Family Decision Making: Who Moves When Someone Snores?

Who gets to decide?

Posted Jan 07, 2013

Married couples have to cope with all kinds of strains. Two people who love each other do not naturally pull in the same direction all the time. There are disagreements. How warm should the house be? Who should walk the dog in the morning? Whose family should we visit this Christmas? Do we really need a new couch? Viewed from that mundane point of view, there is scarcely any matter that does not need to be negotiated to some extent on a daily basis. But there are some difficulties and disagreements that  tend to recur. Who has the last word on financial matters? Who decides how to discipline the children? Whose opinion matters most about sexual matters? These issues are familiar to every married couple. I would like to think, as a psychiatrist, that the resolution of these matters is explicable in terms of other aspects of their relationship. Who wins or loses should mean something. But there are certain kinds of disputes that defy understanding-- at least my understanding.

The matter of snoring. Let me say, first of all, that snoring is not infrequently a sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which an individual’s breathing is impaired during sleep with the result that he/she literally stops breathing briefly. Consequently, the sleeper is roused from a deep level of sleep to a lighter level, and may wake altogether. This condition can recur many times during the night, interfering seriously with sleep. The end result is that that person is sleepy all day long and may, as time goes on, develop hypertension. The first manifestation of sleep apnea is snoring. The sleeper snorts as he/she takes a deep breath after a period of apnea. The cause of sleep apnea may be some obstruction in the mouth or pharynx, but is more likely to have a neurological basis. The condition occurs more commonly in someone who is obese. The treatment is assisted breathing through a mask.

But simple snoring seems to be a function, also, of age. One spouse or another, often the man, starts to snore, particularly lying in certain positions. As a result, the other person may have trouble sleeping. There is something annoying about being kept up by someone lying alongside who seems to be sleeping comfortably, but noisily. No one in that situation elects to seethe silently and stare at the wall. But the strategies people employ to manage this problem are not always helpful:

  1. Nudging the snorer awake. But, usually, the snorer returns to sleep and snoring before the other person can get to sleep. Besides, being awakened is annoying and is likely to lead to two people lying in bed, seething.
  2. Jostling the snorer into a position in which he no longer snores. This may work for a while, but after a while, the snorer rolls over and starts snoring again. Special pillows that prevent the snorer from lying in the position most likely to lead to snoring work for a while, but not indefinitely.
  3. Making gargling noises in the snorer’s ear. Don’t try this. It doesn’t work.
  4. The non-snorer tries to deaden the sound with ear plugs. This may work for a period of years, helped, sometimes, by a mild and insidious deafness which tends to afflict people as they grow older. Also, I think, that person may, without realizing it, simply be getting used to the static of living with someone you love.

But, often—eventually—the solution to a partner snoring is for one person or the other to leave the room and sleep someplace else. Who leaves? And who decides?

I have been thinking about this relatively inconsequential problem for a long time. I have tried to pay attention to what most couples do.  There are only a few ways of addressing this problem, (leaving out all discussion of weapons.)

The snorer, (let’s say, the husband) awakens his wife. She can either wake up her husband in turn and tell him to go into another room, or she, herself, can go into another room. If she gets up to leave, she is the one who decides. But why does she inconvenience herself rather than her husband? Does that reflect kindliness on her part, or her feeling that her husband is likely to object? If he objects when awakened, and she leaves, he is the one to decide. I cannot figure out ahead of time who is likely to do what and why.  Is the resolution of this matter a statement about who is dominant in the relationship? In most instances, judging from what I know of other aspects of the way these couples interact, I think not. Does the wife leaving voluntarily mean she feels she is just as likely to be comfortable in the next room as in her own bed? Is the answer something simple like that? Some husbands are difficult to wake up. Does that enter into the wife’s decision? Are there other factors, such as one person’s need to get up early the next morning? Does it matter if one person, or the other, is too tall or too heavy for the bed in the other room? Is this a rational decision? I think not.

What strikes me is that the same person tends each time to do the same thing. Some wives invariably end up in the other room, and some husbands, when awakened, always go into the other room.  When the wife is the one who snores, the same questions arise. There seems to be little discussion about this issue, at least not in the middle of the night.

I am probably doomed to mull over this problem indefinitely; but if someone can offer me some insight into the matter, I would appreciate it.(c( Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman/s blog at

More Posts