In the realm of “who’s disturbing who in the bedroom” it appears that women are on the receiving end of the disturbances more often than the delivery.
Being a dedicated separate sleeper and author on the topic, I often discuss many aspects of the practice with a range of people. Having done this for the last seven years, a trend has emerged that for me, needs discussing.
The trend is women’s willingness to sacrifice their sleep needs for the sake of sharing their bed with their husbands and boyfriends. (Unfortunately, I can’t offer any reliable data on homosexual couples.)
So if you are reading this and are a woman who shares a bed with a male partner, a question: How well did you sleep last night?
Did you enjoy a good night’s sleep waking rested and restored? Or did you greet the dawn exhausted and frustrated after another night of broken sleep thanks to the person sharing your bed?
If you answered yes to the second question, you are not alone.
A strong body of research tells us there is no dispute that an individual’s sleep is disturbed by sharing a bed with another person. But in the realm of “who’s disturbing who in the bedroom” it appears that women are on the receiving end of the disturbances more often than the delivery.
Clinical research reveals that men, far more than women, snore, pass wind, and move around in their sleep. Qualitative research also tells us that men, far more than women, arrange to have the bedroom at the temperature, and levels of noise and light they want at night. And women, far more than men, lose sleep because they sacrifice their bed and bedroom needs, and therefore their sleep, to continue sharing a bed with their husband or boyfriend.
A 2003 UK study found that too often women prioritize their partner’s sleep and sacrifice their own. The choice to sacrifice is largely shaped by the social role and context of women’s lives as they negotiate between their own sleep desires and other people’s expectations. In simple terms, women have a tendency to deprioritize their own need for sleep when sharing a bed with a partner who disturbs their sleep. And why? Because society tells us that’s what we’re supposed to do.
Somewhere in our socialization, we buy into the construct that a “happy” couple is one that shares a bed every night. Part of the reason we are so caught up in this image is that so many “unhappy” couples take themselves off to separate rooms as a sign of their disharmony. TV and movies rely heavily on this discourse to support a narrative. And it’s because of this pervasive social narrative that we’re selling ourselves and our needs short. If you caught Hope Springs (2011) with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The problem with the imagery of happiness = bed sharing is that that it’s a skewed view of reality. Statistics out of the UK and USA reveal that 20-30% of couples don’t share a bed every night; or for some, any night. A recent report from Ryerson University in Canada put the figure closer between 30-40%.
In the mid to late 2000s, Jenny Hislop and Sara Arber from the University of Surrey in the UK researched why women are so prepared to sacrifice sleep for the sake of sharing their bed with their partner. It turns out that for women, sleep isn’t just about getting sleep. It’s about the social act of sharing a bed and room with another person. The sacrifice is also fueled by the cultural implications and expectations that come along with the idea that when you “partner up” with someone you’re supposed to share a small space with them every night—no matter what the implications are.
Hislop and Arber found that sleep disruption is a common part of women’s lives. On three or more nights a week, half of the women they surveyed (nearly 1,500) reported that they “woke up several times during the night.” A third report “disturbed or restless sleep.”
So “what to do” I hear you say? Well, there is a simple answer.
Consider sleeping in a separate room.
It’s a bit controversial for some, a no-brainer for others, and a pipe dream for many. However, there is an increasing number of women realizing that they no longer need to sacrifice their health for the sake of a fading social expectation that husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, life-long partners (or however you want to describe your coupling) have to share a bed every night.
Having slept separately from my husband for nearly 10 years, I can most confidently say that we are a couple that doesn’t need to lie next to each other in bed each night to be “happy.” Having slept separately from the start of our relationship we have, in that time, grown closer, married, renovated the house twice, had all the normal ups and downs of a relationship, had as much sex as wanted, and recently celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary. I’d like to think that we’re a fine example of how not hopping into a bed together every night doesn’t impact the development of a relationship.
Sleeping separately need not be the relationship death knell it’s unfairly characterized as. It can actually be a life raft for a couple struggling to share about five feet of space each night.
The reality is that there are no winners when it comes to sleep deprivation. If you are sleep deprived, you expose yourself to a long list of health risks—heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cognitive impairment, psychiatric problems, stroke, heart attack—to name but a few. You also sell yourself short with your employer, you rob your partner of sharing the best version of yourself, and if you have children, you deprive them of a fully functioning parent.
Listen, priorities change over time. When you were lustful 20-year-olds, the priority may have been to ravage each other at every possible opportunity. Now, are you finding your priority is actually to get some sleep?
When it comes to sacrificing, there’s a fine line between martyrdom and madness.
If you are honest, which side of the line are you on and what is the cost of staying there?
Jennifer Adams is the author of Sleeping Apart not Falling Apart: How to get a good night’s sleep and keep your relationship alive. She is a passionate advocate about the topic of separate sleeping and shares her thoughts on a range of sleeping topics at her website of the same name. Having slept separately from her husband for the last ten years, she is determined to change the perceptions of, and conversations about, couples who choose to head to separate beds, or separate rooms at night.