Alyssa and Calvin are dear friends of mine. Over dinner one evening, they shared with me that they had been sleeping on the same mattress for the entire duration of their marriage. When they casually revealed this fact to me, I couldn’t withhold my surprise and dismay. “Eighteen years on the same mattress? Do you think mattresses have a lifetime guarantee?” I asked.
The general rule of thumb is that mattresses should be replaced about every 7-10 years. Some beds might last longer than that, but 18 years? Not likely. They were due for a replacement.
Soon after, they took my advice and purchased a new mattress. “I honestly couldn’t believe what a difference such a simple thing could make,” said Calvin. “Now that I see the difference, I don’t think I actually slept, like really slept, in the past 10 years!” said Calvin. Before long, they also started to see some benefits in their relationship. “That bed that we had for so long, from the time we were newlyweds to when we were sleep-deprived parents of little ones, was definitely not sexy. It sounds silly, but something about investing in this new mattress, that was just for us, kind of marked this new stage in our marriage. Like ok, we got through the craziness of having young children in our home (and often in our bed), and now we are investing in ‘us’ again.” As they both started sleeping better, their moods improved, they felt less irritable, they “didn’t sweat the small stuff with each other quite so much” and were generally nicer to be around.
Replacing a mattress seems like a pretty simple fix, and frankly, for Alyssa and Calvin, it was, but for others, the causes of sleep problems may be more complicated or less under your control. Taking even small steps to improve sleep can make a big difference in improving the quality of your relationship. There are many ways to put that virtuous cycle in motion, which I discuss throughout “Sharing the Covers”, but here I want to focus on some physical changes you can make to your shared sleep environment to send the message that sleep is a priority for both of you. It’s time to reclaim your space and make your bedroom a haven. Here’s how.
Invest in a good mattress. Remember that we spend roughly one-third of our lives asleep, so it is worth putting a premium on the comfort of your sleeping arrangement. Spend what you can afford within your budget, but don’t skimp out on this luxury, as you are going to be spending a lot of time in it. The key is that it is about comfort for you and your partner, so to the extent possible, it is best to get to try out your mattress first. Many mattress companies extend generous return policies so that you have the opportunity to test it out, and don’t have to feel stuck if you change your mind.
Make yourself a tidy and inviting nest. I am a scientist, not an interior designer, so while I am no expert in the trendiest or most stylish room décor, I can tell you that there are some science-backed, basic do’s and don’ts when it comes to turning your bedroom into a haven for sleep. In terms of colors, neutrals, silvers, and greys have been shown to be relaxing and can even lower your blood pressure and heart rate. Beyond the color palette, what’s even more important is what you keep in your room and what you keep out. You want your haven to be free from clutter and the distractions of the day—that includes dirty laundry scattered on the floor or your phone by your bedside. All that detritus sends the wrong signal to the brain and can increase anxiety. The bedroom should be for sleep and sex–keep it simple, clean, and inviting.
Keep your relationship hot, but the bedroom cool. As we sleep, our body temperatures’ naturally decline. In fact, a dip in core body temperature is a key signal to our brains that it’s time to fall asleep. Generally speaking, the recommendation is to keep your bedroom between about 60 to 67 degrees. There is even some truth to the old adage about a warm bath being good for sleep, for this very reason. While in the bath your temperature rises, but precipitously falls when you get out. Try a bath about 90 minutes before bedtime. Better yet—do it with your spouse and make it a part of your shared bedtime ritual! It’s a great way to relax and unwind with each other and reduce your body temperature when you get out (provided that things don’t get too steamy in the bath).
It’s better in the dark. While some may argue whether sex is better in the light of day or in total darkness, there is no question, that sleep is better when the lights are down. Sometimes this is more than simply turning off the light switch. Make sure if light creeps in through the window, that you use blinds or drapes or even hang up a dark sheet over the window if necessary. If some light cannot be avoided, consider wearing an eye mask. And if the light is coming from a phone or other electronic device in the hands of your partner or yourself, get that sleep-stealer out of the bedroom. Set the mood (for sleep and maybe even a little romance) by turning the lights down in the evening, as dim lights can also stimulate the release of melatonin, and set you up for sleep success that night.
Punctuate the start and end of the day with small but sweet gestures. Bringing your partner coffee in the morning or giving your partner a backrub as they wake up or go to sleep, even when you are tired and cranky and irritable, can go a long way towards building goodwill and compassion in your relationship. It’s like putting money in your relationship bank account. You may not be a great conversationalist and you may be snappy, but these small gestures of kindness can smooth out those edges a bit. You may be surprised how these small acts can make you and your partner feel better and can start (or end) the day a little brighter.