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When Sleeping Together Drives You Apart

Solutions to marital sleep problems

Heather threw off the covers in frustration and propelled herself out of bed. For the last forty-five 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 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 conflicts, one side in this war often doesn't 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. And it's not just the amount of sleep that's important, it's also 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 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. Snoring is the only one that can be dangerous at all, as between 5 and 10 percent of snorers have apnea, a condition in which a person temporarily stops breathing, which can be life threatening. 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.


Prerequisites for 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 difficult—if not impossible—to sleep properly in the presence of intermittent noise.

A 1999 study by the Mayo Clinic confirms that people don't automatically 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 non-snoring partner woke up on average twenty 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 who 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 intimacy—and preserve your sanity in the process.

  1. Sleep Child-Free. Parents often allow babies to sleep in bed with them for comfort and convenience. 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 bassinet next to the bed, so the baby is still near but 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 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 back into 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 love life 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 felt like she got her life back.
    Not all experts agree with Julie's solution. Dr. William Sears, author of The Family Bed, says that co-sleeping (in which the family sleeps in one bed) is the most natural form of sleeping, one that has been the norm for thousands of years. But 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. But 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.
    Dr. Richard Ferber, in his book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, presents a strategy for teaching children to sleep in their own room, in which you put them to bed at set times and allow them to cry, checking on them at intervals to let them know you still love them. 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. In the process, your marriage, and especially your sex life, are bound to improve.

  2. Buy the right bed. If your bed squeaks every time somebody rolls over or is so narrow that your spouse knocks you every time he moves, a simple solution may be to buy a new bed. Lisa and Derek recently purchased a king-size, 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."

  3. Reduce noise. For many couples, the main sleep problem they face is noise, whether because of snoring or such periodic interruptions as phone calls. You can take steps to reduce snoring (see sidebar), but if you're plagued by noise of other sorts, consider wearing earplugs. When I was at college, I could not sleep with all 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 that phone calls, pagers, or snoring will wake you up. And for spouses who have trouble falling back asleep after being disturbed, this can be a great relief.

  4. Sleep apart. 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 guestroom, 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 when he is on call and is paged frequently. But if sleep is a problem every night, go to sleep separately. This removes nightly tension, since 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 that the process is devoid of blame. Remember, the problem takes two: She thrashes, but he can't sleep with that disturbance. 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 after creating us, 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 we honor our God-given need for sleep, without neglecting the intimacy we need in marriage.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is a freelance writer who lives in Canada with her family—all snorers.

10 Ways to Reduce Snoring

Try these tips to decrease the chance of snoring:


  1. Don't eat within three hours of going to bed.
  2. Don't drink alcohol within several hours of going to bed.
  3. Lose weight. Even a few extra pounds increase your likelihood of snoring.
  4. Sleep on your side. Attach a tennis ball or a walnut to the back of your pajama shirt so you won't lie on your back.
  5. Stop smoking.
  6. Tilt the head of the bed up by about 5 inches to encourage breathing through your nose.
  7. Investigate drug store snoring remedies. Nostril dilators keep the nasal passages open. Peppermint throat sprays, such as SnorEnz, coat the back of the throat and discourage vibrations. While these won't work for everyone, some people use them with success.
  8. See a physician. While most snoring is harmless, if you snore because of a medical condition called obstructive sleep apnea, you run the risk of serious health problems.
  9. Ask about plastic mouth devices, called mandibular advancement splints, to hold the jaw forward when you sleep to prevent the vibrations. Some dentists and most orthodontists can fit you for them.
  10. As a last resort, consider surgery. It may have negative side effects, so try everything else first, and then talk to your physician about how you should proceed.

—SWG


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Comfort; Marriage; Sleep
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2002
Posted September 30, 2008

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