Catherine Pearson Headshot

Sleep Problems: How You And Your Partner Can Sleep In Sync

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Janelle's husband is a sleep talker.

The 30-year-old teacher says her partner and bedmate, Christopher, regularly wakes her in the middle of the night, speaking in full sentences -- "Tell Brian I need that paperwork tomorrow." "No, kids, don't do that."

And Janelle? She's a thrasher.

"He calls me a ninja," Janelle told The Huffington Post. "He says, 'I've been hit in the face by you. You roll around like you're fighting someone.'"

As exaggerated as their bedtime foibles sound, Christopher and Janelle are not alone. A 2005 survey by the non-profit advocacy group National Sleep Foundation found that more than a quarter of co-habitating American adults lose sleep from their partner's sleep issues, and nearly one in four adults spend the night in separate beds or bedrooms because of those problems.

All of which begs the question. Why is it so hard for couples to get a good night's rest?

OLD-SCHOOL ISSUE

The joint marital bed is nothing new. Throughout history, couples have shared a bed not just with their spouse, but often their children, explained Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of the book "Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage," saying that the notion of marital privacy is fairly recent.

During the 19th century, couples migrated into different rooms as a new ideology emerged that painted women as pure, but in the 20th century, the tide turned again.

"The double bed has become so popular, and almost fetishized among couples since the 1960s and 1970s," Coontz said. "We have put so much emphasis on a couple's relationship and mutual sexual satisfaction in marriage."

As the shared bed has become cemented as a cultural norm, a robust body of scientific literature has emerged showing that the health benefits of sleep go far beyond feeling rested the next day. Insufficient sleep has been linked with numerous chronic conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression. So much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers getting sufficient ZZZs -- from seven to nine hours per night -- an important matter of public health.

'WANTING TO KILL'

For many couples, full-blown disorders are the reason why sleep is so elusive, with one or both dealing with restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea, in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts throughout the night. Insomnia is another pervasive disorder, with a recent study in The Lancet suggesting up to 10 percent of American adults have it.

While these problems are serious, sometimes it's the seemingly minor issues that add up and become just as damaging. Conflicting schedules can be a problem, as can environmental factors. One person may like a firm bed and a cold room, while the other stays up shivering, tossing and turning. One person may be a cuddler, while the other likes to sprawl out with plenty of room on either side. Snoring is also a major culprit; according to a recent CDC survey of 12 states, 48 percent of adults reported sawing logs. (For more information on couples' sleep issues, click here.)

The challenge for many couples is knowing when Nighttime "eccentricities" have become more serious, taking a toll on both partners' sleep and, by extension, health.

"I will admit that I am the worst person to sleep with," Yasmine, a 23-year-old who has been married for two years, told HuffPost. She described herself as an "active" sleeper who wakes to find that she's sprawled sideways across the bed, overtaking her husband's pillow. She said she would not, however, seek help for the problem.

"It's just something that we have to deal with," Yasmine explained. "I laugh about it, it's kind of funny. It's not anything that's really affecting us."

But experts suggested that professionals can be useful.

"When you're bothered by it, that's the first clue," said Joyce Walsleben, a research associate professor at the New York University Sleep Disorders Center. "Certainly, if it's the case that you're waking up in the morning wanting to kill the person, it's not good for your health or your relationship."

Rebecca Scott, a sleep specialist at the New York Sleep Institute, added that people should consider medical help as soon as they recognize that sleep, or a lack, is impacting their daily life, making them feel some how "off." In some cases, it has been going on for years.

Scott said she seldom sees couples together. When both people do come, it's often so one can serve as a witness.

"There was only, in all the time I've been doing this, one couple came in together, both of them having trouble sleeping, both of them recognizing they were affecting each other's sleep," Scott said. She has been seeing patients since 1998.

PUTTING PROBLEMS TO BED

Professionals can use many tactics to try to curb sleep problems. If a sleep disorder is suspected, patients may be monitored overnight to track breathing and body functions. For insomnia, doctors can prescribe medication, or attempt cognitive behavioral therapy. For sleep apnea, they may recommend a mask that supplies constant, pressurized air.

But for couples whose nighttime issues do not constitute full-blown disorders, the answers are more varied, often hovering around the big "C" -- compromise.

An overhaul of the couple's sleep environment may be helpful, making sure that it is dark and quiet and that the bed is big enough. Separate beds may also provide temporary relief, though no expert interviewed for this article recommended it long-term. As the Daily Mail recently reported, some couples find separating actually improves sexual and overall health.

"We enjoyed more refreshing sleep alone than we had during the previous eight years of marriage, so I suggested we sleep apart on work nights," one person told the publication.

Coontz said that attitude reflects the culture that allows people to do what feels right for themselves as they learn sleep's importance.

"It's pretty clear that [bedtime] is a time to cuddle and a time to have sex, and those things are, in the abstract, probably pretty good for most couples," Coontz said. "But you have to weigh that against what happens to the relationship, and to you, when one or both of you are losing sleep. What's going to interfere more?"