How a couple share a bed has meaning

October 01, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

THE STORY OF SLEEP in these modern times is most often the story of one person's inability to sleep. The menopausal woman, the overweight man.

And when we talk about "sleeping together," a phrase we used before we started using "hooking up," we are not talking about two people sleeping in the same bed. We are talking about sex.

In fact, while there is lots of advice out there about how to get a good night's sleep, and lots of advice about how to improve your marriage, there is little about how sleeping in the same bed can affect your marriage.

Paul Rosenblatt, a University of Minnesota, Twin Cities family science professor, has remedied that with his new book, Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing (State University of New York Press).

In it, Rosenblatt examines the dynamic of two people sharing a bed, an experience that is complicated and that changes over time.

He interviewed 42 couples about the mechanics of sharing such a small space - who gets what side, who decides the temperature of the room or the number of covers. And about the emotional components - the spooning, the quiet talk.

What he found was that while many couples admit they could get a better night's sleep if they slept in separate beds or different rooms, they are reluctant to give up the common bed because of what it signifies: sharing, security, belonging.

"There were plenty of couples who said that it is not easy to sleep with each other. They would say, `I would sleep better if we slept apart,' " said Rosenblatt in a telephone interview.

"I would ask, `OK, then why don't you sleep apart?' And the question threw a lot of people. It was always a very strange moment in the interview. There was often a pause. You could see the person thinking, `Why do I want to sleep with him?'

"And the word they came up with most often was `intimacy.' Sharing a bed meant being together, being close. Hearing the breathing, feeling the warmth. And the talking."

Rosenblatt found that, for many couples, those minutes before sleep were the only time they had in their busy lives to catch up, to plan or to solve problems. And he concluded, "If couples don't have this time in bed, then they're in trouble."

He also interviewed couples who believed that one of them is alive because they share a bed. Two people went into diabetic shock and their partners somehow recognized it and woke up just in time.

Another couple spooned every night - not many do - and he woke out of a sound sleep when she suddenly had a seizure.

And, most dramatically, he interviewed a husband who tied his wife's wrist to his own each night so he would know if she tried to leave the

bed. She was deeply depressed and suicidal.

Several women said they wanted to be near their husbands in case of an intruder - although these same husbands suggested they might not make the best defenders.

Sharing a bed changes over time, Rosenblatt said, and the challenges change. A couple might begin in a honeymoon mode, where sleep is the other thing they do when they go to bed.

Then she gets pregnant, and she's hot and she's up and down all night going to the bathroom.

Then the kids arrive and she brings the baby into bed to nurse - or pokes at her soundly sleeping husband to get him to take his turn to change the baby.

When the kids are older, Rosen- blatt found, couples might avoid intimacy because they are afraid of what the kids might hear - and therefore understand.

When those same kids leave for college, she might be menopausal and sleepless. He might have prostate problems that send him to the bathroom multiple times a night. They both probably snore.

But now there is an empty bedroom and sharing a bed becomes a conscious decision.

"As life changes, people have to learn to sleep together again and again," Rosenblatt said.

It is a wonder the bedroom does not become a battleground: the deep sleeper vs. the light sleeper. Eating in bed, reading in bed, working in bed, watching TV in bed - who decides? Windows open or closed. Heavy drapes or not. Which side is the alarm clock on? Sleeping in the nude. Do the kids or the pets get invited in? Stealing covers. Snoring. Sex.

It may be that sociologists like Rosenblatt will find that humans are not meant to mate for life or to share a bed.

But for the moment, his research suggests that humans believe the one begets the other, that sharing a bed can preserve a marriage.

And that's why we are willing to put up with all that snoring.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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