Birds and bees do it.
So do cats, dogs and hamsters. And according to decades of medical studies, humans do it for at least one-third of their lives.
If that’s the case, then why are there so many misconceptions surrounding sleep, especially between married or partnered couples?
That’s the question Dr. Wendy Troxel, a Park City resident and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation, a research organization that develops healthy and secure solutions to public policy, answers in her new book “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.”
The book, which was published April 20 by Hachette Go, is a guide that includes proven strategies to improve both sleep and relationship health for couples, said Troxel, who also holds adjunct faculty positions at the University of Utah and the University of Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been studying sleeping couples for more than 15 years, and I really felt it was time to bring the science to the public,” she said. “There are so many misconceptions of what it means to sleep together, and the impact sleep has on relationships.”
Troxel thinks that lack of knowledge has an impact on society’s behavior and beliefs about what people “should be doing.”
“I think that, in itself, creates some unnecessary angst in some people,” she said.
“Sharing the Covers” addresses 10 research-backed topics that include managing sleep cycles and sleep disorders, partner sleep-cycle synchrony, whether or not to sleep in the same bed and how to maintain a healthy sex life, among others.
“I wanted to pull together the research that has been conducted by myself and my colleagues, because sleep science is a relatively new field of study,” Troxel said. “I want the public to better understand the social nature of sleep, and show how sleep affects and is affected by relationships.”
Relationship quality and sleep quality are central to people’s health and well-being, yet the culture doesn’t take sleep seriously, she said.
“We live in a culture that continues to undermine the importance of sleep,” Troxel said. “We have this idea that we can sleep when everything else gets done. So it gets to be the thing that gets sacrificed.”
Still, Troxel is starting to see some changes in attitude, due to studies that show the lack of sleep raises the risk of heart disease and dementia and hinders work performance.
“We have so much strong evidence demonstrating that sleep is profoundly important in every aspect of our functioning,” she said.
Troxel also wanted to show how sleep affects social situations.
“I wanted to share the data that shows if you’re not going to sleep for yourself, then do it for your partner and everyone else around you, because it has ramifications beyond individual outcomes,” she said. “If you poorly sleep, you’re simply not going to behave well. You’re not going to be able to regulate your emotions.”
“Sharing the Covers” features actual stories from Troxel’s friends, acquaintances and clinical cases she has studied.
“This is the merging of my background,” she said. “I’m a licensed clinical psychologist as well as a researcher, and I think the best way to bring this research to life is to share stories from people who I have run across in the past 15 years.”
The book also serves as an interactive guide that includes questionnaires, polls and checklists that will help readers assess and, hopefully, resolve their sleep challenges.
“One of the things I know from studying this topic and treating people over the years is that not only has there been scientific neglect of couples and sleep, but the science tends to treat sleep as an individual behavior,” Troxel said. “I included these things so people can apply what they have read to themselves.”
The reason for these interactive elements is simple, she said.
“We don’t have a strategy to discuss how sleep fits in our relationships,” Troxel said. “Dating apps don’t talk about sleep habits. Pre-marital therapy doesn’t talk about how well aligned we are with our sleep habits. We just assume that if we love this person, and since we’re wonderfully compatible during the day time, we must be compatible at night. And that’s not the case.”
Sleep issues, like other challenges couples face, are just things that need to be solved, and the problems emerge when couples don’t have strategies of communication to address the issues, she said.
“When couples work on assumptions, they don’t allow themselves the opportunity to realize if things go awry, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the relationship,” she said. “The exercises I include are designed to give couples the tools to start that conversation. Sometimes you need to talk about your thoughts and preferences about sleep, including bedtime.”
Troxel wrote the book in less than a year, but had been thinking about it for three years.
“My goal was to write a chapter a month, and I was able to stick to that, in part, because I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” she said.
Structuring a book proposal helped her lay out the topics she wanted to address.
“The one thing that changed in the midst of writing the book was this pandemic we’re going through,” she said. “I had two chapters left in the book last March, and then our world changed and COVID-19 made a profound impact on our sleep and relationships.”
While that piece of the puzzle wasn’t part of her original outline, Troxel was able to include the coronavirus in the manuscript.
“I was able to show how COVID has raised the salience of the issue of sleep in people’s minds in a time of turmoil,” she said.
Troxel’s interest in sleep began when she began to understand how much it is connected with physical and mental health.
“This is also a health behavior that we regularly engage with our partners, yet few people are studying the coupled nature of sleep,” she said. “So it was this obvious pathway that could explain how and why relationships can be health-protective.”
The book is available locally at Dolly’s Bookstore, the Bedroom Park City and online.
“It’s hugely exciting to have the fruits of my labor finally available for people to purchase,” Troxel said. “I hope it will give couples some real tools to help them improve their sleep and relationships.”