The Politics Of Parental Sleep: Sleep In A Marriage Is Like Cigarettes In Prison

Studies have shown that sleep imbalance can basically breed enough resentment to take down a marriage Sophie White can well believe it


A tweet from author and IMAGE columnist, Maia Dunphy caught my eye last week joking about co-sleeping. A thread began with one tweeter lamenting that it was co-sleeping or no-sleeping in their household.

I had to chime in:

"I do FAUX-sleeping™ where I pretend to the Man that I'm asleep so he has to deal with them," I tweeted.

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It felt a bit like taking my life in my hands but my husband is not particularly active on Twitter and I'm sure if he is, he has probably muted my inanities at this stage, seeing as how he's on the receiving end of the live show 24/7.

Sleep is a contentious topic from the second a baby is lobbed like a sweet-smelling bomb into the centre of a formerly harmonious relationship.

One 2013 study by the University of Berkeley California found that sleep deprivation directly resulted in increased conflict and decreased empathy during couple's arguments.

"Conflict resolution occurred most when both partners were well rested. Effects were not explained by stress, anxiety, depression, lack of relationship satisfaction, or by partners being the source of poor sleep. Overall, these findings highlight a key factor (sleep deprivation) that may breed conflict, thereby putting relationships at risk."

I feel it's worth highlighting that the subjects participating in this research were kept in laboratory conditions throughout testing which suggests they were not even near some of the usual stressors that have been known to cultivate ill-will in couples (the dishes, bins needing changing or the male's baffling insistence on using the bread board for cutting onions – this last one might be quite specific to my relationship, I realise).

I distinctly remember the first time I conceived the thought "I hate you" directed towards my partner. I was in the pit of exhaustion that quite literally smothers you in the first weeks with a newborn. My burning eyes were boring into his big stupid back, "he doesn't even realise I hate him right now," I thought, the fact somehow giving me even more rage.

In the nightmarish landscape of new parenthood, invariably some random with a death wish will explain to you 'that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture,' imparting this little nugget of wisdom as though it's some delectable, abstract morsel of a factoid instead of a daily hell that you are currently mired in. "I f*cking KNOW sleep deprivation can be used as a form of torture. I'm so under-slept I'm not even sure if this conversation is actually taking place or if I'm hallucinating it. I could murder someone right now and use temporary insanity as a completely viable defence. I'm so under-slept I feel like a wrung-out old j-cloth and I basically look like Nosferatu."

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Luckily nobody told me that this hellscape of wakefulness can continue as Buzz Lightyear (a constant companion of mine at 4 am when the four year old decides that this morning he's going to get up yesterday) would say, "to infinity and beyond".

On one hand the fact that this sleep disruption is being inflicted on you both as a couple can foster a certain team spirit – a sort of 'us against them' vibe, however that soon shifts into a constant war called "It's my f*cking turn to sleep". We trade sleep like cigarettes in prison. Though as cohabiting adult humans most of the 'currency' we have to play with are the kinds of household chores that have to be accomplished regardless (dishwashing, laundry etc), thus rendering them fairly useless bartering tools. And I hardly need to add that sexual favours as bartering tools are out of the question, we're both much too tired for that.

Some wise parents among my acquaintance have actually gone so far as to establish a sleep roster. Is there an excel spreadsheet?  I find the rota idea impressive as, after all, sleep deprivation compromises brain function and presumably saps one of the kind of energy required to create a sleep roster. This definitely sounds like an inspired approach if only I had the wherewithal to enact it.

Without any strategy as such to divvy up the shuteye, my husband and I rely on a loose mental tally to keep track of whose turn it is to sleep – I  can state categorically that this is about as scientific and effective as the pulling out method of contraception.

The Mental Leader Board of Sleep means that at ALL TIMES, we both feel hard done by in the sleep stakes. It's a lose lose. Weekends in our house frequently descend into a game called "Hide In The Jacks And Nap On The Floor Until You Are Discovered By Your Family".

It's not the most comfortable of snoozes though it is a game that is saving us money. Every time the subject of replacing the floorboards in the bathroom with tiles arises, I reflect on how cold and inhospitable that will be and insist that we can't afford it.

It's also a good incentive to clean the bathroom.

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Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

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