Friday, November 13, 2009

Sleeping Better Together

As I said in my last post, some sleep experts believe that most people would sleep better if they didn’t sleep regularly with their mate. Sleeping alone may produce the best night sleep for many people. Of course, even if true, most people are not going for this. Further, research by Wendy Troxel at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that happily married women sleep best of all women.

What’s a couple to do? I have a few ideas, but first, how many couples don’t regularly sleep together? Turns out, it’s a pretty big number. The National Sleep Foundation did a national survey in 2001 and again in 2005, and found that the number of married folks who reported not regularly sleeping in the same bed as their mate jumped from 12% to 23%. If that finding is totally solid, it’s an amazing change in such a basic pattern in life. It suggests that people truly are having more sleep problems than before, and some are resorting to sleeping alone to deal with it.

Of course, some couples who are not sleeping together are probably doing so because of not getting along well together. That would be nothing new, though, and couldn’t account for the increase. Still, it’s worth pointing out that some couples sleep apart because they just want to be apart. When I was little, growing up in Kettering Ohio, there was a time when this cranky couple lived next to us. I knew that this couple had separate bedrooms. I don’t remember how I know this, because I can’t recall ever being in their home, but I did know this and I remember thinking that it was odd. But I also remember how regularly this woman yelled at one of my brothers, who, I would add, was gifted at getting her riled up. She also sneered a great deal at all of us. She was not a happy person but she was gifted at sneering. I’m not sure what was up with her, but I don’t think she was happy, nor do I think they were happy as a couple. Having separate bedrooms might have been part of the only way that their marriage could work. (One day, they were gone. We were on vacation when they moved out, and all of a sudden, a perfectly lovely and delightful, non-sneering family had moved in. Happy days.)

Back to couples and problems with sleep. What are the problems that couples who are otherwise doing fine have with sleep? There are three I’ve been thinking a lot about: tension, motion, and snoring. The way I’m using the term here, “tension” is the one that’s most related to the research my colleagues (especially Howard Markman) and I have done over the years on how couples communicate and handle conflict. What I’m talking about here is tension between partners. Sleep is something that happens best when you are relaxed and not being stimulated (well, not stimulated in a stimulating way; a great massage might help you sleep and it’s obviously a kind of stimulation). When two partners are upset with each other, they are less likely to fall asleep as quickly and sleep as soundly.

Vicious cycle time: Research shows that when people don’t sleep well on a given night, they are more irritable and negative with their partner the next day. So poor sleep leads to more negatives between partners. The bummer is that those increased negatives also make it harder to sleep the next night.

To summarize: Tension bad. Sleep good. Tension makes sleep bad. Bad sleep means more tension. Bad spiral to get into and hard spiral to get out of.

It’s very clear that sleep is related to everything about personal health and wellbeing. If you are not sleeping well, everything else in life will suffer. Everything else in life includes your marriage. There is a lot at stake with sleep problems.

Here’s some simple advice. It’s like everything else that we (my colleagues and I) recommend in our books. Take control of your conflicts and don’t let them control you. How do you take control of how conflict and tension affects your sleep? You need to decide on a plan that can help both of you to sleep better, and then stick to it. Take charge and don’t let things slide if your sleep is suffering.

Agree not to talk about issues, conflicts, or problems within two hours of the time you should be falling asleep. Just don’t let stuff come up then, and when it does, get it back on the shelf quickly. Get good at not sliding into that mode near bedtime. That also means you need to find other times to have these talks, when you are at your best, and can work together as well as possible. Otherwise, you’re just asking for these issues to come up when you happen to be together, as you near time to sleep. Sometimes sleeping well together isn’t something you can accomplish lying down.