Estranged Bedfellows

(Sarah L. Voisin - Twp)

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By Stacy Weiner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

If you and your partner sleep apart, you may be lonely, but you're not alone. According to a 2005 National Sleep Foundation survey, 23 percent of partnered adults frequently sleep solo because of their loved one's snoring, kicking or other sleep problem. That number doesn't include those who bed down apart because of mismatched schedules or desire for different room temperatures, or to let an exhausted spouse avoid a tyke's wake-up calls. And though a small number of couples who opt for separate beds do so to recapture a sense of romance, for most, there's one simple fantasy: some decent rest. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation survey of 1,506 adults, disruptive bedmates rob their partners, on average, of 49 minutes of shut-eye each night.

Kensington mom Naomi Rivkis has regularly slept apart from her husband throughout their seven-year marriage. As is the case for many spouses, it's her mate's snoring that sends Rivkis scrambling for quieter ground; more than half of snorers report having disturbed someone's sleep. Most of the time Rivkis uses earplugs, but two or three nights a week she needs a break from the uncomfortable contraptions. At first, the 36-year-old said she barely noticed the separation because her husband was in law school and often chose books over bed anyway. Now that sleeping apart is a set pattern, though, she remains unfazed, especially since the couple resolves all conflicts before bedtime.

"I don't want it to look to us even slightly like sleeping apart is associated with there being anything wrong," she said. "As long as that's separated out, it's just a physical convenience."

Still, Rivkis concedes that initially it was a bit tough on her husband (who, like lots of people, didn't want his name associated with the topic). "It could have hurt the relationship if I weren't reassuring," she said. "But he's long settled into realizing it doesn't mean anything about how much I love him."

Besides, notes Rivkis, they've got a toddler. And she is six months pregnant. And her husband has a stressful job. "This is not the kind of situation that if either one of us is exhausted and falling apart, it's going to work very well," she said.

Chevy Chase sleep specialist Helene Emsellem concurs about rest's crucial role. To recharge our bodies -- and our psyches -- adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, explains Emsellem, a George Washington University associate clinical professor of neurology. If we're tired, she argues, chances are we'll hold it together at work, then dump on our partners.

"Is an adequate amount of sleep essential for a good relationship? You bet," she said.

The stats back her up. Twenty-three percent of partnered adults say tiredness has sapped their sex lives, according to the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation, and more than a third admit that a mate's disruptive sleep habits have taken a toll on their relationship.

Sleeping Easier

So what can be done to let sleeping partners lie? For snorers, Emsellem suggests dropping some excess weight, cutting back on late-night alcohol consumption and tossing out down comforters or other bedding that might contain allergens. (But if your partner hears gaps in your breathing, she urges getting checked for sleep apnea, a potentially serious condition that can lead heart disease and other disorders.)

For partners of snorers, gently rolling one's mate from his back onto his side may help -- but then, of course, you've already been awakened by the offending noise and now he may be up, too.

In the case of night owls married to early birds, Emsellem usually prescribes a heavy dose of accommodation, starting with an earlier wake time and a willingness to sacrifice some late-night solitude. Generally, her patients are highly motivated to share a bed, said Emsellem; the vast majority who end up apart in the morning start out, at least, in tandem. "I think people who are together, are together because they want to sleep together," she said.

Don't tell that to Kirsten and Bill Hawkins. The Silver Spring couple's sleep life was, well, just dreamy until their first baby was born. Suddenly, Kirsten found it easy to wake up and difficult to fall back to sleep.

"It progressed to the point where, if my husband rolled over and woke me, I wanted to kill him," confesses Kirsten, 41. Still, they tried sleeping together until child number two came along. Then the exhausted mom realized she was yelling at her kids for no good reason, and pretty often. So she set herself a rule: She'd only sleep with Bill if she went to bed early enough to get a decent chunk of shut-eye.

"It was bad there for several months" after the change, she admits. "Neither one of us knew what was happening. It was so drastic a step" in an otherwise solid marriage. Finally, they sat down and made a conscious decision and a plan. They would sleep apart on weeknights, taking turns on baby-monitor duty. On weekends, they'd sleep together so "we can keep knowing each other," Kirsten said.

Talking over such a decision to minimize misunderstanding is a wise move, said Norman Epstein, a professor of marital and family therapy at the University of Maryland. When Epstein counsels couples who are sleeping apart, he tends to probe for underlying issues. Is there a general difficulty compromising? Is one partner acting on a punitive impulse? Maybe someone has a problem with sharing, like the spouse who marks his bedroom territory with discarded socks or mounds of books. Epstein said he'd ask if sleeping apart reflects a more pervasive pattern in their relationship, such as a tendency to create distance.

Of course, even if a sleep-apart arrangement starts out reasonably, couples should be aware that it could eventually erode intimacy, warns Falls Church marriage and family therapist Linda Rogers.

"Particularly in this area, where everybody's going 24-7, it's hard for couples to stay connected anyway," she said. "At the end of day maybe there's not even any talking, but at least there's that touching that provides a sense of closeness." She worries, too, that one person may begin finding it difficult to cross into a partner's room. To prevent such problems, she encourages couples to bolster intimacy in other ways, like making sure to go out on "dates" or setting aside time to talk.

Beyond the Bed

But what's the big deal about sleeping together, anyway?

The weight on the marital bed is artificial and relatively new, argues Stephanie Coontz, who has written extensively on the history and sociology of marriage.

"It represents this cookie-cutter model that developed in the early 20th century that told people you had to get every single need met by this constant togetherness," said Coontz. "It doesn't tie in with what we know about the variety of coupled relationships that have worked in history."

What's more, noted Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state, that model doesn't fit contemporary life, in which couples marry later, bringing more experiences and habits to their relationships. The notion that one should be "permanently turned on, permanently available -- that if you sleep in another room, maybe you're not very sexual -- is just an unnecessary burden for modern couples," she said.

Shana and David Jacobs of Chevy Chase aren't particularly troubled by that notion. The two physicians often go to bed apart: She's a very light sleeper and he's a pretty heavy snorer. David, 34, said he finds it reassuring that Shana's mother and one of her sisters also need to sleep apart from their spouses to get some rest. As for Shana, 32, she said simply, "To be honest, I have never really seen the appeal of spending the whole night sleeping next to somebody. Just because I love someone and want to spend my life with them, doesn't mean I want to be in the same bed at the same time. I just don't see the connection."

Stacy Weiner is a Washington area freelance writer. E-mail: health@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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