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Sleep and sleep disorders are generally treated individually, without much attention to how our sleep impacts our relationships. However, Dr. Wendy Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at Rand Corporation, argues that sleep is fundamentally a social endeavor, and that our sleep patterns and sleep quality have a direct impact on our partners and closest relationships.
Her new book, Sharing the Covers, was released this month, and she took some time to chat with Sleep Foundation about why sleeping together may not be what’s best for a couple, how good sleep can lead to more productive arguments with our partners, and why it’s essential to consider sleep within the context of a social and cultural framework. We have also included an excerpt from her book.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
Sleep Foundation (SF): Thanks for agreeing to speak with us about Sharing the Covers. Congratulations on its release! What motivated you to write this book?
Dr. Wendy Troxel (WT): Well, I’ve been studying couples and sleep for more than 15 years, and I’m routinely asked by the media to comment on a variety of things, probably the big one being, “Is it bad if couples sleep apart?” And I get other questions about how sleep problems can impact relationship health, and vice versa.
So it occurred to me that this is a perennially hot topic. People are operating on a number of myths about what it means to sleep together, and that’s producing some shame for couples who choose to sleep apart. So I really thought it was time to bring the science on the topic to the public, and collect the research that my colleagues and I have been conducting, as well as other researchers who have been studying this topic of couples and sleep. I wanted to finally put it together in a way to help couples sleep better and have better relationships.
SF: You bring a unique perspective to this topic; your book really is a blend of sleep recommendations and relational advice for couples.
WT: I’m a bit of an oddity in the field of sleep because I’ve always studied sleep in the context of social relationships and social environments. I’ve always had this relational perspective in trying to understand how relationships get under the skin to impact health, and sleep was this obvious connection between relationships and health outcomes. And sleep is something couples do together.
Sleep research tends to view sleep as an individual behavior and really neglected to consider the partnered nature of sleep. Even our treatments for sleep disorders have been focused on the individual. But some of our sleep treatments do affect the partner. I certainly encourage couples to be engaged in sleep treatment together.
So, while I am focused on the treatment of sleep disorders, I end up pulling from my background as a general clinical psychologist and using the relationship tools that I’ve learned along the way as well.
SF: The medical field is great at isolating the problem within the individual, but you’re saying there is an interrelatedness with our sleep (and overall health) and our relationships.
WT: Absolutely. And that’s what sleep in the real world looks like. Some of our sleep problems are not entirely our own; they might be our partner’s sleep problems. Sleep in the real world is often the opposite of the isolated laboratory conditions in which sleep is often studied — it’s often noisy, interrupted, and shared. And when it’s shared, you have to consider both individuals’ sleep habits and behaviors because they’re interdependent and they affect each other.
SF: One of the ways you capture this dynamic in the book is by talking about an insomniac struggling to sleep. And as she watches her partner sleep throughout the night, this resentment and contempt begins to build toward her partner who’s peacefully sleeping next to her.
During many of my initial introductions to my clients, I’ll ask, “Do you share a bed?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, and my husband or my partner, he falls asleep like the drop of a hat,” and with a grimace on.
That’s why I say great sleep is the new great sex. We’re really envious of those who seem to be getting more of it, better of it than we are, and that includes our partners.
With people with insomnia, it can drive you mad if you’re falling asleep and you’re lying next to somebody who blissfully falls asleep and, worse yet, starts to snore, That can create a whole different dynamic!
SF: You talk in some of your early chapters about this paradox that people actually sleep better without their partner, and yet their preference is to sleep with their partner. How do you explain this?
WT: When we measure people’s sleep, they actually sleep worse when they share a bed as compared to when they sleep alone. But if you ask those same people, “Do you prefer to sleep with your partner or do you prefer to sleep alone?” People will say they prefer to sleep with their partner.
When you have another human being in the shared space with you, there is more opportunity for disruption: there’s displacement in the mattress, he or she steals a sheet, he or she wakes up. And we know that couples’ sleep patterns are, to some extent, synchronized. That means that at any time throughout the night when a given partner is awake or asleep, the other partner is also likely to be in that same stage.
There may be psychological benefits of sharing a bed, even if at times, it comes with some costs to sleep. I think more than anything, it speaks to the fact that we are in many ways hard-wired to be social and to rely on our social connections when we’re feeling most vulnerable, which includes our sleep.
Dr. Troxel argues that couples often face a social pressure to sleep together, even if that co-sleeping arrangement leads to poorer sleep quality. She says, “…it speaks to the fact that…we are hard-wired to be social and to rely on our social connections when we’re feeling most vulnerable, which includes our sleep.”
The mystery of love and sleep tap into these very deep vulnerabilities that we have. Yes, we need healthy sleep and there’s lots of things that can interfere with our sleep. And yes, we also have this drive for connection at night. It’s about couples figuring out what works best for them to both maximize their sleep quality and their relationship quality.
SF: You argue throughout the book that we have to view the health of our relationships in tandem with the health of our sleep. In other words, sleep acts as a well that we draw from in order to fight more constructively, love more deeply, repair with our partners more carefully. How would you describe the importance of sleep in creating healthy, sustainable relationships?
WT: I love how you just said that. But it’s so true: sleep is this critical part of our mental and relational resilience. When people say marital vows, there are these dichotomies stated, “In sickness and in health. ‘Til death do us part. For richer, for poorer,” and yet we’re missing the most immediate dichotomy, which is day and night. And how can you view the life of a couple while neglecting to consider that third of our lives that we spend, most of us, shared with a partner? It’s a critical part of our coupled existence, and yet so often forgotten about.
Couples often overlook how important sleep can be to the proper function of their relationship. Good sleep helps regulate our emotions and moods, and can make us more resilient in the face of conflict. In short, Troxel reminds us that sleep is “embedded in social contexts and affects our social interactions quite profoundly.”
When else do you spend eight hours, on average, in close proximity to your partner? There’s no other health behavior that we do so much with one other human being, so that itself speaks to how important it is. But then there’s all of the research we know about sleep, and how it affects aspects of our emotions, our moods, our ability to regulate our emotions, our propensity towards conflict, our problem-solving skills, and our communication skills. And when those things go awry, who are we most likely to take them out on? Our partner is the one who’s going to be most likely to bear the brunt of our bad moods and behaviors that we know are consequences of poor sleep.
So, again, thinking about the role of sleep in the context of a couple is so important. It affects every aspect of what we consider the critical domains of relationship functioning, whether it be your satisfaction, your sexual activity and happiness with your sexual activity, your communication, your likelihood of conflict. So another reason why we need to broaden the context of sleep is that it isn’t just this isolated individual behavior; it’s embedded in social contexts and affects our social interactions quite profoundly.
SF: You also talk about this idea that poor sleep — or the lack of sleep — can really have a deleterious effect on our relationships. In fact, you highlight research that indicated couples who slept better during a two-week period showed more gratitude toward one another and were less selfish. So it does seem like there’s a pretty important line to be drawn between our sleep and the quality of our relationships.
WT: One truism that is mentioned over and over in the relationship world is that even healthy couples engage in conflict. The absence of conflict is not the goal. It’s really about how couples engage in conflict that matters and that means that couples can develop skills to engage in conflict in a healthier way. What’s beautiful is that getting healthy sleep can be really foundational in allowing you to access those skills, which is the path to a healthy relationship. Sleep helps “soften” our emotional edges, which is one of the building blocks of relationship-enhancing skills.
SF: You write that we tend to think about sleep as a luxury; it’s something that we’ll get to after all the other things are tidied up. Why do you think we’ve come to view sleep in this way?
WT: It’s partly our cultural tendency to undermine the importance of sleep. There are references to this in popular culture, in famous songs, by celebrities, by politicians, by various world leaders who undermine the importance of sleep by espousing the idea that you sleep when you’re dead. And, unfortunately, we also do know that there are inequities in sleep, just as there are inequities in virtually every other health outcome. And this is particularly salient during COVID, where we see existing inequities only being exacerbated, and that includes sleep.
And I try to be sensitive about that in my book. My overall frame is thinking about sleep in a social context, so that includes sleep within our closest connections, our relationships, our neighborhoods. But also, I try to consider how sleep exists within other social structures, like the policies under which we live, and broader factors like systemic racism.
While Troxel advocates for us to think about sleep in the context of our relationships, she also reminds us that sleep is embedded within other social structures, which includes, “…the policies under which we live, and broader factors like systemic racism.”
It’s important to think about couples in their broader social context. So the option to sleep apart is really reserved for those who can afford to have a separate bedroom. But, actually, this has been part of a history of the social construct of sleeping together versus apart, and it’s shifted throughout history. In the past, sleeping apart was a luxury for those who could afford it; it was very much a sign of prestige to sleep apart because those who could, who had the means to, could sleep apart, and the lower classes could not.
SF: What are the takeaways you want people to gain from your book?
I want people to understand that the intersection between our sleep and our relationships is not static — it’s a dynamic that can also change throughout the lifespan of a couple. There are all of these key transitions in the life of a couple, like the birth of a child, sickness in one or both partners, one partner becoming a caregiver. All of these transitions are associated with both sleep problems and relationship problems.
My hope is that there’s something for everyone, wherever you are in the course of your relationship — from newlyweds to long-time married or partnered couples. Considering this dynamic matters wherever you are in the life of your relationship, and it just may manifest in different ways. There are a lot of ways that sleep and relationships can go awry, whether it be snoring, the birth of a child, or the fact that you’re on different sleep schedules or just have different sleep habits. Recognizing that when you put two people together and you try to share a behavior that’s happening nightly, we can’t just expect that it’s all going to magically work. It’s okay to talk about what’s working and what’s not working, and to come up with strategies that are going to work for you. We need to be less tied to this stigma around what we should be doing, and instead focus on how important it is to sleep well in order to be a better partner.
There are no “right” or “wrong” ways when it comes to couples’ sleeping arrangements, because there is not a one-size fits all sleeping strategy that will work for all couples. There are, however, lots of wrong ways to approach this topic, and those generally start by basing your decisions on expectations or assumptions, or reacting to the situation, without ever actually talking about what’s working or not working in your coupled sleep experience. More than anything this book was designed to help you and your partner open the conversation about a significant and important part of your lives that more often than not, we fail to discuss at all. Decisions are too often made implicitly based on societal beliefs, expectations, and assumptions, rather than open and honest communication. That doesn’t have to be how things go for you. Here are some key ground rules to start the conversation about your sleep as a couple:
Excerpted from Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep by Wendy M. Troxel, PhD. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.