It shouldn’t be a laughing matter but the two friends are in stitches. “So,” says one woman, “I go to bed at 9.30. He goes to bed at 11.30. I wear an eye mask. He wears ear muffs. I like fresh air. He’s sensitive to noise. Every night he tiptoes to the window to close it; and sometimes he gets away with it. This is how it’s been for years.”
Sleeping with your mate is serious business. It’s why most of us hitched up all those decades ago – so we could “sleep together” as we coyly put it then. But now even if the sex is still good the “sleeping together” can be fraught. Insomniacs find themselves tethered to heavy sleepers, or even worse, to fellow insomniacs with different wakefulness patterns. Early birds are tied to night owls, doona lovers to sweaty partners who prefer a sheet. The “love bed” as my father used to call it, bless his heart, can be the rack on which marriages unravel. It’s serious business – how well we sleep with our partner – yet the friends were in paroxysms of laughter.
“So picture this,” says the other woman. “We used to go to bed with a transistor radio each – you can hardly buy the things any more. He’d wake up and listen to the cricket to get him back to sleep. I’d listen to BBC World Service. We’d have duelling radio stations going. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t work. Now he’s using ear plugs, hoping nothing will wake him. I’ve moved to a meditation app – a lovely Scottish man, actually.”
You have to laugh. As you get older a lot of people find it harder to sleep. Melatonin levels drop. Prostate problems rise. There’s a plethora of advice out there for insomniacs. But nearly all of it assumes singlehood. Nearly all of it ignores the fact that many insomniacs are part of a couple that’s trying desperately to “sleep together”. When you’re in proximity to a body with its own internal clock and sleeping patterns, you don’t have total control.
It’s all very well telling the sleep-deprived to “go to bed when sleepy”. It’s the first rule of recovery for insomniacs. But what happens to couples whose “sleepy times” diverge so markedly they’d never go to bed together if they followed that rule religiously, as you’re meant to do? “Well,” says the first woman, “you don’t have sex very often.”
Rule number two in the recovery guide is almost always: reserve the bedroom for sleeping. Don’t watch television or play computer games; the stricter rulebooks even proscribe reading in bed. But what if your partner insists on watching television in bed? What if it’s been part of your routine since the pre-insomnia era? What if it’s the way he gets to nod off? Do you don the eye mask, twist in the ear plugs and settle into the “love bed” hoping for the miracle of sleep? Or do you grab the remote and cause a scene? In a couple’s insomnia wars, it’s not always the sufferer who wins.
“I know of one couple,” says the second woman, “whose marriage was saved by the Kindle.” Apparently, he liked to read in bed till he felt dozy which could take a while; his wife fell asleep after a paragraph or two. But then she’d jerk awake and blame the reading lamp and the rustle of the pages. “It was pretty tense,” the woman tells her friend. “Then along came the Kindle – no need for reading lamp, no rustle of pages.”
“The Kindle re-kindled their relationship,” the first one guffaws, rather pleased with herself as they order another glass of wine. Then one remembers a fellow insomniac who appears to have stumbled on a cure. Over a decade he’s tried herbal concoctions, hypno-therapy, and drinking red wine while watching his wife sleep soundly. “He’s discovered sleeping nude,” the woman says. “Apparently it cools the body down. But it’s early days so let’s not rush into it.”
And have we mentioned snorers? The racket they make is bad enough. But waiting to hear if someone with sleep apnoea lives to take another breath is worse. It keeps a partner wired and wide-eyed all night. Even when the sufferer goes for the cure, relations in the love bed may not improve. Now the partner finds herself sleeping with elephant man, wearing a mask and tube attached to a machine that rumbles all night.
So, I hear you say, sleep in separate rooms. Heaps of empty nesters with a spare bedroom do just that. It doesn’t spell the end of sex, just the start of decent sleep. What’s the big deal about having separate bedrooms? The two friends get serious for the first time that night. “Something’s lost,” says one. “Intimacy, I think.” “The chemistry starts to go,” says the other.
As it is, one of the women did sometimes retreat to the spare bedroom in the wee small hours. Fearful her tossing and turning might wake her partner, she’d creep out of bed in the pitch dark – their curtains were black-out quality – and into the other room. And more than once, she tells her friend, she’s found him already there. “And did you end up sleeping together in the spare bed?” the woman asks sweetly. The laughing starts again: “You’ve got to be joking.”
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