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Couples struggle with sleep problems in the COVID-19 pandemic

Dave Russell is a light sleeper, but he never had any issues sharing a bed with his girlfriend, Izzy James, before the pandemic.

Things began to change in March. Lockdown significantly altered Russell’s daily life. Like many people, he started working from home and limiting his contact with others, and he began to struggle to sleep through the night.

Before the coronavirus, Russell and James would spend most of their working days apart in separate offices outside their home. For the last nine months, the two have both been working from their studio apartment in London.

“We were literally sitting opposite each other for the whole day, and then when the workday was finished, we would just move to the sofa,” he told CNN. “It felt like we were in the same room all of the time.” Because they were.

Couples are having to spend more time together under enormously stressful circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s affecting their ability to get enough sleep.

Sharing a bed can cause sleep problems

Sharing a bed and sleep-related problems can be connected, experts say. Sleep specialists say they are currently treating quarantined couples struggling to sleep in the same bed, and it’s creating and compounding problems in their relationships.

“Sleep amongst couples is completely interdependent,” said Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. “When you share a bed with another human being, your sleep is affected and it affects the other person who shares the bed with you.”

Research has backed this up. If a person’s sleep is disrupted by their partner during the night, it can lead to an argument in the relationship the following day, according to a 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley.

New York-based clinical psychologist Orna Guralnik, host of the Showtime series “Couples Therapy,” agreed.

“There are petty little grudges that accumulate,” she said.

“There is a hyper-focus on the other person, and not enough distance between people to feel their independent existence. You put that in the context of sleeping together all night — it becomes too much, too symbiotic for people.”

Many people have a heightened sense of awareness when they share a bed with their partner, especially if it is somebody who they are currently in conflict with, behavioral sleep medicine specialist Britney Blair said.

Arguments during the day can cause anxiety that can disrupt a healthy sleep cycle, said Blair, who works at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Sleep is the most vulnerable state for the human body, she said — and the part of the brain that regulates our sleep, the hypothalamus, is sensitive to any external tension.

“If that primitive part of the brain perceives anything as wrong, it’s not going to allow sleep to happen. It does not know the difference between a saber-toothed tiger who has just entered the cave and you need to be vigilant, or if you had an argument with your partner and you need to be vigilant.”

Too much togetherness is toxic for some people

Some lockdowns have led to breakups, which Sara, who didn’t want to share her last name for privacy reasons, experienced firsthand. Constant arguments with her now ex-boyfriend left her on edge and sleep deprived. While initially welcoming the thought of how convenient working remotely might be as the pandemic began, she soon realized that things at home were becoming quite claustrophobic.

“Right before the pandemic, I was working crazy hours, I was always exhausted, and it was super stressful because I was also going to school,” she told CNN.

“I thought, working from home or taking a break might actually be helpful, but being stuck with him in an apartment made me realize that no matter how stressful the job was, I absolutely needed that. I was using it as an escape from the relationship.”

Meanwhile, Russell’s solution was to move. After six months of living in a tightly enclosed studio, he and his partner have recently moved to a larger space. It has allowed him to go to bed in a separate room. The new arrangement has improved his sleep but — as he admitted — it’s not the ideal situation for intimacy in the relationship.

It can lead to a breakup

Sara employed the same tactics in the early days of her lockdown by shifting from a shared bed with her then-boyfriend to the couch, a move that improved her sleep.

Yet a few months ago, the two moved from New York to California and into a smaller studio, leaving her with no ability to “sleep on the couch or sleep anywhere else.”

What’s worse? They’ve broken up in recent weeks but still live together because her ex is unemployed right now, and she doesn’t want to put him through more hardship in such a challenging economic environment. She has had an even harder time sleeping while he is still around.

Facing lockdown with children

Being in the same space continually can be even harder with children at home. With many schools closed for the foreseeable future, the added pressure of being a working parent can lead to a real struggle to get any rest at night. Troxel at the RAND Corporation has seen an increase in this pattern among sleep deprived patients at her clinic.

“If you’re constantly battling with your spouse because you’re sharing a very tight space and trying to balance your work with your children, it can tilt the scale towards being more vigilant rather than feeling safe and having your spouse help you wind down at night,” she said.

For some couples, the situation has gotten so desperate that they are even attempting a sleep divorce, of sorts, in an effort to catch an hour or two of rest.

Guralnik is treating couples “using all sorts of pretty intensive devices to create some semblance of a boundary. So anything from going to sleep at separate times, earplugs, one person falling asleep on the couch, all of these ways to mimic boundaries where they do not exist anymore.”

Lack of a regular schedule can hurt

It’s not just the lack of physical boundaries during the day that is hurting a couple’s sleep cycles. Without the regimented schedule of a commute to and from the office, or dropping the kids off at school, people are embracing their more natural circadian rhythms. Those who prefer to stay up late or get up early can now fully embrace their inner morning lark or night owl, which can lead to sleep issues if a couple isn’t in sync.

“One partner may be more of a night owl naturally and that’s only exacerbated when they don’t have to wake up in the morning to get off to work. The other partner might naturally be more of a morning person. She stays up watching Netflix, he goes to bed and then she gets into bed later and might disrupt his sleep,” Troxel said.

That’s not surprising, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research, which found that couples who don’t complement each other’s sleeping patterns have more relationship conflict, lesser sexual activity and poorer relationship satisfaction.

In Sara’s case, the pandemic has exposed some preexisting issues, which helped to accelerate a breakup that may have been coming anyway. But for others, some relationships might come out of their current predicament in a better place and resolve their problems.

With the safest option being to stay at home these days, Blair told CNN that there will be some who are able to pass the COVID-19 stress test and “learn to work through their sleep issues because they don’t have a choice and might actually come out closer.”

Ever the optimist, Russell remains confident that “there will come a point where things are the way they used to be” when it comes to sleeping with his girlfriend, once we reach the end of the current health crisis.

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