Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Children’s Sleep Impacts Marriage/Relationship

May 27, 2008 By: Kathy Category: coping, tips

I admit Alan and I are guilty of this.

We schedule the entire rest of our lives before we schedule dates; when we do schedule dates, they often get shortchanged because we didn’t plan well enough — or we’re too tired to put much into it; we put tons of energy into the Dragon and very little into ourselves or our marriage.

Luckily, we’re aware enough of the couple that we are to see red flags early on. We know that when the sniping starts, or when we say little to each other between dinnertime and bedtime, or when quiet resentment builds, it’s time to sit down together and work some things out.

And if you’re wondering why this post is on a children’s sleep site, either you’re a single parent (facing a different set of difficulties) or you don’t have a kid who struggles with sleep.

Because if you’re in a committed relationship, and you have a kid who doesn’t sleep well, you know that the state of each situation impacts the other deeply.

What’s clear is that the time and energy it takes to attend to a sleep-sensitive child can drain and strain the adult relationship (not to mention the parent-child one!). The answers seem to be to pay attention to the marriage, schedule dates, work on the sleep issue, etc. These are not the most satisfying answers to me, mostly because (a) they assume the sleep issue can be resolved “with just a little more work” and (b) they require more work and obligation from parents who already feel up against a wall.

(Our couples therapist suggested another track that may work better for some couples, which was to create a regular ritual that doesn’t seem like a big deal but that keeps the couple in touch with each other. For example, Alan and I now make a point of meeting up in the living room after we’re sure the Dragon is asleep. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we give each other foot massages, sometimes we just watch TV. We don’t do it every night — our schedule and exhaustion levels dictate that we just can’t — but regularly enough that it defuses a lot of the tension build-up that might otherwise occur.)

What’s not clear — but a suspicion I have, drawn from my studies in family psychology — is that perhaps, in some cases, the state of the marriage contributes to a child’s sleep sensitivity. It’s an accepted understanding in family psychology that children sometimes unconsciously create stressors in response to a problem that’s not being addressed elsewhere in the family. So if marital strife is generating tense undercurrents, a child might whip up a problem to bring the family together to address something — anything. It’s like the child is saying, “Look! There’s a problem! It may not be the core problem, but let’s get together around something in this family!” In some cases, I believe, this secondary problem is sleep-sensitivity.

The implication of this is that the sleep problem may die down as the parents address the tension in their relationship — even if they never, ever talk to the child about it. Peace in the family helps children feel secure, which can help them sleep better.

Even more intriguing to me is the idea that the adult relationship and the child’s sleep could eventually enter into a vicious cycle, in which each one deteriorates in response to fraying in the other. Everyone’s sleeplessness, the parents’ need to respond frequently to a wakeful child, the tension that builds up around sleep problems, resulting splinters in the parent-child relationship, lack of down-time or adult time for the parents, and all the fallout of all these conditions can certainly harm a relationship. The child could, in turn, respond with more sleep problems — and the relationship could, in turn, respond with further fracturing.

And so on.

The wrench needs to be thrown in somewhere. While we focus so intently on “fixing” the sleep problem, perhaps the blame shouldn’t always be placed squarely on that issue. Perhaps we need to widen our gaze a bit. Perhaps we need to melt tension throughout the household, make up with the people we’re supposed to be teamed up with. Perhaps, in some families, that is the right response, or part of a response, to a child’s sleep-sensitivity. Perhaps a better marriage can actually create better sleep for everyone in the family.

So my questions to you are (pick one!): How do you preserve and bolster the adult relationship even as the sleep problems continue? How do you keep the adult relationship strong, close and loving? How do you melt the tension that builds when sleep problems persist? And do you think sleep problems affect the larger family? If yes, how so?

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  1. GG posted the following on July 28, 2008 at 1:46 pm.

    Kathy – I’ve been meaning to read the site sooner… this post really hit home.Our son has struggle with bed too… and similar to you & Alan we put every ounce of engergy into our son… with little left for anything else. The therapist also recommended the connection time for us as well. It’s so critical for each of us to feel connected to our partners. It makes so much sense about children responding to the building (always silent in our house) turmoil or disconnections. We use humor in our daily lives to get through it. Let the small-ish things slide or make light of them. It’s not easy that’s for sure…and it’s work everyday.

    Reply to GG

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