Sleeping our way to a successful marriage
Our granddaughter is three months old. She is pure delight and we are loving being Nonnina and Nonno.
Naturally her parents are experiencing the ‘joy’ of extended sleep-deprivation; she is indeed very cute, but not so much at three in the morning.
It takes us back. With relief and deep gratitude, we remember as ancient history the days of infant-induced sleep-deprivation. Never particularly skilled in establishing a disciplined sleep pattern, we were routinely interrupted by restless toddlers who demanded middle-of-the-night attention up until the age of three or more.
One would think that by our fifth baby we might have worked something out. Apparently not.
Our fifth, aptly named Marcus (meaning ‘war-like one’), was born tongue-tied leading to feeding problems we did not fully appreciate as he happily gained weight. However, he needed to feed often, very often.
On a good day, he fed every two hours. On a bad day, it was closer to 45 minutes. It’s normal for a new-born to feed at these short intervals. It’s not normal for a six-month old.
But we were so sleep-deprived we failed to notice that this essential extension in the feeding interval had failed to occur. By six months we were like walking zombies and barely keeping things together.
We’d never been able to agree on a ‘sleep policy’ for our babies and often debated (aka argued) different strategies. Marcus pushed us to a new level. We nick-named him our ‘weapon of mass destruction’ as he had totally trashed our lives and our relationship.
Sleep-deprivation is marriage enemy number one in our book. When sleep-deprived everything can appear miserable and beyond redemption. It brings out our worst character flaws and makes it doubly difficult to be civil.
It also makes us ‘short-sighted’ – not visually, but relationally. Our spouse’s flaws loom large, and we can’t imagine that they will be anything other than the jerk (or jerkette) they are at that moment.
Arguments start more easily and escalate more readily when we’re in sleep-deficit. It disrupts our ability to problem solve or process difficult issues making our arguments more frequent and less rational.
Importantly, sleep-deprivation negatively impacts our hormone system and disrupts normal production of testosterone. It’s no wonder that when we think of our bedroom, our first and only thoughts are of sleep rather than lovemaking!
While coffee is an obvious remedy, it’s a false fix. Caffeine will temporarily increase our alertness by blocking the reuptake of adrenaline, but it doesn’t replace our sleep-deficit or address the significant diminishment in our mental capacities.
We think we are thinking more clearly but actually, we are not. Moreover, we have a reduced ability to make executive decisions, remember details or be creative.
During sleep, pathways between neurons (nerve cells) are formed which help us to process memories, enabling us to remember new things that we’ve learned. Deep sleep is especially important as at these times of sleep paralysis the body is able to repair itself.
The mental and physical health consequences of chronic sleep-deprivation are so severe it is now considered a major health issue.
Because sleep-deprivation is such a normal part of family life, we tend to ignore it as a risk factor to our marriages. And it’s not just restricted to early parenting days. We are constantly amazed what can cause an unexpected run of ‘bad sleeps’: work worries, kid worries, jet lag, illness, menopause, aches and pains… the list goes on.
Of course, once the day starts there’s not much we can do about a bad sleep; life goes on. We function as best we can to get through the day. But do we take time to think about the impact it’s having on our relationship?
Understandably we muster our best for others and let each other bear the worst of the left-overs. While probably okay on any one day, the cost of this accumulates over time.
So, what to do? Poor sleep and its cumulative effects are a reality for all marriages from time to time, so we can’t change that.
A friend of ours, a mother of ten, who always looked for the positive angle, encouraged us as new parents with this thought: sleep-deprivation taught her a valuable lesson – she could still function without sleep when she had to.
There is a kind of mental liberation that comes with rising above sleep-deprivation. It’s good to know that if we need to, we can function without our 7-8 hours of sleep. The advice was helpful to us, but, as we discovered, not sufficient.
The single most useful thing we have learned is to be aware of how a lack of sleep impacts us and, just like having a contagious flu, take the necessary actions to protect others from this ‘infectious’ condition.
A start is to warn our spouse with a simple “Hey, I slept terribly. Can you keep an eye out for me today?” A simple question of each other in the morning “Did you sleep alright?” is a sensible way to start each day.
Likewise, we know each other well enough to see the signs of our tiredness starting to affect us. A gentle “Hey, you are really tired – what can I do to make your day a little easier?” or if needed “Hon, I can see you are on edge, that’s tiredness talking” can be helpful – if said carefully!
Likewise for with our kids (if they are old enough to understand) – “Kids, Dad is really exhausted today, let’s make sure he gets a bit of a break”, or our friends or colleagues – “Hey, I am an too tired to think clearly today, let me know if you think I am making bad decisions.”
As we learned the hard way: it’s one thing to be tired, that’s not in our control, but it’s another to let that tiredness knowingly take control of us.
Our spouse is the one who knows us best. They can see when we are being impacted, let us know when we are acting out of a sleep deficit and support us through it.
Of course, the best thing we can do when one of us is exhausted is to get them to bed … and to sleep!