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An unmade bed.

Beyond spooning: the challenges of sharing a bed

the challenges of sharing a bed

By Pauline Oo

Published on April 12, 2004

My dad snores like a food blender on the chop mode, and over the years, my mother has learned to poke him in the ribs until he stops. "That's what a lot of people do," says Paul Rosenblatt, a University professor of family social science. "It stops some people briefly and that may be long enough for some people, like your mom, to get to sleep. But some people don't do that, they can't learn to do that, or it takes them a long time to figure out what to do." In 2001, Rosenblatt set out to study the experiences of sharing a bed. He interviewed about 45 married and dating couples--gay and straight--between the ages of 20 and 70 to learn about their sleep routines and challenges. Rosenblatt was prompted to study the sleep habits of bed-sharing adults because "there are thousands of things written about couple relationships and sleep difficulties, and just about zero written about the challenges or experiences of sharing a bed." Snoring is just one of many bed-sharing problems couples face. Rosenblatt has heard a slew of stories about tooth grinding, long toenails, night owls versus morning people, going to bed angry, and sleeping with cats who brought dead mice into the bed. "The most striking finding was the paradox that it's often not easy sleeping together but people keep doing it," he says. "The meanings of sharing a bed, the physical comforts, and a sense of what relationships are about keep people in bed together." Rosenblatt, who is interested in how sleep habits affect a couple's relationship, was also surprised by the number of couples whose bed-sharing behavior changed over time because of an injury. "Every blue-collar worker I interviewed, except for one, had been injured on the job in a way that affected sleep and physical intimacy," he says. "Mechanics, letter-carriers, factory workers..." For example, a wife may have always rested her head on her husband's shoulder as they fell asleep, but now his shoulder or back is badly injured and she can't do that, and the couple loses a form of intimacy they had. But making adjustments is part and parcel of sleeping together, notes Rosenblatt. And as with any physical activity, there is that initial period of learning. "When couples first share a bed there's a learning curve--they have to learn how to arrange their bodies, accommodate difference in temperature preferences, and all sorts of other things--and that learning curve may be a few days, but it might even be a few years," he says. Let's get physical "[The meaning of sharing a bed is] not the same for everybody," says Rosenblatt. "For a lot of people it means that 'we're really a couple and we have a special intimacy that we don't have with other people.' For some people with health problems it means 'I am more likely to stay alive.' People with diabetes might go into diabetic shock during the night or someone with heart disease might have a heart attack. For some men the meaning of sharing a bed is sexual release. For others, it's about being warm enough." "A lot of people are struggling with sleep problems in relationships--in the tens of millions, based on what I found--and they're [trying to solve these problems] on their own or talking to friends or relatives who had similar issues. I thought there was a real need for a resource," says Rosenblatt, who has written a self-help book on sleep problems in relationships and is looking for a publisher. So, what can you do about a bed partner's annoying sleep habits while awaiting the professor's guide to hit the bookstores? Talk about what's bothering you, advises Rosenblatt. "It's not easy to talk about," he admits. "Lots of people say 'I don't snore' or 'What do you mean, I steal all the covers?' So, I would say two things: you have to talk about issues with your partner and you have to believe your partner. There's a problem to be solved."