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13. The Relationship Expert

Name: Wendy Troxel
Title: Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, RAND Corporation
Why they're interesting: Studying sleep in couples    

Sleep has traditionally been studied as a solo behavior. But most adults don’t actually sleep by themselves: More than 50 percent of us hit the sack next to our significant others. Wendy Troxel is a leading figure in the exploration of dyadic sleep, meaning the practice of sleeping in pairs

“Sleep is an inherently social behavior,” said Troxel. “People prefer to sleep with a partner (as opposed to sleeping alone), even though there may be objective costs to sharing a bed — in terms of increased risk for sleep disruptions. This suggests that the psychological benefits we derive from sharing a bed with a significant other outweigh the costs.”

Dyadic sleep research is a subset of the literature on health and relationships. People who are in long-term relationships, studies have shown, enjoy longer, less disease-ridden lives. Troxel’s work mainly focuses on the bidirectional relationship between sleep and relationships — i.e., how sleep affects relationships (between couples) and, in return, how relationships manifest in sleep habits. "I think there has been increasing recognition of the multiple levels of influence on sleep," said Troxel, "that far from being an isolated behavior, that sleep is embedded within a social context."

So far, the existing literature on sleep in couples, most of which bears Troxel’s name, shows that getting a good or a poor night’s sleep absolutely affects how people rate their relationships and interact with their partners. Furthermore, Troxel's research demonstrates that relationship dynamics affect how people rest, but not in a uniform way. The sleep-relationship link, for instance, looks different in men and women. And Troxel is working to create a more nuanced picture of sleeping-a-deux.

"In my future work on sleep in couples," Troxel said, "I would like to focus on other couples that are vulnerable to both sleep disturbances and relationship problems, such as couples in which one or both members are shift-workers. I would also like to develop a sleep-focused couples intervention to help couples sleep better together and improve the quality of their relationship."

Next: The Equalizer

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