“Each couple had to do a lot of problem solving to work out their systems for sleeping together,” Rosenblatt said. These systems, he said, usually became comforting routines of how couples prepared for bed, got into bed, behaved once in the bed, fell asleep and woke up.
The subjects he interviewed invariably had their own side of the bed, and responsibilities like putting out the cat or opening the windows before turning in. They usually had rituals like watching the television news before lights out or snuggling before falling to sleep. And they often had signals for when they wanted affection, wanted to talk or wanted to be left alone.
“How they arrived at these systems could be said to mirror their relationships,” said Rosenblatt. The most successful systems were those formed out of compromise and sensitivity to the other’s needs.
Whereas a woman might have always been cold at night when she was younger, she might feel like a furnace from menopausal hot flashes as she grows older. Prostate problems might cause a man to get up more often in the night to use the bathroom.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, those interviewed said dealing with a partner’s snoring and insomnia profoundly affected the couple’s sleep dynamic.
“These are all things that no one teaches you how to cope with,” said Neil Kavey, a psychiatrist and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. “There’s no counseling in this regard, but there should be.”
Sleep centers are primarily concerned with treating disorders and don’t address the impact one partner has on the other. Whatever the cause of unrest, “sleep deprivation has consequences,” Kavey said. Those include impaired cognitive ability and irritability.
Though Rosenblatt has written five other books and scores of scholarly essays and papers, he said his book on couples’ sleep has gotten by far the most attention from the news media and fellow academics.
“I think it’s because it’s something most people have struggled with and can relate to,” Rosenblatt said. “And even though we may take sleeping with our partner for granted, it’s through these kinds of shared social systems that we build and nurture our relationships, and perhaps uncover the underlying meaning of our lives.”