'It's Okay for a Man to Snore': The Influence of Gender on Sleep Disruption in Couples
by Susan Venn
University of Surrey
Sociological Research Online 12(5)1
Received: 5 Jan 2007 Accepted: 15 Aug 2007 Published: 30 Sep 2007
Snoring is a common cause of disturbed sleep for both the snorer and their partner. Whilst the physical effects of snoring are well documented as causing excessive daytime sleepiness, decreased effectiveness at work and irritability, it is also important to recognise the impact snoring has on the negotiation of sleep within couple relationships. This article analyses qualitative data from an ESRC funded multi-disciplinary project on couples' sleep based on in-depth audio-tape recorded interviews with 31 couples (aged 20-59) where either one or both partners snore. Additionally, one week's audio sleep diaries were completed and follow up separate in-depth interviews were undertaken with each partner.
The gendered nature and implications of snoring are analysed. Results indicate that there is a gendered conception of snoring, which is problematic for women in three ways. First, women who snore are embarrassed and stigmatised by this 'unfeminine' action. Secondly, the embarrassment that women feel about their snoring is compounded by their partners sharing that information outside the privacy of their relationship. Thirdly, by finding excuses for their male partners' snoring, as well as developing strategies to cope with its disruptive effects, most women are prioritising their partners' sleep over their own, and perpetuating their own sleep disruption.
Keywords: Sleep, Snoring, Couples, Stigma, Sentient Activity, Blame
Introduction1.1 Although snoring is often subject to laughter and ridicule, it can have a serious effect on not only the snorer and their partner, but also on the couple relationship (Madani, 2001). With 15 million people reported as snoring in the UK, and one third of those being women (Beninati et al, 1999; Hu 2000, British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, 2006), it is a widespread problem that has hitherto not been the subject of sociological research. The incidence of snoring increases as people grow older, so that by the age of 60 years, about 60% of men and 40% of women snore regularly (British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, 2006).
1.2 Disrupted sleep because of snoring can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, increased hypertension and an increased risk of accidents (Turaks, 2003). Snoring as a sleep problem, or as a symptom of a more serious disorder, sleep apnoea, has long been investigated by physiologists, with remedies ranging from self-help suggestions such as avoiding alcohol and losing weight (Fairbanks, 1989), using orthodontic appliances (Smith and Battagel, 2004), to wearing masks to increase air flow and more drastic measures such as surgery (Hoffstein, V., 2006; Littlefield and Mair, 1999).
1.3 A number of studies have shown that having a male partner who snores, significantly impacts on a woman’s sleep (Parish and Lyng, 2004). As Cohen has said, "A woman married to a man who snores has a higher likelihood of sleep, and quality-of-life problems herself" (Cohen, 2004). Little emphasis, however, has been placed on either the potentially damaging effects of snoring on couples’ relationships where one or both partners snore, or on the self esteem of the snorer. Unlike Hislop and Arber’s (2003a, 2003b) investigation of sleep in ageing women which provides a window onto the gendered nature of sleep disruption from the women’s point of view, a sociological examination of the way in which couples negotiate sleep disruption is necessary to offer a truly gender-differentiated analysis of couples’ sleep. Rosenblatt’s (2006) US exploration of what it means to share a bed showed how couples develop strategies to deal with the practicalities of sleeping with a snoring partner. However, nearly all of those reported as snoring were male, and the strategies discussed were only those of their female partners.
1.4 This article will argue that the perceptions of, and reactions to, sleep disruption caused by snoring are influenced by gender. In particular it will be argued that the way women react to snoring, both their own snoring and that of their partners’, is influenced by three conceptual factors: firstly women’s predisposition for engagement in ‘sentient activity’ (Mason, 1996); secondly, women’s situation within the twin concepts of ‘hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity’ (Connell, 1987) and thirdly, the ‘stigma’ women feel because of their own snoring (Goffman, 1963). Furthermore, all three concepts suggest a framework for exploring the gender/power (im)balances which exist among couples in relation to sleeping practices
1.5 Sentient activity, or invisible thinking, as suggested by Mason (1996), is undertaken largely by women, and involves thinking about, anticipating and interpreting the needs of their partners, their children and other family members. This is not activity manifested in a physical way, as implied by ‘caring for’, and involving labour such as preparing food or doing household chores (Finch and Groves, 1983), but rather in accord with Davidson’s (2001) concept of ‘unselfishness’ in that it is unseen and empathetic. However, whilst this sentient activity is undertaken with regard for their family members’ wellbeing, it is sometimes to the detriment of women’s own wellbeing, and their own personal needs. In contrast to ‘unselfishness’, Davidson (2001) suggests that women perceive ‘selfishness’, as being able to do what they want without considering the needs of a partner, but which for them, however, is accompanied by feelings of guilt.
1.6 Connell proposed that the concept of ‘emphasized femininity’, suggests femininity can be ‘defined around compliance with… subordination [to men]’ (1987, p.183). Connell also suggested that ‘emphasized femininity’ exists in tandem with the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, identified as practices which perpetuate male domination over women. Together, these two concepts serve to define the power imbalance that exists between men and women within the gender order (Connell, 1983, 1987; Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). The way that power is distributed within couples is often represented by unspoken rules of interaction (Komter, 1989) underpinned by such imbalances, and by tacit concepts of masculinity and femininity, such as is inherent in male breadwinner/female carer family models (Kessler et al, 1982; Connell 1983).
1.7 Finally, the concept of stigma (Goffman, 1963), can also contribute to the debate surrounding power (im)balances among couples by recognising that the ‘discreditable’ (or the snorer behind closed doors) experiences a loss of power when they become the ‘discredited’ (or snorer revealed).
1.8 The article will use these three concepts to explore and illustrate the extent to which snoring, or rather the response to snoring, is gendered, in that it is women who develop elaborate strategies to temper their partners’ snoring, yet avoid waking them, when their partners rarely do the same for them. But, as this is a study of couples, we are also able to ask why it is that men take snoring for granted, whilst their partners find excuses for their own and their partners’snoring. The data is drawn from an empirical study that examines how couples negotiate their sleep and sleep disruption. By studying couples, greater opportunities exist to explore whether this embodied activity is a reflection of the gender/power balance within couples, as epitomized by men, for example, taking delight in their own burping, or flatulence, yet not if the same actions are done by women (Weinberg and Williams, 2005).
Methods2.1This article analyses data from an ESRC funded research project examining the negotiation of couples’ sleep. As the focus of the study was the interaction of two individuals sleeping together, 40 heterosexual couples were initially interviewed jointly, then again 4-6 weeks later, separately as individuals, providing a greater opportunity to explore in detail the reality of couples’ sleep from both partners’ points of view. Previous studies of couples’ sleep have been clinically focused and used individualised structured self-completion questionnaires (Cartwright and Knight, 1987, Wiggins et al, 1990), and have not examined the interaction that takes place between partners in couples.
2.2 The respondents ranged in age from 20 to 59 years, to represent different chronological stages in their relationship and phases of the life course. The aim was to capture changes that occur during the life course, such as having children, giving up employment to look after children, recommencing employment, or caring for elderly or disabled relatives, and how these influence each partners’ sleep. This article focuses solely on those couples where one or both partners snored, based on self-reports or partners’ reports of snoring (n=34). Of these 34 couples, there were 17 where only the man snored, 4 where only the woman snored, and 13 where both partners snored.
2.3 An attempt to recruit from different socio-economic groups and with varying educational qualifications was made in order to ensure that couples with different living arrangements were interviewed. For example, it was considered important to include those couples who may have to share their bedroom with their children, or who may not have access to a spare bedroom to move to should their sleep be interrupted. Couples were recruited from a variety of sources, including advertising, leaflet drops, acquaintances of the researchers, and snowballing. Couples were paid £100 as compensation for their contribution to the study (which also involved collection of physiological data). Respondents with chronic illness, clinically diagnosed sleep disorders or who were pregnant were excluded from the study.
2.4 All the interviews were audio tape-recorded and took place in the couples’ own home by a male and female researcher, and lasted approximately one and a half hours. A first joint interview with the couple explored topics such as the quality, quantity and nature of sleep, with particular emphasis placed on sleep expectations and how these compared with their sleep reality, external influences on the quality of couples’ sleep, such as children, caring for other members of the family, pets and so on, and physiological influences on the quality of sleep, such as the need to go to the toilet, snoring, and pain. Respondents were then asked to complete a daily audio sleep diary for one week, a method used for recording an individual’s subjective experience of sleep that proved successful in previous research (Hislop and Arber 2003a; Hislop et al 2005). A follow up interview took place approximately 4-6 weeks later with each partner being interviewed separately, but concurrently. The interviewer and partner being interviewed were gender-matched, because it was felt that same sex interviews would invoke a greater rapport between the respondent and the interviewer and provide a greater depth of data. The possibility of cross-gender interviewing was discussed by the two researchers, but the decision on whom to interview was taken after the couple interview and on each occasion it was felt that a better rapport had been created between the researcher and the respondent of the same gender. As Finch has suggested:
“Women are almost always enthusiastic about talking to a woman researcher, even if they have some initial anxieties about the purpose of the research or their own ‘performance’ in the interview situation (Finch, 1984, p.75)
2.5 To protect the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents a naming convention has been adopted which indicates the couple number, gender, age group and whether the data were from the couple interview (C), the individual interview (I) or from the audio diary (AD). Examples include: 1F(I) = couple number one, female, individual interview; 5M(C) = couple number five, male, couple interview and 4M(AD) couple number four, male, audio diary.
2.6 Ethical approval was obtained from the University of Surrey Ethics Committee. Written informed consent was obtained from each respondent in advance of the interview and respondents were reassured that their responses would be kept entirely confidential. Additionally, advice was sought from a family therapy counsellor prior to commencing the interviews so that the interviewers could appropriately handle any possible conflict that arose between partners during the couple interview.
Snoring – an Unfeminine Activity3.1 Snoring, for the women in this study was an ‘attribute that is deeply discrediting’ (Goffman, 1963: p.13). Nearly half of the women in this study snored, and for the majority, embarrassment was the key response when the issue of their snoring was raised, either by themselves or their partners. In fact it was more common for men to ‘reveal’ their partners’ snoring, than for women to indicate that they snored when asked:
Interviewer Do you [to male] snore?
3M(C) She does! [referring to female partner].
3F(C) You’re not meant to say things like that!
Interviewer What about snoring. Do either of you snore?
8M(C) S[partner] does, really badly.
8F(C) It took you an hour to get to that. Usually he tells people that in the first two minutes!
3.2 Once the issue of snoring had been raised, most of the female snorers felt uncomfortable about being labelled a ‘snorer’.
32F(C) He tells me I snore. On tape tell them [to partner]. Because I think you have been lying about that. He teases me.
Interviewer Do you snore? [to female]
7F(C) Yes. Although I deny it to everybody else, but I know I do.
3.3 Examining why these women find their snoring embarrassing, albeit an action they are not normally cognisant of, nor able to control, reveals a link between this bodily function and their perception of its gendered nature. It is, in their eyes, ‘awful’ and stigmatising for a woman to snore:
3F(I) W[husband] says sometimes when I am snoring he says gosh, he says he puts earplugs in.
Interviewer It is really loud then?
3F(I) I hope not. It just sounds awful for a woman to be snoring
Interviewer How do you feel about your snoring?3F(I)
8F(I) Embarrassing and like when, like he [partner] said he had to stick his elbow out to stop me rolling back [….]. .No, I mean I didn’t realise I snored like that. It is horrible.
3.4 Yet it is acceptable for a man to snore:
2F(I) It’s his divine right to snore, and if I do it, oh dear.and these exact words were repeated by another female respondent:
8F(I) It is more acceptable for a man to snore isn’t it?
Interviewer Does he do anything to stop himself snoring?
3F(I) No. Of course he doesn’t. He is a man.
Interviewer Does he do anything to stop himself snoring?
2F(I) No. Of course he doesn’t. He is a man.
3.6 In contrast to the reluctance of women to talk about their own snoring, they often responded to questions about their partners’ snoring in considerable detail, as in this case where the wife responded to the interviewer’s question to her husband about his snoring:
Interviewer: [To male partner] Tell me about your snoring.
11F(C) You don’t snore every night. You generally snore… I would say you probably snore for about three nights, three or four nights out of seven. So it is normal. It is noticeably a lot more when you have got a cold or congested. [Author’s emphasis]
11M(C) Or if I have had a drink.
3.7 However, it was not only women who recognised that snoring is a phenomenon that carries gendered connotations, a male partner sought to ameliorate his partner’s concerns about her snoring by bestowing it with feminine characteristics, yet at the same time perpetuating the perception that snoring is a masculine activity:
Interviewer Does she snore? (Referring to female partner)
33M(C) Only very, very occasionally, and it is very sweet and feminine.
3.8 For women then, snoring is seen as embarrassing, unfeminine, and is a ‘discreditable attribute’, merely by the implication of it being a bodily function seen as predominantly undertaken by men. Men’s snoring, however, is not ‘discreditable’ (Goffman, 1963), because it is discussed openly and without reference to embarrassment, or awkwardness, Indeed both partners often engaged in lengthy discussions about the male partner’s snoring. Within the couple interviews men were able to choose whether or not to reveal the so-called ‘defect’ of their partners’ snoring, and therefore in doing so, demonstrated they have the power to embarrass or shame their partners.
Snoring – ‘it’s what men do’4.1 Whilst for women raising the issue of their snoring provoked an uncomfortable response, for men, responses to the question “Do you snore?”, were more straightforward and non-apologetic:
Interviewer Do you snore? 4M(C) Yes.
7M(C) I am well aware I do snore.
11M(C) I do snore.
4.2 By colluding with the perception that it is acceptable for their partners to snore, the women were actually perpetuating their own problem of sleep disruption at night. The men, therefore, confirmed that they would not address their snoring unless they were really forced to:
2M(I) I suppose it is like people, it is a … like … not an area… it is a comic thing really you know what I mean, he snores and it is ha ha ha ha [laughter] you know. So I just leave it like that. I think if it got really bad, it wouldn’t be an ideal scenario, and I would look to do something about it.
1M(I) Well [female partner] is there every morning. So it can never be that bad. Unless she is very patient.
4.3 In addition, female respondents reaffirmed this by their acceptance of the situation, by invoking their ‘sentient activity’ and ‘emphasised femininity’ and assuming responsibility themselves for dealing or coping with their partners’ snoring:
3F(I) But I mean I just feel that if you are married to a man that snores, you just have to accept it.In some cases, men moved beyond a mere pragmatic acceptance of snoring as ‘what men do’, to boasting about the extent of their snoring:
32F(C) His snoring is getting much worse and I don’t know how to cope with that. A pillow seems to make a difference. (Author’s emphasis)
11M(C) I will always snore. I am notorious for that. My friends say if we go away no one will sleep with me”. Last time we went they brought earplugs, they were prepared. One of my best mates is prepared I know.
10M(C) I am a terrible, terrible snorer!
4.4 For all the sense of pride in their snoring, there were some occasions when the male partners acknowledged that they were aware of the adverse impact of their snoring on their wives’ sleep. When asked if there was anything they had learnt about each other during the interview, the extent to which snoring by male partners affected their wives sometimes came as a surprise:
32M(C) There was one thing… it had to do with the extent of which my snoring keeps her [wife] awake. I mean I am very conscious of it, and very sensitive to it, but there is not a lot you can do about it.For most men though, their own snoring was unintentional, acceptable and part of life. The ‘problem’ of snoring was left for their partner, whose sleep is disrupted, rather than the snorer, to deal with. The result was that many of the wives developed elaborate strategies to cope with their husbands’ snoring.
Strategies for Coping with Snoring5.1 It has been suggested earlier that women undertake ‘sentient activity’ when thinking about the needs of their partners. This is also reflected in women’s ‘emphasized femininity’ and is seen as ‘compliance, nurturance and empathy’ and ‘linked with the private realm of the home and the bedroom (Connell, 1987:187-8). In tandem with this is ‘hegemonic masculinity’, where men are holders of the power within relationships between men and women. The power imbalance that existed between the couples discussed in this article can be demonstrated through examining how women coped with their male partners’ snoring. For most of the women talking about their own snoring was awkward and discomforting. In contrast, the snoring of their husbands was felt to be worthy of significant discussion. In particular the women were vocal in describing the different strategies they developed to cope with their partners’ snoring, ranging from prodding and nudging, to passively listening and, as a last resort (in their and their partners’ eyes), relocating to another room. These different strategies will be examined in turn, focusing particularly on the extent to which they are gendered.
(a) Prodding and Nudging
5.2 For many of the female respondents their self-attributed role as carer and wife prevented them from disturbing their snoring partners sufficiently to wake them up and so stop the snoring. The women’s ‘unselfishness’ or ‘sentient activity’ of unseen worrying about disturbing their husbands, and recognising their need for a good night’s sleep, meant that the women were reluctant to take action to stop their partners’ snoring which would render them, in their eyes, ‘selfish’ (Davidson, 2001; Mason, 1996). Even those women who resorted to more physical methods of trying to stop the noise, such as prodding and punching, devised elaborate methods to try to stop the disruption without actually going that one step further and awakening their husbands. In these instances the women are tempering their physical response to their husbands’ snoring:
4F(I) He only snores when he is in a really, really deep sleep i.e. passed out. So the trick is to get him back to a light level of sleep and not a heavy level of sleep. So I sort of tap him on the back, and that usually stops him for a couple of seconds. But if he keeps going, usually I tell him to roll over. I mean he will snore on his sides, even laying on his front, he will snore, but the act of rolling over will wake him up enough to just shift his sleep level so he stops snoring. Sometimes he can take quite a lot of prodding to make him flop.So prodding or nudging can be sufficient to stop their husband snoring, but ideally not hard enough to wake him up. Women often spent a great deal of time on elaborate rituals of getting their partners into the right position to stop them snoring, but by so doing, they were prolonging their own wakefulness, and consequently subjugating their own sleep needs.
35F(C) Kick him! No it is not good to kick him! So what I try to do is maybe pat him on the back and do smooth movements not to just scare him and wake him up, make him realise that he is doing something, but I am trying not to wake him up actually. I know it is really mean to do that. I know my mother does this to my father, so I know it is not good. But I don’t want to scare him when he snores, I don’t want to start kicking him.
5.3 In contrast, male responses to their wives’ snoring were more likely to be practical responses to having their own sleep disrupted. As Meadows (2005) has suggested, men engage with sleep primarily in a pragmatic way, which is focused on their ability to function the next day. Men’s reactions to sleep disturbance are more likely to be a manifestation of how their own sleep is being disturbed, rather than a reflection of their wife’s needs:
9F(C) He nudges me, but he is quite violent in doing it.However, occasionally the men’s strategies include a restrained physical response of prodding to interrupt snoring, rather than waking his wife:
9M(C) I am [violent] by the time she notices. I build up to that degree of force. And I normally push or prod you. [to stop the snoring]
2M(I) I will probably reach a point where I will prod, I don’t know after a relatively short period of time, difficult to say how long, may well be only a couple of minutes, but initially it could be a lot longer, in other words I am quite happy to sort of lie there for may be five minutes when I am first disturbed, and just sort of wait and see what happens.But the real reason this male respondent will not resort to a more extreme physical response is that it interferes with his own sleep, which in his terms is of greater priority:
2M(I) I actually feel that prodding her wakes me up more.Ultimately, though, he may resort to a more ‘violent’ reaction:
2M(I) So the prod takes place and I suppose it does work eventually and then I will actually be very violent in my turning over in bed.Of interest in these extracts from the previous two men is the use of the words ‘violent’ and ‘force’. It does not seem to concern the men that they are using an extreme physical response to stop their wives’ snoring, and this would suggest that the male respondents are more concerned with achieving their own good night’s sleep than disturbing that of their wives.
5.4 A further strategy used by women to deal with their partners’ snoring involved doing nothing, or simply remaining passive. This again provides a demonstration of women thinking about the needs of their family by focusing on not waking up their partner, rather than doing something to reduce the amount of sleep they lose because of snoring:
6F(C) If I wake up at 4 and he is snoring then I do find it hard, because I listen for the pattern of the snoring. Then sometimes I think it is really strange where I might accidentally wake him up and I say “oh I just can’t sleep” and he will say “no, nor can I” and he genuinely believes that he hasn’t been asleep. I have been sitting there, laying there listening to this snoring for the last half hour and you [to husband] genuinely believe that you haven’t been asleep don’t you?Whilst doing nothing about their snoring partner was often spoken of by women, only one man ignored his wife’s snoring, because, as he explained, she denied it herself:
Interviewer: Does nudging help?
11F(C) It helps for about five minutes and then he will start snoring again. Generally I will just put up with it, unless it is really, really bad or I am not very well in which case I will wake him up, but very rarely do I wake you [to husband] up through your snoring.
Interviewer: And do you do anything if she snores?
20M(C) Well I just leave her and tell her in the morning, but she denies everything so there is no point in arguing. In the morning, I say ‘you snore’ and then she says ‘no I don’t’. I said ‘you do’. I shall have to record it one night just to prove it.
5.5 However, the living circumstances of this couple were unique, in that they had only been together for a year, married for 8 months and had a new baby. Additionally he was in the army and had spent most of their married life away so that they had had little time together to define either their relationship, or how they slept within that relationship.
5.6 Prodding and nudging, or lying passively were common strategies adopted by women when sharing a bed with a snoring partner. When this did not work, some couples resorted to, in their eyes, a more extreme strategy of relocation during the night.
5.7 Relocating to another room or bed was a further strategy adopted by couples wishing to either achieve a good night’s sleep, or to avoid disturbing their partners. However, relocation was regarded as undesirable in a relationship, in that, as discussed by Hislop and Arber (2006) and Hislop (see article in this series), were they to relocate they would not be complying with a couples’ expectation that they should share an intimate environment at night. Sleeping together is considered central to the couple relationship, and whilst recognising co-sleeping has implications for the quality of sleep, this is overridden by the norms of coupledom. The women in this study were more likely to relocate than their partners, whether it was because of their own snoring or that of their partners’:
8F(C) And occasionally I have come down here and slept [on the sofa] rather than…, to try and save disturbing you [partner].For some couples there was a suggestion that relocating was a mutual activity, with one or the other of the partners going to another bedroom to get some sleep:
19F(C) And I have been known to get up, and sleep in the spare room just to get some sleep.
19M(C) She will say “well, I will go next door”, or I will get up and go next door.But within the individual interview, further probing revealed that women felt they were more likely to do the relocating than their husbands:
19F(I) If he is having a really bad week, I might end up trundling next door sort of a couple of times in the week. It is more often than not me who will get up. Because if I am awake, he always says wake him up, so that he can go next door, but I don’t see the point. If I am already awake it makes more sense to me for me to, because it doesn’t cause any huge problems.So again, the emphasis for this woman was on not disturbing her snoring husband, even though he has suggested this option.
5.8 Only rarely did the men relocate because of their own snoring. One couple whose children had left home, and who had been married for 30 years, had adopted a sleeping pattern that benefited both of them. It was not that one person moved to help the other, rather through relocation they both achieved a better night’s sleep:
Interviewer Who goes to another room [because of snoring].Even more rarely, men with snoring wives chose to relocate. The following couple had been married over 25 years and had no children at home:
10M(C) I go.
Interviewer Every time?
10M(C) Yes…. Well I think I probably sleep better in the other bedroom than [wife] does. It is less disruptive to my sleep.
Interviewer Do you mind that when he is in the other room.?
10F(C) No, no.
Interviewer Do you sleep better? [to female]
10F(C) Well, yes, as I say.
2M(C) Well, it has happened quite often [relocation] I would say, there have been phases where there have been two or three months, and I have gone into another room almost every night.
5.9 Relocation can only be an option where a spare bed or bedroom exists, which was not the case for all of the couples. One of the female respondents who had no spare bed to relocate to revealed that her inability to escape her partner’s snoring objectified him as the object of her hatred, rather than his snoring:
5F(I) I can’t get comfortable, he snores, I hate him when he snores.Her only solution was to take advantage of his (unintentional) relocation by leaving him on the sofa in the evening where he falls asleep and snores:
Interviewer So when he falls asleep down here on the sofa, you are not tempted to wake him up?
5F(I) No, I leave him there.
5.10 For one couple, the decision on who relocates to avoid snoring was linked to a perception about ‘ownership’ of the bed, or in other words, who felt they had greater rights to the bed, or who held the power in the relationship, in this case the man:
9F(C) Hold on a minute. You do tend to treat that bed like your domain because whenever anyone has had to get out of that bed for whatever reason and sleep on the sofa or in (daughter)’s room, it has been me.
5.11 Relocation though, is not seen as an ideal solution for any of the men and women in this study. For couples that regard the bed as a private, intimate, part of their relationship, relocation is seen as a last resort:
2M(C) I don’t like doing that, I would much rather sleep with my wife!Even when there is an opportunity to relocate, such as if a spare room or bed is available, this option was rarely taken up. On the rare occasions where one partner did relocate it was most likely to be the women, reflecting again the power balance being more significantly geared towards the man in the relationship.
6F(I) I don’t agree with moving out of beds and swapping.
4F(I) As soon as I say “why don’t I sleep next door?” he says “No, no don’t please don’t. Please stay with me”. You know he really pleads. “Do not leave me”.
33M(C) She would have to divorce me if she wanted to sleep in a different bed!
Changes across Length of Relationship6.1 As the couples in this study ranged in age from 20-59, and the length of their relationships varied from a few months to more than 30 years, it is also possible to examine how, or indeed if, strategies to cope with snoring change over the years. The data suggests, however, that women’s strategies of passivity and nudging or prodding stay fundamentally the same, regardless of whether other factors disturb their sleep, such as babies crying. Part of a woman’s role, her caring, and sentient activity predispose her to subjugate her own sleep needs to the needs of the rest of the family, and to be available to all members of the family:
1F(C) Very rarely do I get uninterrupted sleep. Somebody always wants something, or needs something, or has a nightmare (laughs), snores or cat needs letting out, or whatever.
6.2 The only difference that on occasion was evident for couples at different stages in their relationship was the acceptability, but not the action, of one partner relocating to another room because of snoring, or other disturbance by their partner. When couples were asked individually if they felt ‘the benefits of sleeping together outweighed the disadvantages’, those who had lived together for a short period of time more often agreed with this statement:
11M(I) Yes. I would go along with that, I would definitely say that. Because given the choice I would say you always want to be with someone rather than be on your own.Whereas couples who had been together for many years were more likely to recognize the need to take action to obtain a good nights’ sleep:
11F(I) Yes I would agree with that. It is a lot more about closeness, and it is the time when you are probably closest to each other and as I say, for us it is probably the most quality time we spend together as well. (Together 3 years)
32M(I) I think there comes a point in time where it is really only a sort of decision that you come to where decisions are made on the basis of what is healthy for both partners. But if I knew, for example, that I were keeping her awake every night of her life, I would not stay in that bed.However, couples would not necessarily act on this advice, and the majority of couples, no matter the length of their relationship, or the amount of disturbance caused by snoring, were influenced by the strong normative view that they should sleep together.
32F(I) I would say yes to that. I would say yes to that. I don’t think you would separate unless it is very difficult. You must try everything not to. (30 years)
Snoring – Who or what is to blame?7.1 Just as developing strategies to cope with snoring partners was predominantly undertaken by women, so also were finding reasons and excuses for their own and their partners’ snoring. Fault and blame for snoring were often part of the couples’ dialogues when talking about snoring, but it was predominantly women who found excuses and reasons for snoring, for both themselves and for their partners. Men rarely felt the need to justify or explain why they snored.
7.2 Whilst most of the women who snored felt guilty for disrupting their husbands’ sleep by their snoring, this was not the case for the men. As snoring by the men was seen as acceptable and even ‘normal’, the implication for them was that it was not their problem if they disturbed their partner’s sleep. Additionally, they contested that as they were not always aware of their own snoring, how could they in turn be responsible for the disturbance they were causing their partners?:
6M(C) But you [to wife] sit there listening for half an hour, that is your fault not mine.Logically, if the male partner does not know he snores, how can he be expected to deal with it? However, couple conversations often revealed that snoring was discussed and that each partner knew the effect their snoring was having on the other:
11M(C) [Wife] can’t sleep if I am snoring, but that wouldn’t bother me. Once I am tired, I just go to sleep.
7.3 However, from the male point of view, it is the responsibility of his female partner to interrupt his snoring and indeed, some of the men emphasised that it was their partner who was at fault for not demonstrating strongly enough how disturbing the snoring was:
6M(C) That is what I say “just wake me up and tell me”
7.4 Therefore, issues of blame and responsibility for snoring were being referred back to the women. From the male point of view, the disruption caused by their snoring was often seen as a direct result of their wife not dealing with the problem, rather than the fault of the snoring husband. Reflecting, again, the pragmatic view of men that snoring is normal and acceptable, blame or fault would not arise. As snoring is just something one does, it can be dealt with straightforwardly:
7M(C) If I snore, tough, someone will kick me. If one of the guys were snoring next to me, I would kick him. So it is only fair.
7.5 Many of the women in this study attempted to find explanations for their own and their partner’s snoring by suggesting that problems such as being overweight, having colds, blocked sinuses, and alcohol were to blame.
2F(I) I mean, I know, whenever I have got a cold, my snoring is bad. I mean I remember my father saying “Gosh, I know you have got a cold, your snoring is really bad”.
18F(C) It is only when I have got a cold.
36F(I) [Alcohol] How does it make him sleep? It makes him sleep heavier than normal yes, and that is when he does snore. That is when he snores yes. Yes definitely alcohol.
7.6 By attributing the snoring to external causes, the disruption caused by snoring could therefore be justified and blame laid elsewhere. Additionally, the women felt that finding a reason for their partners’ snoring, whether for medical or other reasons, removed the necessity to confront their partners with the problem, and was a further reflection of the power/gender imbalance within these couples.
2F(C) What, what can I do? He can’t help snoring. But he, he has been trying to lose weight for the last year . . . unsuccessfully. And we are now on a really good, hard trying to lose weight kick.
7.7 As well as finding excuses for their own and their partners’ snoring, some of the women also attempted to blame their snoring on their parents, and thus justified why they too snore:
9F(C) Both my mother and father would break the world record for snoring. So you know … my father he used to live right opposite the Gatwick Airport runway, and you know, on a decibel level he could compete with that. Mother she is a terrible snorer. She is worse than me.
13F(C) But my mum snores terrible and I would hate to think that I was that bad.
14F(I) Dad snores … Nan snores… The whole family snores, except for mum you know, and we were laughing and she said to me “ do you snore” and I said “well so I have been told”. “Oh no, not you snoring as well!”
7.8 In attributing snoring to causes outside of their control, the women are attempting to alleviate the embarrassment and stigma of their snoring, and are justifying in their own minds, and in their presentation to the interviewer, the reasons for it.
Protecting the Relationship8.1 As illustrated above, many of the women offered reasons to account for their partner’s snoring, such as being overweight, having colds, or consuming alcohol. It has been suggested that this justification for snoring, this deflection of blame and fault, may result from women situating themselves in a supporting role within the couple relationship, within which it is important to present a united front. However, as Hislop and Arber (2006) observed, protection of the observable relationship is especially important for women. So by minimising the reported disruptive effect of their partners’ snoring, the socially acceptable presentation of the couple relationship to outsiders is preserved:
7F(C) […] he is on his side, whatever side, but it is normally just for a while, and then he gets into quite a deep sleep and then he doesn’t make any noise then. He is a good boy. He is oblivious to it all, he really is. Because he knows he does it, and he apologises, and he will try and find a position where he is not snoring, it’s not an issue.
6F(C) He is terrible, no, that is not true. It is not all the time…
25F(C) He is not that bad. For a man, he is not that bad…. No I think I am really lucky with that. Really lucky.
8.2 These extracts illustrate again the normative perception of snoring, when it is done by men, as being acceptable, yet in the couple interviews this was tempered with a desire to play down the disruption to sleep that snoring causes. Some of the women in this study, however, did not continue with this protective discourse in the individual interviews when their partners were absent. Contrasting reports of the impact of sleep disruption sometimes occurred when the women were interviewed individually. When talking alone to a female interviewer the women felt more comfortable sharing the extent of the disruption to their sleep caused by their husbands’ snoring, and the accompanying frustration they feel:
8F(I) I was really bitchy about it [partners’ snoring]. Because I really wanted to go to sleep. We had no children. No stress, but I couldn’t sleep [because of snoring]….. I could just cry when I am like that. I can just literally cry… My body, everything is telling me I need to sleep.
8.3 The cultural ideal that partners would present a united front, to protect their relationship is played out within the couple interviews in this study, with the emphasis on the women seeking to protect the integrity of the couple relationship. However, a different interaction sometimes takes place in the individual interview, where the husband is absent and the true impact of snoring on women’s sleep is portrayed.
Discussion and Conclusions9.1 This article has argued that the way snoring is (un)contested between bed partners is influenced by gender. The negotiation surrounding sleep disruption within couples caused by snoring is influenced by women’s and men’s perception that snoring is unfeminine. Snoring, like other, culturally acceptable male embodied functions such as burping and flatulence, is, in Western societies, not just acceptable among men, but, according to Karp et al (2004) may even be seen as an expression of men’s power over women as men are able to defy socially acceptable public behaviour, whilst women are not. However, since snoring is (largely) unknown to the snorer, it could be argued that bringing the ‘acceptable’ body into line within social situations (Goffman, 1967), is not possible. Despite this, the hidden nature of snoring does not detract from women’s perceptions, arising out of social and cultural norms, that snoring ‘is what men do’, and therefore not what women do.
9.2 The playing out of women’s self-perceived supportive and protective role results in them subjugating their own sleep needs to that of their partner. By developing strategies, such as prodding (but not waking their partner), passivity and relocation, in line with ‘stereotypical expectations of femininity as being adaptive and passive’, (Coppock et al, 1995) the women are demonstrating the uneven gender/power balance within couples reflecting patterns of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and ‘emphasized femininity’ (Connell, 1987).
9.3 However, it would be remiss in this discussion to ignore Connell and Messerschmidt’s (2005) reformulation of hegemonic masculinity, where they suggest the concept should be adapted to take into account the potential for women’s agency. However, most of the women discussed in this article clearly focus on activities which epitomise the original concept of ‘emphasized femininity’, and would seem to demonstrate a lack of agency, other than buying into the concept of subordination to hegemonic masculinity. So that caring roles, ‘sentient activity’, support and protection, ‘unselfishness’, deflecting blame and fault, are all types of agency which leave women subjugating their own sleep needs to that of their partners.
9.4 Contributing to the power balance/imbalance within couples where the woman snores, is the fact that women also feel stigmatised by their own snoring, particularly as they move from being discreditable (snoring behind closed doors) to discredited, when their partners reveal their snoring to the interviewer (Goffman, 1963). In this case the power balance shifts in favour of the male partner, because of his failure to be the so-called ‘wise person’ (Goffman, p.43), that is the person who is most likely to understand the stigmatised person’s situation, and therefore act as their advocate in relation to others. One might suppose this failure is because the ‘wise person’, or husband/male partner, suffers from the stigmatising activity in that his sleep may be disturbed by his partner’s snoring. However, the key here is the difference between a woman’s attitude to snoring (it is not ‘feminine’) and a man’s attitude to snoring (it is ‘normal’ for men). The stigma is linked to a failure in perceived ‘femininity’, in that a woman snoring is counter to what is generally acceptable. For women, then, the revelation to the interviewer of their snoring by their partner reveals a discrepancy between her ‘virtual social identity’ and her ‘actual social identity’ (Goffman, 1963), even though for the most part, this is a discrepancy only they, and occasionally their partners, are aware of. The sharer of the knowledge of the stigma becomes, in this instance, the holder of power, with the ability to embarrass, and shame the other.
9.5 Whilst the women sought to find reasons for their partner’s and their own snoring, the male respondents did not feel the need to justify their own snoring. The stigma of ‘being’ a snorer for women is embarrassing and de-feminising, whereas ‘doing’ snoring for men is simply what men do. By playing down the significance of the disruption to women’s own sleep caused by their husbands’ snoring, the female respondents are protecting the integrity of their relationship from those outside, an honour which is not generally reciprocated by the men within these couples. The integrity of the couple relationship is also at risk when, because of snoring, couples relocate to a different bed or bedroom, so that both husbands and wives felt the need to assert that relocation was a last resort, and not something either wanted to do. However, it was mainly women who relocated, whether they or their husbands snored. For women though, this led to a dilemma between ‘unselfishness’, afforded by helping their husbands’ achieve a good night’s sleep, and the implication that sleeping in separate beds has for the representation of their relationship.
9.6 Snoring for these couples had become a part of their everyday lives, just one other bodily function that was taken for granted. Whilst clearly for many individuals sleep is often disrupted by their partners’ snoring, it appears that very little is actually done to deal with the snoring. It has become such a part of their sleeping worlds that it does not occur to these couples that anything can be changed.
9.7 Interviewing couples together, then subsequently individually, whilst challenging for the researcher, provides a very rich source of data in terms of the substantive understanding of gendered processes in couple relationships. The couple interview presented the opportunity to observe individual viewpoints, presentations as a ‘united front’, couple interaction and negotiation, couple conflict and the subtle, implicit and intrinsic nuances that occurred between couples. In addition the follow up, separately held, individual interviews enabled an exploration of topics that were often not raised within the couple interview, because of inhibitions as a result of the power dynamics that exist within couples. For example, women may not feel comfortable discussing topics that suggest a gender power imbalance, as in women’s true reflections about their husbands’ snoring, whilst their husbands were present. Yet it was possible to explore these topics more fully within the individual interview.
9.8 The study of sleep and sleep disruption within couples provides a further opportunity to explore how gender differences are expressed and revealed and how gender and power (im)balances are played out.
AcknowledgementsThe author acknowledges Sara Arber, as Principal Investigator on the ESRC sleep project, the Editors of this special edition, and colleagues Rob Meadows and Jenny Hislop.
Notes1Economic and Social Research Council, grant number RES-000-23-0268, ‘Negotiating Sleep: Gender, age and social relationships among couples’
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