We all know that sleep deprivation is bad for us, but it may also be bad for marriage. A recent study highlights the adverse effects of poor sleep, or not enough sleep, on relationships. And, if sleep deprivation is courtesy of a snoring spouse, the solution isn’t as simple as just sleeping apart. According to the experts, not sharing the marital bed can be just as damaging as a night without a healthy dose of zzzzzs.
That’s the opinion of Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of numerous books on how couples can create happier unions. For the clients coming through his door, sleep issues can be a bigger problem than just losing some much-needed shut-eye, and many of them sleep in separate rooms to avoid feeling dazed and grumpy in the morning. Goldsmith said that this is a mistake. “I try to get couples back into the marital bed as quickly as possible,” he says. That’s because the decision to sleep separately can make it more difficult to resolve any relationship issues and cause damage to the foundation of the relationship. “When you sleep with someone, there is an exchange of consciousness/energy that’s different than when you are awake, and different than when you are making love. Sleeping together creates more serotonin, which keeps you happier.” Not sleeping with your partner can leave you feeling that something is missing in your life, though you might not be able to articulate what it is. Goldsmith points out that when he talks to widows and widowers, they don’t talk about missing the sex they had with their partner, they talk about missing them lying next to them.
It’s troubling, then, that the most recent poll from the National Sleep Foundation shows that 23 percent of couples sleep in separate bedrooms. Not only could that potentially weaken their relationship, but their health as well: Some studies have shown that sleeping alone elevates levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may be a subconscious response to feeling more vulnerable and is probably a hangover from our cave-dwelling days. Hundreds of modern-day studies have shown that excessive cortisol is bad for our bodies, responsible for everything from anxiety, heart disease and depression.
On the flip side, sharing a bed with someone who keeps you awake all night creates its own set of problems. In a recent study, two Florida State University (FSU) researchers reported that when husbands and wives got more sleep than they normally did on an average night—they tended to be more satisfied with their marriages, at least the following day (the study didn’t track whether couples slept together in the same bed, just whether or not they got more or less sleep).
See also: Sleep Your Way to Success
FSU psychology professor James McNulty and graduate student Heather Maranges looked at the significance of sleep as it relates to self-regulation or self-control, which influences how married couples feel and think about their partner. They reported the findings in the paper “The Rested Relationship: Sleep Benefits in Marital Evaluations,” which appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology. Because self-control requires energy, it can be restored through sleep, but if restful sleep is inadequate or absent, self-regulation is compromised, which can play out in daytime interactions between couples.
Maranges said that adding even a little extra sleep a night significantly improved a partner’s outlook. “Say a husband sleeps 7 hours on average, but one night he gets 8 hours of sleep, he’s going to be so much better off the next day, more satisfied with his relationship,” she explains. “We also found that the more sleep men got, the less all the little things in the marriage bothered them and this added up to increasing their global satisfaction with the relationship,” says Maranges.
“Everybody, both men and women, wives and husbands, if they had more negative experiences with their partner one day, they were less satisfied the next day. But for men, if they got more sleep than they usually do, this (correlation) was not as strong.” Maranges isn’t sure why women are less influenced by the vagaries of sleep than men. “Whether it’s inborn or socially learned, perhaps women are just more motivated to shore up their resources, whether or not they’ve gotten enough sleep, to take care of their relationship and for interpersonal purposes.” Still, the study underscored that “the more sleep spouses get one night compared to their average amount of sleep per night, the more satisfied they are with their marriage the next day.” Men, for some reason, just seem to benefit more.
Because the researchers say their conclusions are preliminary, more studies —including measures of the quality of a couples’ sleep—on a larger, more diverse sample—need to be conducted. “Up to one-third of married or cohabiting adults report that sleep problems burden their relationship,” the researchers wrote in the paper. Maranges and McNulty are currently working on a study to look at a gene that predisposes people to needing more or less sleep. “This is a gene that codes for an enzyme that sort of cleans up the ‘tired’ signal in our brains while we sleep,” says Maranges. “So if you have the fast enzyme, due to the fast gene, you don’t need as much sleep, but for the 10 percent of the population that has the slow one, they could need up to an hour more of sleep per day.” The researchers are studying how self-control is affected in people who are perpetually vulnerable to sleep deprivation or to getting insufficient sleep, and how that impacts their relationships.
Should You Stay or Should You Go (To the Other Room)
So if interrupted sleep makes you feel less loving toward your partner, but sleeping apart can damage your closeness, what’s the answer?
“The answer is to start a step-by-step method of figuring out how you can get better sleep,” says Goldsmith. “Snoring is such a big deal, especially as we get older, and the solution is going to be different for everyone,” he explains. “I’ve had clients try nasal strips, sprays, CPAP masks, even surgeries. The thing is that a lot of the stuff out there might work a few days, but more important than the product consistently working is that you know you’re working on the problem as a couple, and eventually you will find something that will help.” Goldsmith says many people just give up. “They can’t deal with it, and they don’t want to be hounded, nagged or be made to feel bad, and they’ll go into another room, but it will just escalate all the other problems in the relationship,” he explains. Partly that’s because oxytocin—the “cuddle” hormone that promotes bonding—starts to wear off.
What if you do rejoin the marital bed, but you still experience sleep deprivation, then what? Do what people in Europe have been doing for centuries—take a nap. “There’s still a lot of stigma around taking naps,” says Goldsmith, “as if napping is just for babies and very old people. I tell people, even CEOs, look, don’t try to tough it out. Take a nap! You’ll feel rested, you’ll feel better, and you’ll feel like yourself again. If you don’t feel like yourself, you don’t act like yourself.” Meditating for 20 minutes is worth an hour of sleep, he says, if you can’t (or won’t) bring yourself to take a nap.
If nothing has worked but you still want to keep the closeness, Maranges has comforting words. “If couples are sleeping apart and it’s benefiting their sleep, they can do other activities to bond. They could cuddle before they go to sleep, or they could do an extra-exciting activity together where they feel a sort of physiological arousal. There’s research that shows if you do something fun and exciting with your partner, because of how it makes you feel, you give your partner credit for those excited feelings.” Or if couples know that they really need to sleep apart to be productive at work, she suggests they sleep together only during the weekends.
Here are some other ways to address sleep incompatibilities.
Snoring. Goldsmith says if the problem is severe, then a sleep study and a full medical work-up is important. In the meantime, you can try the various products on the market, but sometimes a wedge or pillows behind the back will help your partner sleep on his/her side. Earplugs and sound machines help mask the noise.
Sleeping with a nonsleeper. Stress and anxiety can contribute to restlessness and insomnia, so avoid emotionally charged or uncomfortable conversations at the end of the day. Also, avoid stimulants like soda, chocolate and any kind of caffeine at least four hours before bed.
You’re a night owl; she’s an early bird. Some couples will lie down together when the early bird goes to bed but then the night owl will leave once their mate has fallen asleep. Revolutionhealth.com also recommends that you have separate alarm clocks, which your night owl partner will eventually learn to tune out (as long as you don’t hit the snooze button a zillion times). A small night light will help ensure the night owl doesn’t wake up the early bird partner by tripping over her slippers and crashing into the nightstand.
Some like it hot, but you do not. According to Health.com, the optimum temperature for sleep ranges from 68 to 72 degrees. But if that’s not acceptable to the one who wants it toasty, then a compromise is in order. Pick a temperature between your two preferences. The person who wants it warmer can wear clothes to bed, or use an extra blanket, while the person who prefers more chill can sleep atop the sheets. You can also consider a larger bed, where body heat is less likely to bother the one who wants it cooler.
Let there be light. Or dark. While darkness is a cue to your brain to start producing melatonin, a natural sleep aid, some people just have to sleep with a light on. If you can’t agree with your partner on the light/dark issue, compromise by agreeing to keep a very small nightlight burning on that person’s side of the bed, out of view of the other. You can also use a sleep mask or try a special bulb that cuts down on blue light, the kind blamed for making it harder to fall asleep.
Cuddle me now. Hard as it is to believe, there are people who prefer their sleep time be a no-touch zone. It’s not a reflection on their connection to you; it’s just a difference in sleep style. But since touch during sleep is important in producing oxytocin and serotonin, as Goldsmith points out, you can agree to cuddle until the snuggler drifts off to sleep, or that you’ll cuddle for 15 minutes then move to opposite sides of the bed.
We’ve got you covered. Some people just can’t help hogging the covers. If you’re in a constant battle for the duvet, then you’re probably not getting quality sleep time. The answer here is simple. Above the shared top sheet, you each assemble your own system of blankets or covers. Once your hubby is bundled up like a burrito, you can sleep in peace.
Tossing and turning all night. Changing position through the night is normal, but women tend to be more sensitive to their partner’s movements, which means they’re more likely to be woken by a restless sleeper. Surprisingly, having separate blankets and sheets can minimize the sensations of movement, and a larger bed helps too. Consider purchasing a memory-foam type bed, which—because of a lack of springs—cuts down on excessive bounce and movements.
See also: Foods That Can Help You Sleep
Just as sleep renews and repairs your body, a close and peaceful sleep with your partner can repair and renew your relationship. “You don’t have to stay snug in each other’s arms all night long,” says Goldsmith. “Most people cannot sleep that way. But just by sharing a bed and being able to reach over and touch the one you love, you will feel better about your life.”
Maranges adds that the most important takeaway from the current research is the importance of sleep. “We live in a society where sleep is treated as an inconvenience or a luxury,” she says. “We should really step back and see how important sleep is to everything. Sleep affects our well-being and is the cornerstone of a healthy and happy life.”