Sleeping Together is a four-part series that examines the science behind that other thing couples do together in bed: sleep. We will publish a new installment every morning, starting Monday and ending Friday. First up: How a lack of sleep fucks with your relationship’s emotional well-being — and how much you’re actually fucking.
Insomnia-plagued as I am, I’ve always resented how quickly and easily my husband falls asleep. His head touches the pillow (or couch) and he’s out within seconds. Jealousy might be a green-eyed monster in Shakespeare’s world, but in my house, it is a bleary, red-eyed husk of a human scowling beneath the sheets.
In some ways, my husband and I aren’t too far off from what initial research has discovered about the different ways men and women sleep; in other aspects, however, we’re the exact opposite. Scientists are starting to identify these differences, but there are not yet definitive answers on why they exist.
What we do know is that women, in general, get more sleep and fall asleep faster than men, and are more likely to be early risers. (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule — me being one of them.) Men are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea, while women are 50 percent more likely to have insomnia. One study even showed that women tend to perform better when operating on low sleep and rebound more quickly when they get more make-up sleep. On the flip side, they’re also more susceptible to the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
One possible cause of these differences: “Hormones,” says Lauri Leadley, clinical sleep educator and president of Valley Sleep Center in Phoenix. “Men don’t necessarily deal with all the hormone issues that women do, and it doesn’t seem to affect their sleep like it does women.” While some men have hormonal issues, such as low testosterone, that can cause sleep disturbances, the fluctuating hormone levels (particularly estrogen levels) that women experience with each menstrual cycle, and eventually with menopause, make them more susceptible to poor sleep.
“A lot of men will say, ‘I can sleep anywhere! I can sleep standing up!’ But that’s a problem, too,” Leadley says. “You shouldn’t be able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.”
While the biological differences between the sexes when it comes to sleep can be looked at objectively, the gender-role aspect of sharing a bed is more nuanced. Some research has shown that, overall, men are more concerned with making sure they get a good night’s sleep and less concerned with disturbing their partner, whereas women are more inclined to make sure that their partners sleep well.
A New Zealand study focused on the sleeping patterns of same-sex partners reinforced that these gendered views of sleep are often socially driven and show up regardless of sharing a bed with someone of the opposite or same sex. In short, men in the study placed their own sleep ahead of their male partner’s, whereas the women mostly saw “sleep disruption as an inevitable part of their roles as mothers, wives, partners, workers and caregivers.”
I can attest to this from personal experience. Part of the reason I don’t take sleep medication is the fear that I won’t wake up if my 1-year-old starts crying in the middle of the night (which he still does multiple times per night, despite our best efforts). In my mind, his sleep comes first, then my husband’s, then mine. Presumably it’s because I feel like I can handle it, or rather, I feel like I should be able to handle it? My husband, however, says I’m being a martyr. He’s both worried for me and a little mad that I’m not taking the time to take care of myself.
To him, it’s just a problem that needs to be fixed. But I feel like those women in the New Zealand study who just accept lack of sleep as an inevitability. The biggest problem is that my ability to “handle it” is increasingly being brought into question by both my husband and myself. Because, truth be told, I’m not doing so great. We’re not doing so great. And our disjointed (and apparently gendered) views on sleep that I didn’t realize we had may be directly contributing to our marital disharmony.
Which is why this quote from Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, rings so true for me. “Research by me and my colleagues found that for men, poor sleep predicts more negative interactions with his partner the next day. For women, the converse was true: How she interacts with her partner during the day predicts how soundly she sleeps at night. In other words, for women, marital strife can lead to a sleepless night; for men, a sleepless night can lead to marital strife. Taken together, these interactions can create a vicious cycle, potentially increasingly poor sleep and distressed relationships.”
It hasn’t always been this bad for my husband and me. I’ve had trouble going to sleep for as long as I can remember, but back in our pre-baby days, our biggest issue was that our work schedules never lined up. We’re both night owls, but on nights when he would stay up later than me working on music or some other project, I couldn’t even begin my long process of falling asleep until he finally came to bed.
If we could help it, we rarely spent the night sleeping separately. Even after a fight, one of us sleeping on the couch didn’t feel right. (I still feel that way.) But no matter how much we both talked about how bad we slept when the other was gone, some of my best sleep would come on Saturdays when I had the bed to myself after he left for work.
When I think of good sleep, I still think of those Saturdays.
As it turns out, I’m not alone.
A 2007 study in the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms found that men reported sleeping better when they shared a bed with their partner, even though they physically got the same amount of sleep with or without them. Women, on the other hand, reported better quality sleep on nights they shared a bed as well (particularly when sex was involved), but they woke up less often and got deeper sleep when they were alone.
Researchers measured this by having participants wear actigraphs on their wrists to keep track of sleep and movement throughout the night, in addition to answering questions about how they felt about the previous night’s sleep. Over the course of the study, couples spent 10 nights sleeping apart and 10 nights sleeping together. Researchers then compared the objective results (actigraph) with the subjective (how the men and women felt about their sleep).
“Having a bed partner increases your risk of staying awake longer and having fragmented sleep — male or female,” Leadley explains. “You might not consciously wake up, but you’re going to hear things. Your brain will notice it, subconsciously. When your sleep is fragmented, it interrupts you from going through the normal sleep stages, and if you don’t have those, you end up throwing off your metabolism and your body isn’t fully restored. It’s similar to when you thought you plugged your cell phone in all the way, but in reality, it was only halfway plugged in.”
While the research is still relatively new, some experts, including Troxel, believe that “the psychological benefits we get having closeness at night trump the objective costs of sleeping with a partner.” Basically, at least in the long-term health of our psyches, love can potentially conquer all — even a shitty night of sleep.
Leadley, on the other hand, offers a less romantic and more pragmatic approach. “I would say that the physiological restoration of the body and brain is extremely important, and in my opinion, more important than the psychological effects of just having security. I think we can get over that.”
Given all this potential hardship, why do we even bother sleeping together? Historically, humans have long shared their beds with loved ones (and the occasional stranger) for a couple of reasons: security and money. Yes, sleeping together can foster a sense of intimacy and can help guard against the terrors of the night (real or imagined), but a lot of people shared a bed simply because there was only one bed in the house. In preindustrial Europe, for example, entire lower-class households (read: most households) shared a bed. Aristocrats, on the other hand, were known to maintain separate quarters if they could afford it, but whether or not they slept together throughout the night on evenings when the wife was summoned to her husband’s room to help carry on the family bloodline isn’t clear.
In the 1950s, showing a married couple’s bedroom on TV often included two twin beds separated by a strategically placed, prudish nightstand. The Ricardos, Cleavers and Petries all had one. The Flintstones — modern Stone Age family that they were — did actually share a bed, but they also had elephant vacuums and lobster lawnmowers, so the suspension of disbelief was pretty strong overall. This was mostly mandated by the networks in order to maintain certain standards of decency, however innocently implied the sexuality might be. (They didn’t like showing toilets, either.)
Nor was it totally out of whack with what was going on in the country’s real-life bedrooms. Back then, there were actually couples who slept separately — and there still are today. In fact, in 2005, the National Sleep Foundation estimated that at least 23 percent of American couples slept separately. This has inspired article after article weighing the pros and cons of the “sleep divorce” phenomenon.
Leadley thinks there’s an underlying cause behind the trend. “We’re seeing more and more sleep divorces because people don’t want to treat their sleep disorders,” she argues. “If people would just make it a priority and get their sleep disorder fixed, then they wouldn’t have to sleep in separate bedrooms. Everyone takes diet and exercise seriously, but not sleep. Americans are getting better, but overall, it still takes the back burner.”
“Either way,” she continues, “the ‘why’ a couple wants to sleep separately should be identified. Does one person want to watch TV? Does someone snore? There can be compromise. The reasons why people want to sleep separately can be fixed. And over time, healthy sleep habits can take hold.”
That said, Leadley doesn’t think sharing a bed is necessarily a requirement of a healthy relationship. “You absolutely can have a successful relationship if you don’t sleep in the same bed,” she says. “Intimacy begins with fulfilling each other’s needs. If my need is that I need you to sleep with me every night, or I need some physical touch prior to you going to sleep, then sleeping together is critical. But if you can find your physical touch and intimacy outside of the bedroom, that’s fine, too. I think that nowadays, anything goes.”
At this particular point in my life, my husband and I are just doing what we can to maintain our sanity. On especially trying nights, he does end up on the couch. It’s not ideal, but it works. And sometimes, we both prefer and benefit from it; even though I, like a lot of people, don’t like to admit it. But again — it works. So I’ll take it.
Jennifer Sanchez is a freelance writer in Portland.