March 25, 2008

I don't doubt it.

This story was posted on the TimesOnline.

Sleeping apart; the key to a happy marriage

Simon Crompton

A Californian woman divorced her husband last month because he played computer games at night and slept during the day; another faced jail after stabbing and beating her husband because of his snoring. Both examples are tragic-comic glimpses into a serious but rarely discussed minefield for couples: sleep incompatibility.

Research by the Sleep Council has found that half of us are regularly woken about six times a night by our partners, particularly if they snore or fidget. Dr Chris Alford, a sleep psychologist from the University of the West of England, says that “sleep conflicts” often will result in relationship conflicts. The problem is so great that more people seem to be taking to single beds. The Sleep Council says that one in four of us regularly retreats to a spare room or sofa for a refreshing night's sleep, and the National Association of Home Builders predicts that by 2015 more than 60 per cent of custom-built houses will have dual master bedrooms.

This is the right approach, say an increasing number of psychologists and sleep experts. In a 24/7 world where sleep is increasingly precious, single beds may represent the future.

Snoring is the most obvious source of bedtime tensions. About a quarter of us - 15million people - are snorers, according to the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, and may be depriving their partners of two hours sleep a night. Then there's wrestling for the duvet, kicking during dreams and restless leg syndrome, a condition that becomes increasingly common as we grow older.

Outside the bed, different sleep cycles can be just as disruptive, as Mr and Mrs Millard demonstrate (see right). Every one of us has a different body clock with some of us preferring the early hours (known by sleep experts as larks) and some late nights (owls).

A small study of sleeping partners by the University of Wisconsin concluded that the greatest sleep-induced tensions occurred when one partner was a lark, the other an owl. The amount of time available for them to communicate and enjoy each other's company may be compromised as a result - unless one tries to change his or her natural inclinations.

What can couples do? Only so much - at least if you're a heterosexual couple. Sleep conflicts seem to be bound up with fundamental biological and behavioural differences between the sexes. For example, when Professor Jim Horne, the director of the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, attached movement monitors to men and women sleepers, he found that men moved much more than women and were far more likely to disturb women than the other way round. This was confirmed recently in a study, reported in the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms, that found that women benefited far more from sleeping alone than men. They seemed to sleep more easily through disturbance.

Curves and bad vibrations

Sammy Margo, the author of The Good Sleep Guide, published next week, points to other fundamental differences. “Hormonal fluctuations because of the menstrual cycle can disrupt sleep. And women with curves have different mattress needs from men.” A man's extra weight can mean, for instance, that any movement is likely to rebound through a double mattress, while their partner is unlikely to produce such reverberations.

Male assertiveness also seems to play a part. Research from Surrey University has found that women tend to let their partners snore, while men are more likely to give an admonitory prod.

Whichever way you look at it, women come off worse, especially if you take into account that they are more likely to wake up in response to children crying. However, Margo believes that couples shouldn't despair. Her new book aims to provide practical solutions for people with sleep problems.

Her tips for a successful night's sleep are partly based on helping both partners to sleep better through changes to diet and daytime habits, but also on trying to synchronise waking and sleeping patterns. But she says that any couple with severe sleep conflicts should consider separate beds, although this is something people don't like talking about. “When couples first start sleeping together, they are willing to sacrifice comfort to be close to their partner. After a while, when emotional closeness is assured, many just want to have a good night's sleep again. This isn't selfish, distant or unromantic; it's just practical,” she says.

Professor Horne agrees that if you're having sleep problems, separate mattresses are worth considering, and adds that he is encountering more and more couples with separate beds.

Sharing a bed is a "curious British norm"

Rob Meadow, a sociologist from Surrey University who has studied the relationship between sleep and gender, points out that a shared bed is a curiously British norm. “It's very interesting why couples feel the need to go to bed at the same time and in the same place,” he says. “It's societally defined. One couple told me they'd tried sleeping in separate rooms two days a week to catch up on sleep. When their teenage children came back from university they were convinced their parents were about to divorce.”

All the advice from relationship experts is that sleeping separately can be the sign of a strongly bonded couple communicating their needs. But if you're worried that it might impair your love life, take some advice from Queen Victoria. Like most affluent Victorians, she had a separate bedroom from her husband. But any night she wished Prince Albert to enter her room, she left a bowl of oranges outside her door. They apparently appeared nearly every night.

I definitely know my husband and I end up bothering each other at night. He snores very loudly and I sometimes have to wear earplugs if I want to get any sleep. Conversely, I sometimes like to read in bed, but he says he can't sleep if the light is on. I don't have a problem falling asleep with the light on, so if he wants to read, there's no problem for him. And either one of us will periodically go sleep on the couch to get some sleep. What are people supposed to do?

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