Beginners Again and Again at Couple Bedsharing

Paul C. Rosenblatt, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota
NCFR Report
Content Area
Human Growth and Development Across the Lifespan
Internal Dynamics of Families
Interpersonal Relationships

 

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Paul C. Rosenblatt

In Brief

  • Couples are again and again beginners at bedsharing.

  • Beginners have considerable potential for frustration and beginner errors.

  • Many things can make a couple beginners again and again at bedsharing, including body, relationship, and environmental changes.

 

A key thing I learned from the couples I interviewed for Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing (Rosenblatt, 2006) was that couples are beginners again and again when it comes to sharing a bed. Any change in either partner, their relationship, or their environment may disrupt their system of bedsharing, and then they are beginners, struggling to work things out, experiencing frustrations, and possibly making beginner errors—the kinds of mistakes people are more likely to make when facing something new. Working out a mutually satisfactory way to deal with whatever makes them beginners again at sharing a bed can be challenging.

 

Realizing the Importance of What Goes On in the Couple’s Bed

Perhaps I am dense, but I think any topic that is neglected in a scholarly community cannot be tuned out and ignored when interviewees bring up the topic again and again as crucial in understanding their lives. Couple bedsharing was like that for me. It came up in some interviews in various qualitative research studies of couples and families that I and my assistants conducted. But for a long time I ignored what people said about bedsharing, because that was not what I was looking for, and the family literature didn’t make it an important topic.

Finally, in a study in the 1990s, what interviewees were saying about bedsharing got past the barrier in my brain. I finally understood that what went on in couple bedsharing was important. In fact, a key reason I became interested in doing research on couple bedsharing was that bedsharing often came up in interviews of couples who had a child die (Rosenblatt, 2000a, 2000b). One couple, for example, talked about the first night after their child died. Lying in bed and feeling their loss together they resolved to remain a couple: “I can remember that night . . . him and I laying there and just making a vow to each other that it would not tear us apart” (Rosenblatt, 2000b, p. 142).

For another couple, quite the opposite happened. Together in bed shortly after their son’s death, they were miles apart in being able to connect, empathize, support, and even touch each other. For them, what they did not do while bedsharing was central to their feeling distant from each other and feeling alone and frustrated.

She: I’d lay in bed and cry at night, and he’d lay over near me and be embarrassed and not know what to do (laughing).

He: Yeah, I didn’t know exactly how to handle it (Rosenblatt, 2000a, p. 47).

At the time of the interview, 7 years after the loss, they had made progress in some ways but still struggled. For them and for some other couples in the study of parent grief, the bed was a crucial meeting place where they were beginners at understanding each other, grieving, working out their relationship, dealing with their differences about the loss, and learning to sleep together again. These interviewees showed me that bedsharing could not be taken for granted, that it was very important and not always easy for some couples, and that what went on in bed could be exquisitely sensitive to what happened to the couple outside of bed.

Consistent with what I heard from some of the couples in the parent grief study, most interviewees in the study of bedsharing (Rosenblatt, 2006) talked about again and again being beginners together in bed. Two areas of couple life stood out for me in my 2006 study: workplace injuries and changes related to aging. These are examples of what made some couples beginners again at bedsharing.

 

Workplace Injury and Bedsharing

Bedsharing can be very difficult when a partner develops a serious physical problem—for example, a damaged hip, knee, shoulder, or back, or the effects of chemotherapy, or the onset of sleep apnea. Consider workplace injuries. I think everyone I interviewed for Two in a Bed who had experienced a blue-collar job and was at least 30 years of age had had at least one serious injury on the job that affected couple bedsharing. A fall, a back injury while lifting or moving something, or a repetitive-motion injury could make it hard to sleep in certain positions or hard to sleep at all.

For example, the wife of a man who was a mechanic said: “He’s got a bad shoulder right now, so it’s hard for him to turn for spooning. . . . Before he would spoon with his arm around me” (Rosenblatt, 2006, pp. 110–111). They struggled to find ways to replace the snuggling in bed that they used to do every night, and what they had found to that point was less satisfying to them than the snuggling they had done for years. So they were beginners not only at finding ways to cuddle but also at dealing with their disappointment over what they had lost from their relationship, temporarily or possibly permanently.

 

Aging and Bedsharing

The body changes that come with aging can interfere with individual sleep and make couples beginners again at working out how and even whether to share a bed. Examples from the interviews include prostate issues that require a man to get up often during the night to urinate and body changes that cause snoring. Body changes like these can disrupt both partners’ sleep and make them individually and collectively beginners at figuring out what to do about bedsharing.

When a woman starts feeling symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, and mood swings, the challenges the woman experiences can also present challenges to couple bedsharing. One woman, for example, talked about her decreased need to keep warm at night:

I turn on our ceiling fan now because I probably have that premenopausal sweat during the night. I seem to get hot, and I wake up hot. . . . I used to always have cold hands and feet. . . . [Now] my hands and feet are always warm. . . . I don’t wear socks to bed anymore (Rosenblatt, 2006, p. 71).

This is a bedsharing challenge if her partner wants more covers on the bed than she does or feels uncomfortable with the ceiling fan on. The partners might also end up having less physical contact, because the woman might not feel comfortable in contact with her partner’s warmth.

Some women experiencing menopausal symptoms described times of having great trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and the sleeplessness usually came with tossing and turning that might disrupt their partner’s sleeping. At times some women wanted to talk during the night with their partner about what was happening to them, and that meant their partner had to be awake to be a conversation partner. Several women stopped sharing the bed with their partners during times of hot flashes and sleeplessness, because they wanted to be by themselves and they felt that if they stayed in the couple bed they were making it too hard for their partner to sleep. So menopause, with all the ways it can make a woman feel like a beginner at dealing with what is happening to her, is also a couple issue, with couples being beginners at working out how and whether to share a bed.

 

Beginners Together Again and Again

In a vast array of areas of couple life, couples are beginners again and again. According to the couples interviewed for Two in a Bed, that is certainly true in couple bedsharing. A couple may still feel they are a committed couple and may still carry out many coordinated routines; however, despite that continuity and all the accommodations they have worked out with each other over their time together, they are again and again beginners at sharing a bed because of changes in either of them as individuals, changes in their relationship, or changes in the environment.  As beginners, they may struggle, be frustrated with each other, make serious beginner errors, and take quite a while to figure out a new bedsharing system that works well enough for both of them.

Family professionals need to be smart about recurrent beginnings in bedsharing and all the other beginnings that couples and families encounter. We may help couples and families by not assuming things are constant in their lives but instead asking about what struggles  they are facing. For example, it is good to ask about bedsharing because it reflects all sorts of challenges in couple life, everything from body and environmental changes to struggles to find ways to resolve differences. What might help couples and families to be better at their shared beginnings and to get along better during the process? At the very least, it may help them to understand how normal it is to be beginners again and to be patient with their beginners’ processes.

 

References

Rosenblatt, P. C. (2000a). Help your marriage survive the death of a child. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Rosenblatt, P. C. (2000b). Parent grief: Narratives of loss and relationship. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rosenblatt, P. C. (2006). Two in a bed: The social system of couple bed sharing. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

 

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