Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sleeping Better Part Three

This is the last in a series of three postings I’ve written on sleep and sleeping better together as a couple. Sleep is in the news in big ways, lately, with a large study being released by the CDC here in the U. S., that researcher in England (I wrote about two posts ago) recommending that mates NOT sleep together most of the time in order to get better sleep, and various new studies coming out all the time intensifying the focus on how the sleep styles and issues of one partner affect the other. There is lot’s of good attention on what is really a fundamental health issue. My research colleagues and I (Howard Markman, Elizabeth Allen, Galena Rhoades) have been adding questions about sleep to all of our ongoing studies, because we are convinced that is much more to be learned and that it really does matter.

I wanted to mention two more issues before letting this topic go for the time being. The first topic here is snoring. Read the last two posts if you have not already done so, before I go on. Many people snore. Men snore more than women, and women are affected more negatively in their sleep by their husbands’ snoring. If the snoring is regular and seems pretty intense, it would be wise to get a medical evaluation before doing anything else. Snoring can be a sign of serious medical problems, especially sleep apnea. If you or your mate sounds anything like a freight train at night (or even the Little Engine that Could not-stop-snoring), get it checked out with your doctor. There are treatments for sleep apnea and some are very effective (and some are more effective than others). Many people go a long time, if ever, before getting it checked, and many other things about the quality of life will suffer for years if you let it go.

Now, for some simple advice to couples with snoring issues. Make it okay for the one who does not snore to wake up, poke, prod, roll, WHATEVER, the other in order to get that snoring partner to shift positions and stop snoring. I forget which of the various sleep studies I was reading that made this point, but apparently many women (and some men) lay awake being polite and not waking their snoring partner to get them to move, and thereby routinely suffer from poor sleep. That’s not good. Talk together, and work as a team, to make it okay to use whatever verbal or non-verbal signal you both agree on to allow the one to get the other to move it.

The second topic I want to address in this post is simply this: Sleep researchers believe another problem for many couples is the motion of one partner affecting the other’s ability to remain asleep. There are a couple of ways to think about this. Does one toss and turn and roll around a lot more than the other, and does that movement wake the other up? Or, perhaps one partner has a different type of work (or sleep) schedule that means one is coming to bed after the other is asleep, or waking up while the other is still planning to sleep, and the movement in and out of the bed wakes up the other.

Here are some simple ideas for dealing with this problem. First, work as a team to agree on how to handle some of this, especially the different schedules thing. Talk about it and what each can do not to disturb the sleep of the other. Second, consider getting a type of mattress that isolates motion. Some mattresses do this a lot more effectively than others. As I noted two posts ago, I’ve been working with Tempur-Pedic this year, and it’s been really fun. Note: there’s your official notice that I have this association. Now I can go on to tell you that this is one of their big selling points. They are the ones with the commercials (and funny videos on You-Tube; seriously, a lot of them, and some of them are hilarious) showing one person jumping up and down and it not bothering a glass of wine or the partner. (If you are married to a glass of wine, this could be especially important advice. Of course, you have other issues we could talk about.) Motion can really be dampened down a great deal with certain types of mattresses. By the way, Consumer Reports has great information on mattresses and what people buy and are happiest with, and it’s worth a look if you end up thinking that a new mattress is part of strategies to gain blissful sleep.

Sleep is a serious issue. It’s probably just as important for how marriages will do over time as how couples handle money. We just know more about the money stuff, but that’s only because most researchers in my field have not been paying a lot of attention to sleep. It can really pay off if two people work as a team to get the best night’s sleep possible. Sleep comes up every single day of your life. If you snooze, you lose. No, that’s not right. If you snooze, you win.


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.