When it comes to advice around getting better sleep, nearly all of it is directed at the individual sleeper who feels they’ve got room to improve: Here’s what you might be doing wrong; here’s how to straighten out your sleep hygiene. Yet for the millions of people who are sleeping with someone else in their bed, this advice leaves out a huge elephant in the room — the other person sharing your sheets.
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now when it comes to advice around getting better sleep, nearly all of it is directed at the individual sleeper who feels they’ve got room to improve, here’s what you might be doing wrong, here’s how to straighten out your sleep hygiene. Yet for the millions of people who are sleeping with someone else in their bed, this advice leaves out a huge elephant in the room, the other person sharing your sheets. As my guest today argues a shared bed means shared sleep issues that need to be tackled with shared solutions. Her name is Dr. Wendy Troxel, she’s a clinical psychologist, a sleep specialist, and the author of Sharing The Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.
We begin our conversation by discussing how sleep not only affects people’s relationships, but people’s relationships affect their sleep and how this bidirectional dynamic can become either a vicious or virtuous cycle depending on the quality of sleep the couple gets. We then talk about the various issues couples deal with in sharing a bed, from snoring to a mismatch in temperature preferences, we also get into the complications that come with bringing kids into the picture and Wendy gives her take on the issue of family co-sleeping, from there, we turn to solutions for shared sleep problems and dig into the idea of sleeping in separate beds. Wendy impacts the way the taboo around separate sleeping has waxed and waned throughout history, why it works for some couples and the options for implementing it from sleeping in separate bedrooms to a more moderate approach called the Scandinavian method. Wendy also gives advice to couples who want to continue to share the same bed, but struggle with the fact that one person is a morning bird and the other is a night owl, after the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/sharedsleep.
Brett McKay: Alright, Wendy Troxel welcome to the show.
Wendy Troxel: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
Brett McKay: So you are a sleep specialist and you have studied how sleep problems manifest in individuals, you also are a therapist, you help people with their sleep problems as well, but you also study how sleep problems can affect society and couples. I’m curious what led you down that path?
Wendy Troxel:Well, when I first started my research career and I was pursuing my Doctoral degree in clinical and health psychology, I’ve always been fascinated by relationships and understanding how and why relationships, and frankly, our social environments more generally are so important, not just for our mental health, but also for our physical health, so we know for instance, that married people or partnered people live longer, happier and healthier lives than their unmarried or un-partnered counterparts, and it’s not just being married that matters for health, it’s really being in a high quality relationship that can provide a real boost to your health, including your risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, what we don’t know is how do these relationships get under the skin to impact such chronic health conditions like heart disease. And that’s when I had this kind of aha moment that I had to start studying sleep and specifically the role that sleep plays in the life of a couple, and how sleep may help explain why some relationships are health-protective, whereas others may confer health risks.
Because we know, of course, that sleep is vitally important for our physical health and our mental health, and it also happens to be the one health behavior that is traditionally shared among couples, and yet very few people in sleep research or throughout the history of sleep science have studied sleep in the social context in which it occurs, if you just think about the typical sleep laboratory setup, what do we do? We bring individuals into a laboratory under tightly-controlled conditions and we isolate them as much as possible, but this isn’t what sleep in the real world looks like, sleep in the real world is often noisy, interrupted, and most importantly, shared often with a partner.
Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, I think that’s really interesting. That’s why this book really jumped out to me ’cause you’re right, we’ve had sleep experts on the podcast where we’ve talked about the downsides of having sleep deprivation, you’re not getting enough sleep, so we all, we’ve probably, and people have probably read articles about it, if you’re not gonna enough sleep, you increase your risk for heart disease, as you said, Alzheimer’s, insulin resistance or diabetes, then on the psychological level, sleep deprivation can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental issues, but then yeah, you make this really great case, and you’ve done research on this, is that the lack of sleep can also affect and/or negatively influence our relationships, what does the research say about that?
Wendy Troxel: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. So it’s wonderful that we’re all becoming more and more aware of the profound individual consequences of sleep disturbances ranging from, as you said, our risk for heart disease and depression, anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. But people are less aware of the fact that, and I would say it’s equally important that there also are profound interpersonal consequences of sleep loss and disruption. So what does the research say? This is coming from both my research team as well as others, the research clearly has shown that when people are poorly slept, they’re more likely to engage in the very types of behaviors that the relationship experts, including the renowned Dr. John Gottman have deemed to be the most toxic types of relationship behaviors and the behaviors that are most predictive of relationship demise.
So this includes the fact, studies have shown that when we’re sleep-deprived or we experience sleep loss, we’re more likely to display hostile behaviors, our frustration tolerance is lower, we’re more prone to conflict, and we’re less able to read our partner’s emotions, add on top of that, the fact that sleep problems can predict the onset of mental health problems like depression, and anxiety and substance use problems, and you can really have a toxic combination for relationships.
Brett McKay: And I think that makes sense. If you have kids, you understand whenever your toddler, your kid doesn’t get enough sleep, one of the… The first thing you know they’re cranky.
Wendy Troxel: Yes.
Brett McKay: And we think, well, that doesn’t happen to adults, but no the same thing happens to adults as well.
Wendy Troxel: Absolutely, a child meltdown because of sleep deprivation looks very similar in some ways as an adult meltdown, maybe we’re not having a tantrum, but we do become irritable, we tend to snap at the other person, and when we kind of have those negative behaviors, we’re most likely to take it out on our partners, we can kind of regulate ourselves a little bit more when it comes to our boss or co-workers maybe, but that irritability and that frustration tolerance, which is lowered, can really… We’re prone to snap at our partner, the person who’s always supposed to be there for us.
Brett McKay: And what causes that increase of frustrations, is there something going on in the brain because of lack of sleep that would result in us in snapping and just being more irritable like what’s going on there?
Wendy Troxel: Yes, well, there’s really elegant research showing that sleep plays a key role in our ability to regulate our emotions, and it also does have an impact on the parts of the brain that are kind of the emotion centers like the amygdala, so that becomes under sleep-deprived conditions, we see an amplification in amygdala responses, which is again, that sort of hot fiery emotion center, and we actually see a down regulation in the prefrontal area, which is really sort of the reins in the brain system trying to kind of regulate those hot fiery emotions, so we have a kind of up regulation of the fieriness and sort of the tendency to snap or become angry and less control of our emotions because of the down regulation in the prefrontal area.
Brett McKay: So not only, that’s the other thing you highlight, too, in the book is not only does sleep deprivation cause us to just be more irritable, so when our spouse or partner asks us to do something in the morning and we’re just like, “Argh,” just bite their head off. But it also it can increase feelings of loneliness, too, for some weird reason, you actually feel lonelier when you’re sleep deprived, even though you might objectively not be lonely, you have your spouse, kids, friends.
Wendy Troxel: Yeah, yeah, that feeling of… We can feel lonely even with a partner, and that’s sometimes the loneliest place to be. And elegant work out of Berkeley has shown that under sleep-deprived conditions, people tend to subjectively feel more lonely regardless of what the actual social context is, and what’s really cool about that research is that they also show that loneliness is kind of contagious, that sleep-deprived people were rated by external reviewers as being more lonely, but the reviewers themselves, after looking at the sleep-deprived people also felt more lonely themselves, so there can be that sort of loneliness contagion. And you can imagine in a couple how that kind of if both partner is feeling lonely and disconnected, over time, that sense of disconnection is a really powerful predictor of relationship demise, it’s when couples start moving apart and they’re not quite sure why their relationship is no longer satisfying, that it’s not feeding them anymore, but they’re just sort of living in separate worlds, and that can be very devastating.
Brett McKay: Okay, so in addition to our sleep deprivation negatively affecting relationships, because we get snappier, we feel lonely, we feel disconnected from our spouse or partner, you also there’s research that says the quality of a relationship can also positively or negatively affect our sleep, so what’s going on there?
Wendy Troxel: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. So on the negative side, I think this is kind of intuitively obvious to most people, if you’re going through a rough spell in your relationship, or if you have a conflict with your partner during the day, that can really disrupt your sleep that night, because relationship conflict or relationship strain is a major source of stress for most people. But here’s what’s interesting, my colleague, Dr. Brent Hasler, who’s from the University of Pittsburgh, and I, we did a study a number of years ago, in which we measured couples’ daily relationship behaviors and nightly sleep quality over a period of about 10 days. What we found was that for men, on nights when they slept worse, the next day, they reported poor relationship quality. But for women, we found evidence for the reverse direction, okay? So for women, we found that on days when she reported feeling less satisfied in her relationship, that night, both her sleep and her partner’s sleep suffered, so in other words, if she’s not happy, no one’s sleeping.
But what this research shows us with these bi-directional associations, some of which may be gender-dependent, you can easily see if sleep is affecting relationships and relationships can in turn affect sleep, you can have this vicious cycle emerge. But I wanna mention it’s not all negative, there can also be virtuous cycles, if we turn this around, wherein if we prioritize sleep and relationship health, we can have healthy sleep begetting healthier relationship behaviors and so on.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious, that’s interesting. Yeah, I can totally see the vicious cycle will happen, you get a bad night’s sleep that affects the relationship, the relationship is bad the next day, and that just makes the next night sleep bad. Or it could be the opposite way, a fight with your spouse, and you don’t sleep well, and then it just perpetuates. I’m curious, in your research and also you’re also a therapist, you work with people and couples with their sleep problems, have you… Is it… Usually what precipitates, what starts the vicious cycle, is it usually a lack of sleep, or is it the bad relationship, what’s the kickstarter?
Wendy Troxel: Yeah, well, I think obviously, there’s a bit of a selection bias, because I’m known as a specialist, I am a general clinical psychologist, but people generally come to me for sleep issues, so I hear a lot about the sleep disturbance’s effects on the relationships. However, even in my clinical sleep context, relationship issues are often a precipitant of sleep problems for not all of my patients but many. So again, even in the etiology of sleep problems that people will come to me to treat relationship stress in the relationship or a divorce or a separation, those are often identified by the patient as when their sleep problems began. But I also see the other side of that because I’m treating the sleep problems that my patients will acknowledge that, and particularly if their partners come in, they will also acknowledge that the sleep problem in one partner is really having an impact on the couple as a unit.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. What are the problems couples might experience when it comes to sleep? And what issues do you often see with partnered sleeping? ‘Cause I think that’s an important thing, ’cause I think people are typically, I got a sleeping problem. They usually, as you said a bit earlier, it’s usually, well, what’s my problem? They never think, well, how’s my wife or my husband contributing to this?
Wendy Troxel: Absolutely, and here’s a big thrust of the book too is that we need to get over this idea that a sleeping problem is my problem or your problem, because if a couple shares a bed, the bottom line is that problem is a we problem. It is an interdependent phenomenon because sleep is shared for many adults, so we really have to start thinking about it that way and problem-solving at the level of the couple.
But an answer to your question in terms of the types of problems that are most commonly faced by couples when sleeping together, and here I mean in the literal sense, not the biblical sense, the big one of course that we hear about most frequently is that one partner snores and that keeps the other partner up. But of course, there are other sleep disorders as well like insomnia or restless leg syndrome, which can have effects both on the individual as well as the partner. Couples may have differences in sleep-wake schedules or pattern, one’s an early bird or a morning lark and the other’s an evening owl, or they may have different work schedules.
As any parent will tell you, the presence of children can wreak some havoc on couples’ sleep. And then of course, there are just differences, more mundane run-of-the-mill differences in sleep preferences or behaviors, maybe you have differences in preferences for firmness or softness of the mattress, or one of you likes it hot in the bedroom, the other likes it cold or maybe one partner likes to bring their phone into bed and scrolls through their phone obsessively before falling asleep, whereas the other partner is really trying to practice healthy sleep hygiene. So these kind of behaviors are incompatible.
And again, the other big point I make in the book is that just because you love a person and you’re committed to them doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to automatically be perfectly compatible when it comes to that roughly third of our lives that we spend together, in bed.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a lot of relationship advice before you get married she wants to talk about. Okay, what are your… What’s your approach to finances? And you talk about that, but never crossed my mind to ask my wife like, “So are you a morning bird or a night owl?” How’s that… That never crossed my mind at all.
Wendy Troxel: Right. And these are really important things. It’s a third of our lives, and it’s one of the few things that, again, for most couples, it’s actually that entire time period is generally shared together and we just assume that it’s going to work, or we default to these ideas of how couples should be, and that it’s just naturally going to work, and it doesn’t always work that seamlessly, and without having any dialogue about how do we work through this, I think that it, that can create tension that’s unnecessary in couples. So that’s again the purpose of the book is to start the dialogue that sleeping together isn’t always easy or automatically compatible, but there are strategies to work together to make it work.
Brett McKay: Besides differences in circadian rhythms, can anyone… Someone can be a night owl, someone can be an early bird, are there differences between how men and women sleep that can cause problems from a physiological basis?
Wendy Troxel: Yes, there are a number of biological sex differences in sleep that of course can cause particular issues among heterosexual couples though generally speaking, I wanna mention that the challenges that couples face when it comes to sharing a bed apply to all types of couples, straight, gay, young, old, newlyweds or long-term couples. But as far as sex differences go, the short answer is this: Women tend to suffer more from sleep disturbances and sleep disorders characterized by poor sleep quality or lighter non-refreshing sleep. They’re about twice as likely to have insomnia as compared to men. They’re also more likely to have restless leg syndrome as compared to men.
On the other hand, men are more likely to be loud sleepers, so statistically speaking at least, men are more likely to be snorers or to have the clinical disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea that’s characterized by loud snoring or gasping for air at night, which can be of course very disruptive. So you can imagine how among heterosexual couples, the pairing of a sex that tends to be lighter sleep, more prone to sleep disturbances with a loud sleeper could create some conflict in the bedroom.
Brett McKay: So besides issues between sleep differences between the couple, you also talk about adding kids to the picture can also create problems or exacerbate sleeping problems. What does that look like?
Wendy Troxel: Well, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, you just need to ask any parent of a child that the presence of a child has profound impacts on your sleep individually and as a couple. And here’s what’s actually very interesting, research shows that after the birth of your first child, couples experience a precipitous decline in their relationship quality, and also as every parent will tell you, having an infant in the house is a surefire way to become sleep-deprived. Now, given what we know about the consequences of sleep loss on our moods, our behavior, and our ability to communicate effectively, it stands to reason that sleep loss can be a major driver of relationship conflict and that deterioration, at least temporarily, in relationship satisfaction when couples become parents.
And again, this is also why it’s so important for couples to start acknowledging the importance of sleep in the life course of their relationship ’cause thankfully, the sleep problems and sleep deprivation of having a newborn, it doesn’t last forever, for all you newborn parents out there. But other sleep problems do emerge over the course of the development of your children. So I can just tell you, as a parent of two teenagers, definitely not the same level of sleep deprivation that I had when they were infants, but there is sleep disruption when you worry about when they’ll come home at night, especially with young drivers.
So having children certainly is just another factor that comes to play that can kinda shake up the boat when it comes to couples’ sleep and acknowledging that and recognizing that some of this is very time-limited and related to a very normal, typical part of the life course of a couple. Having a newborn, most people will experience some level of sleep deprivation. If you can label it as that, and if you can maybe give your partner some distance that this is not about you being just a fatally flawed person or a bad person or irritable person, it’s really just that you’re sleep-deprived. That can give some healthy distance and help couples manage these rough spots better.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you talk about too when you bring a kid into the family, especially a newborn, have conversations around this like, “What are we gonna do to make sure we both get some good sleep?” It’s been a while since I’ve been a newborn parent, but I remember… My wife is a night owl, I tend to be an early bird. And I think when we first had our kids, it was like our sort of arrangement was, ’cause babies, newborns, they gotta eat all the time.
Wendy Troxel: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so they gotta eat in the middle of the night. So it was like, if it’s before 2 o’clock in the morning, wife would take care of that, Kate would take care of that. If it was after 2:00 or 3:00, then I would get up and take care of it. I guess that worked for us.
Wendy Troxel: Yeah, well, I think couples who are able to recognize their sleep-wake differences and then use them in their favor, that’s a really healthy approach. And generally speaking, yes, the key for couples struggling with the temporary nature of sleep deprivation caused by the birth of a child, it may feel like it’s lasting forever, but it really doesn’t. Finding ways to help your partner out so that you can maybe swap nights when one partner is on for the nighttime caregiving duties where the other partner might get that blessed four to to six-hour chunk of sleep, which makes a world of difference in those first few months of having a baby. But again, it’s about acknowledging this exists, and it’s going to have an impact on us so how do we work together to avoid the impact of harming us more long-term in our relationship? Really supporting both and recognizing that feeling slangry, the term for sleepy plus angry, kinda like hungry, it’s not about your partner being a bad person, it’s about the situation which is causing sleep deprivation, and we know that sleep deprivation can have really profound impacts on your mood and your behavior.
Brett McKay: Now, I can attest to the fact even after the newborn phase, your kids are still gonna mess up your sleep. This week alone, we’ve had two separate kids come into our bedroom at 1 o’clock in the morning, they had a leg pain, like, “I got groin pains.” And so we had to wake up, Tylenol. It still happens. It still happens. They’re 10 and 8.
Wendy Troxel: It still happens. Now, the good news is that temporary sleep disruptions are really not going to kill you. They happen, it’s a normal part of life. What we wanna avoid is really chronic disrupted sleep or insufficient sleep over a long period of time. That’s what the research shows is really, most strongly associated with negative health outcomes. So doing whatever you can to protect your sleep when you can, and working with your partner so that if you’re going through a period… A longer period of time, for instance, where a child was waking up a lot in the middle of the night, how do you find ways to maybe reciprocate with your partner to make sure that each of you get some decent sleep, at least occasionally, so you don’t have that buildup of chronic sleep deprivation, which can have the most negative consequences.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Another thing you talk about in the book that some families do, they do shared sleeping. So it’s like the baby sleeps with the parents and then they just… It continues in the toddlerhood. And for some families that works out great, it’s fantastic, but then there’s couples you highlighted where that was the sleep issue, that was a kind of a point of contention in the relationship.
Wendy Troxel: Right. So the issue of family co-sleeping is a hotly debated and controversial topic, and from a medical standpoint, what I always say is co-sleeping, if it’s done safely, is really a family-level decision. And again, when I say safely, that means that there’s appropriate bedding for the infant or the child, and that there’s not substance use involved on the part of either of the parents. But here’s the thing, what is missing for so many families is the actual act of making it a family decision. For some couples and families, if it is an active choice to co-sleep, it can be the right choice for that family. What happens for many families is that it’s not an active decision or a proactive and mutual decision, rather maybe the infant or child starts sleeping in the bed because they’re having issues sleeping in their own bed, but the couple never arrived at this decision together.
So I’ve seen clients who come to me with issues with their child sleeping, but it’s really about issues with the family sleep. And I’ll ask one partner, “So what’s your goal here?” And one partner may say, “I just want my child to sleep through the night.” The other partner will say, “I just want my child to sleep through the night in their own bed.” Now, those extra words are very different. And before we can problem solve and do anything really effective to support the child’s sleep, I have to help the couple come together on what’s your couple level goal? Because what’s most important for children when it comes to their sleep is following a consistent pattern of behavior and sticking with it. So if there’s those few little word differences in those two statements, makes a big difference, because if one partner just wants that child to sleep wherever it is, and the other partner wants that child to sleep in their own bed, well, that can lead to a great deal of inconsistency in the kind of routines and behaviors the family will practice throughout the night.
Brett McKay: Alright. So be intentional about shared sleeping, co-sleeping, don’t just slide into it like actually be intentional about it.
Wendy Troxel: Exactly. Intentionality is key. And having an open dialogue with your partner about it, about what are our goals and what are the pros and cons of each? What will this mean both currently and a few years from now? And how is this going to work in the context of our relationship? And couples may have best laid plans to try one approach and they may find that it’s not working for them, but again, that’s okay to switch directions, but do it in an intentional and proactive way and stick with it, because consistency is what’s really key for children.
Brett McKay: Alright. So let’s put aside the issue of family sleeping when there’s kids, we’ll just talk about the couple here. Let’s start with the solutions for sleeping mismatch problems between a couple. And the most significant one, I’ve been reading more and more about this is, for the couple to decide to sleep in separate beds. Now, a lot of people don’t wanna talk about this idea because sleeping in separate beds seems pretty taboo. The feeling is like, “Oh, if a couple is sleeping in separate beds, that means the relationship’s on the rocks.” What’s interesting in the book, you explore the cultural history of partnered sleeping and you highlight the fact that throughout history, there’s been this swing back and forth between the acceptance of separate sleeping arrangements and then sleeping together. Can you walk us through that history so we get an idea of how we as a culture have thought about sleeping arrangements between couples?
Wendy Troxel: Yes, this is really a fascinating part of doing the research for my book because I’m not myself a historian, but I had the opportunity to read historical text and interview some prominent historians, including Dr. Roger Ekirch, she wrote the book At Day’s Close, which gives a historical perspective on how sleep has changed throughout history, it’s a brilliant book. So here’s what history and historians tell us. Throughout western history, sleep has been a social behavior, and in fact, in Medieval times, it wasn’t just a marital bed, it was really the shared communal bed with family members even, it could be a passerby or servants in the house, and where you got to sleep in the bed was a sign of where you fit in the family structure.
But then you can fast forward to the Victorian era, and it was at that time, [0:28:06.5] ____ they rigour to be able to sleep in separate bedrooms. It was a sign of prestige in part because only the well-to-do couples could afford to sleep apart. Again, in earlier history the bed in the bedroom was one of the most prized possessions and the most expensive possessions of a family, so people could not afford to have separate bedrooms. So in the Victorian era, being able to sleep apart was a sign of your wealth, and there were also some half-baked science ideas at the time that suggested that disease was spread through foul smells. So you can take that a step further and make the point that… And doctors of the time did that, your partner’s morning breath could literally make you sick, so therefore, if you can afford it, best to sleep apart, so it was also a sign of hygiene.
Then we jump to the 1950s and we see popular television shows like, I Love Lucy, still perpetuating the image of a married couple both on and off screen who are sleeping apart. And there were even Hollywood regulations for what could be acceptable on-screen that if a man and a woman were in the same bed, one partner or one person had to have a leg on the floor, as if this was some sort of chastity belt, keeping them from any hanky-panky, I guess. And then you kind of shift forward again to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and we see the pendulum shift in the opposite direction, this is where we start to see this taboo attached to sleeping apart, as if sleeping apart is necessarily a sign of this loveless or sex-less union. It was really this reaction to kind of the image of this kind of prudish behavior of the 1950s and before, and to some extent, we still see that stigma attached to sleeping apart. Although there’s some evidence that as more and more couples come out and admit that they’re perfectly happy but it’s working for them in their relationships, for many different reasons, to sleep apart it may be that that stigma will start to wane.
Brett McKay: Again, so the fear is, people are like, “Well, I don’t wanna do that because that’s just… It’s like a sleep divorce, it’s a sign that our relationship is on the rocks.” But there’s also research saying that couples who decide to sleep apart, they actually don’t have any relationship problems. In fact, it could possibly help the relationship. What’s going on there?
Wendy Troxel: Right. I would actually say that the research specifically on relationship quality when couples sleep together or apart is pretty limited, though I can absolutely say anecdotally, I’ve met with many couples who say that sleeping apart has been the life saver for their relationship, and they’re so much happier. And again, what I say to all couples is that there is not a one-size-fits-all sleeping strategy that’s going to work for all couples. What we do know quite clearly from the science is that when you’re well slept, you’re able to be a better partner. Regardless of your sleeping arrangements, what couples need to do is prioritize both of their sleep because that will make both of them better partners. And for couples who do decide that sleeping apart makes sense in their relationship, I also recommend that it’s really important to still kind of savor the cuddle or the time that they spend together in bed before falling asleep, because that’s often the most important time for sustaining and maintaining a healthy relationship.
I still believe that the marital or otherwise shared bed really still holds an important place in the life of a couple, and we need to preserve that. And avoid the tendency to let external factors and distractors like our phones, interfere with that really sacred time where couples just get to be together, hopefully for some quality time, whether it be for intimacy or just to talk or cuddle or digest the stresses of the day together. That’s a really important time for a couple, and it often does occur before couples fall asleep. So even if you go your separate ways at bed time, that’s really important to preserve. For other couples who choose to sleep apart, there can be some relationship benefits because they have this sort of mini-reunion in the morning when they come back together after having a good night of sleep. Or for couples who have temporary sleep separations, they’ve reported that they find that it spices up the relationship. Again, I wanna make it quite clear that, I’d say throughout my book and whenever I speak on this topic, what I wanna avoid is being prescriptive about this in any way to all couples. It’s not for me or anyone else to tell you how you should be sleeping with or without your partner. It’s really about recognizing how important sleep is in the life of your relationship, and then finding the strategy that’s going to work best for you.
Brett McKay: Also, one option that some couples do is they’ll get two full-size beds and they’ll put them together to form a single bed, so they’re still together, but they’re also separate.
Wendy Troxel: There’s a name for it, it’s called the Scandinavian method. That could be really helpful if you got one person who’s a tosser and turner who’s got restless legs. That kind of thrashing again, it has both individual effects and couple level effects. So having even a king-sized bed, even though you can kinda be at your separate corners, if somebody is thrashing enough or enough of a sheet stealer, they can still grab all your sheets. So the Scandinavian method, it typically involves putting two twin beds together because two twin beds equal a king, and it allows both partners to have their individualized preferences for the mattress, their bedding, and then you can actually… For some couples, they prefer to have sort of a communal comforter or overlay that’s a king size, so for those who are still a little concerned about any sort of stigma attached to separate beds, this makes it look like one king size bed, but the actual beds themselves and the bedding are individualized, and that can work very well for many couples.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the Scandinavian method is a good option for sheet stealers, for restless sleepers or couples where one person, they want a warmer mattress and warmer sheets, the other person wants a cooler mattress and cooler sheets, or maybe you and your spouse get up and go to bed at different times and you wanna disturb each other less, so that’s a good option. And you found that with couples that do this, the Scandinavian method, they’ve got separate beds technically, but maintaining intimacy, this isn’t an issue?
Wendy Troxel: It’s like we have these really entrenched beliefs that the literal meaning of sleeping together and the biblical meaning of sleeping together I.e. Sex, have to be one and the same, and it’s absolutely not true. There are many ways for couples to find intimacy, and it doesn’t only have to happen right before bedtime or in the middle of the night. Couples would really be open to being intimate and having sexual activity when it works for both of them. So if one of you is an extreme night owl and one is an extreme morning person, you need to find ways to problem solve and find times that you’re both going to even be interested and awake for sex, because being exhausted is a primary reason why couples don’t have sex. So again, prioritizing sleep is good for the relationship in all sorts of ways.
Brett McKay: So sleeping in separate beds or the Scandinavian method where you get separate beds, put them together is one option. Another option you’re hearing a lot more about is couples just sleeping… They’re doing like Downton Abbey style, they’re going like Lord Grantham’s got his bedroom, and then Lady Grantham’s got her a bedroom. What would cause… In your experience, what causes a couple to make that decision?
Wendy Troxel: Sure, well, first of all, it depends in part on your resources and availability of a separate bedroom.
Brett McKay: Right, not everyone’s got a spare bedroom, right, yeah. Not everyone lives in Downton Abbey.
Wendy Troxel: Correct, so in that way, it’s sort of similar to that time where separate bedrooms were in fact a sign of prestige, and if you live in a New York apartment and you’re… Well, if you’re lucky enough to have an extra bedroom well then have at it, but… So first of all, it can be a resource issue, but for those who have the space available for a separate bedroom, generally speaking, there’s some issues that can only be solved or best to be solved by separate bedrooms, so the Scandinavian method is not going to help the partner who has a partner who snores like a foghorn every night. You’re gonna need to be in separate rooms and ideally down the hall from each other, if the noise disruption is the primary cause of the sleep disruption, but I also should mention if snoring and if it’s really loud snoring is the primary cause of sleep disruption, before you jump to separate bedrooms as being the only solution, it’s also really important to encourage your partner to seek medical attention and determine, is this a sleep disorder that could be treated and that failure to treat can have significant health consequences.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the take away there, if you decide to go… If the sleep incongruencies are so bad, you decide to go separate… The takeaway there is make sure, again, it’s intentional.
Wendy Troxel: Yes.
Brett McKay: You’re not just sliding into it. You’re having a conversation about it, and also make sure you maintain a figurative marital bed at some point in the sleep process so that you can maintain just that connection with your…
Wendy Troxel: That connection, right, right. And again, that intentionality is so key, and it’s something that we just… We don’t have practice in doing because there’s not a great amount of dialogue around kind of what’s working, what’s not working in the bedroom when it comes to sleep, and so what too often happens and where issues can arise for couples, is that there’s never a discussion about sleeping apart. It’s just that one partner ends up stomping out of the bedroom onto the couch or kicking her partner out of the bedroom onto the couch, and that’s where the resentment can build because there’s not a discussion about that this isn’t working because neither of us is sleeping well, it becomes really an act of anger and resentment, and then the other partner can end up feeling abandoned.
Brett McKay: Alright, don’t do that, don’t slide into a separate sleeping arrangement. So what is… Okay, let’s say there’s problems like one person in the relationship, they’re a morning bird, the other one’s a night owl, but they don’t wanna get separate beds, it’s just something… They enjoy, they wanna be together. Any advice there, what works, what can they do to sort of sync up a bit so they don’t disrupt each other’s sleep?
Wendy Troxel: Absolutely, so what you’re talking about is kind of mismatched pairs, one’s an early bird, one’s an evening owl, and I see this quite frequently. I’ve talked to a number of couples who struggle with this, and here’s one scenario that often happens. It’s often that the the night owl tries to go to bed at the same time as the early bird, say a reasonable time of 10:00 PM. Well, the truth of the matter is, a bed time of 10:00 PM is really not reasonable for a night owl, so what happens? The night owl ends up lying in bed, feeling forced to go to sleep at a time that their biological clock tells them they’re not ready. So what do they do? They lie there in bed, kind of in agony, staring at the ceiling wishing they could fall asleep and they simply can’t because their biology is working against them. In that kind of situation, resentment can start to build, and then if the morning is based on the early bird schedule, then the night owl has to wake up probably long before their biological clock tells them they’re ready, and this can result in sleep deprivation for the night owl.
So it’s really important for couples to first of all, recognize that these differences in sleep-wake preferences, particularly at these extremes, these are genetically derived largely. So you can’t just change your sleep-wake preference because you love someone and you wanna be compatible with them. If you do so, it’s working against your biology and that generally doesn’t work, and again, you might start to build resentment towards your partner. So what I recommend to couples who are on these mismatched schedules is to find ways to connect and have that quality time together, again, preserve the cuddle, but it doesn’t mean that you have to go to sleep or wake up at the exact same time. So in the case I gave, the couple could spend some time in bed before the early bird falls asleep, let’s say at 10:00 PM, and when it’s bedtime for the early bird, the night owl could quietly leave the room, go have some me time, which can be really good for the individual and then return to bed at their more natural later bed time. And in the morning, the early bird will wake up at the early time, get out of bed quietly so as not to disturb the night owl, and start their day and maybe return later in the morning to wake up their partner ideally with coffee in hand.
So these are the kinds of problem-solving strategies that couples absolutely can do, and it will support their sleep in both of them and also their relationship quality. What’s really interesting, there is research on the impact of being mismatched in terms of sleep-wake preferences on couples’ relationship quality, and the news is not great. It actually does show that couples who are mismatched have higher levels of relationship conflict, poor relationship satisfaction, and lesser sexual activity. But the caveat of that research, don’t go run off in despair, please, is that couples who are mismatched but have good problem-solving skills do not show these relationship impairments. So it’s really about the ability to problem solve, and as you mentioned, being intentional about your behaviors and finding solutions that are going to work for you as a couple. So you don’t have to fall asleep at the same time to still have some time to share some time in bed before either of you falls asleep, or maybe it’s in the morning. There’s all sorts of strategies that can work, but it’s about being intentional and proactive about it, and bringing the conversation about sleep into your life as a couple.
Brett McKay: So what do you hope people walk away with? What’s the big takeaway you want readers of your book, it’s called Sharing the Covers. What do you want them to take away or walk away with after they finish the book?
Wendy Troxel: Great question. I guess what I wanna impress upon people with my book is that, first of all, for far too long, we’ve lived in a culture that has undermined the importance of sleep, but even that’s starting to change as we recognize the individual consequences of sleep. But if that’s not enough to change your behaviors and help you prioritize sleep for your own sake, then I want to impress with the book and the data and the research that I provide, that if you’re not going to sleep for yourself, then do it for everyone else around you and most importantly, your closest relationships. We really need to start focusing on sleep as being so vital for the health of our relationships. And if you’re struggling as a couple to sleep well, there’s not a reason to despair because there are strategies that work, but we first have to start having a dialogue around the importance of sleep as a couple, and then we can start problem solving and finding strategies that will both improve your sleep and your relationship health. And that’s exactly what the book is intended to do, to provide couples with actionable techniques that can improve both of their sleep and in turn, improve their relationship health, recognizing that these two things are intricately intertwined.
Brett McKay: Well, Wendy, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Wendy Troxel: The book, again, is available online at all major retailers, it’s called Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep. I’m also on Twitter, Wendy Troxel, and you can also check out my website, wendytroxel.com.
Brett McKay: All right. Well, Wendy Troxel, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Wendy Troxel: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Wendy Troxel. She’s the author of the book, Sharing the Covers, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, wendytroxel.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/sharedsleep where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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