; the combination of snorer and light sleeper is. It’s not time to lay blame, it’s just time to get some sleep!
Sleep is one of the most important functions we have. God gave us rest on the first day of our existence, before we even had time to get tired. It was His gift to us, not as a reward for working, but as an integral part of living. Let’s make sure that we honor our God-given need for sleep, without neglecting the intimacy we need in marriage.
This article first appeared in Marriage Partnership, Spring 2002.