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Couples' differing sleeping styles can be a real nightmare

| Monday, July 27, 2009

Darcia Kifer thanks her headphones for letting her get a good night's sleep, because husband Keith's snoring is so loud and annoying.

To block out the noise, Darcia Kifer recently started connecting her iPod or CD player to headphones, which she puts on, and then falls asleep. The wife, 55, admits that she snores, too, but her husband, 54, isn't bothered by it.

"The one who snores the loudest is always the first to fall asleep," says the resident of Bovard, Westmoreland County, referring to her husband.

Maybe a husband snores like a jackhammer, and his wife sleeps quietly. Or, she's always hot, and he's always cold. The husband may have insomnia and toss and turn throughout the night, while the wife sleeps soundly. Perhaps the wife can't sleep without the television or music on, and the husband likes it quiet.

All couples have their areas of differences, including sleeping habits. Given that sleep is so important to a person's health and well-being, sleeping conflicts or disorders that result in sleep deprivation for one or both partners can significantly impact the marriage, experts say.

"It's one more thing to add to the stresses of the marriage," says Dr. Sukhdev Grover. He is the medical director of the Harmar-based Sleep Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The clinic has several locations throughout Western Pennsylvania, including in Monroeville, Ross, Beaver, South Park and Jeannette.

"We have couples who are sleeping in separate rooms because one partner can't tolerate snoring issues, but not everyone admits to that," Grover says.

Wendy M. Troxel, of the Insomnia Clinic at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland, has done a study called "Marital Happiness and Sleep," which was published in the January 2009 issue of "Behavioral Sleep Medicine." The study aims to understand how couples' relationship quality can affect their sleep, and vice versa. Women who reported being happy in their marriages had fewer sleep problems, she says. Often, troubles during slumber time can reflect a marital problem during waking hours.

Troxel, an assistant professor of psychiatry for Western Psychiatric, often sees clients who are having trouble with their own or their spouse's snoring and insomnia. Sometimes, one spouse is a night owl, and the other wants to go to bed early; or, one feels hot, and the other feels cold, in bed.

Spouses can be a significant motivator to get treatment for a sleeping problem, because the problem, like snoring, is not just annoying, Troxel says. It can indicate a serious health problem, like sleep apnea, and the spouse is concerned about his or her partner's health.

Often, the wife is the one who initiates getting help, because she simply cannot stand it, Troxel says.

Troxel says that most couples can find a solution to their sleeping problems, even if the solution seems extreme, like getting separate bedrooms.

"Sometimes, there's so much stigma around the marital bed that makes particularly new couples ... have the conversation, 'Why am I not experiencing marital bliss 24 hours a day?' " she says.

"Healthy couples are the most effective problem solvers," Troxel says. "Couples who are able to negotiate problems at night are the happiest. Frankly, all couples face issues."

Vicki Muentzer, 51, of Jeannette, used to work as an EMT, and says she is hooked on her police scanner. She can't sleep without hearing the device, although her husband, George, 57, isn't nearly as enamored. He has learned to live with it, Vicki Muentzer says, although she hasn't warmed up to her husband's "horrid" snoring, which she says drives her crazy.

Her solution• Vicki Muentzer often takes her scanner into another room, and sleeps there.

Grover suggests that couples having sleeping problems seek a medical evaluation and treatment, if necessary.

"I think that if the partner responds in a responsible way to the spouse's concerns, hopefully, the symptoms get better, and if not, go away," he says. Grover is a pulmonologist who is practicing the sleep specialty, an emerging area of medicine that draws doctors from several areas like internal medicine and psychiatry.

Medical help is "good for the individual's health and good for the marriage, also," Grover says.

Coping with sleep conflicts

If sleep deprivation because of your spouse is dampening your marital bliss, consider these tips from experts.

• Healthy couples negotiate and communicate openly, and the same critical principle applies to sleep issues.

• Look for concrete ways to cope or compromise. Maybe the hot one can sleep only under the sheet, and the cold one can keep a blanket on his or her side of the bed.

• Sometimes, sleeping in separate rooms may be the only solution; for instance, if an incurable snorer won't allow a spouse to get any sleep. As long as you make time for sex and cuddling, this arrangement can work.

• Resolve arguments before bedtime, if possible. Anger can cause sleep problems.

• Avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime, and avoid sleeping pills. Avoid caffeine late in the day, and in the evening.

• Seek medical attention for sleeping problems such as insomnia and snoring; they can indicate a serious underlying health condition, like sleep apnea.

• Practice general sleep hygiene, by having an established time for going to bed and getting up, and allowing approximately eight hours for sleep.

• Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex. It will make it easier to sleep there.

Sources: Psychologist Wendy M. Troxel; Dr. Sukhdev Grover, medical director of Sleep Center of Greater Pittsburgh

Additional Information:

Marriage and sleep study

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is seeking subjects for a research study that examines the role sleep plays in the functioning of married couples and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The researchers are looking for married couples, ages 18-45, who have a regular sleep schedule, are not expecting a baby, and do not have sleep, psychiatric, heart or other major medical problems.

Participants will be asked to come to the lab for several visits to complete questionnaires, have a physical exam, participate in a sleep study and engage in several videotaped discussions with their spouses. Participants also will do a 10-day home study. They will be compensated for their time and given information about their sleep and cardiovascular risk factors.

Details: 412-864-3174.

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