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Birds & Bees

Snoring Can Drive a Noisy Wedge Between Spouses


When asked to describe her husband's snoring, a West Los Angeles woman likened it to the anguished roars of animals being killed. "It was impossible to sleep in the same room with him," said the woman, who requested anonymity due to her husband's embarrassment over his nighttime renditions of a slaughterhouse. "I felt resentment toward him," she said. "We were snapping at each other more. He resented me waking him up with a push. I was suffering from incredible sleep deprivation for about a year and a half."

The woman's therapist advised her to sleep in another room. She got sleep, but found that sleeping separately had a negative affect on "our general intimacy."

About 40% of the adult population snores, with 4% experiencing brief episodes of breathing cessation called apnea, said Dr. Richard Millman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Lifespan Hospitals in Rhode Island. Snoring is caused by the partial obstruction of the airway during sleep, the noises arising from a vibration of soft pliable tissues in the throat. Snoring increases with age and weight. And twice as many men as women snore.

But snoring, which has been described in all its variations as sounding like a jackhammer, a goat, a revving motorcycle, a peeved bear and the earth shattering, causes more than sleep deprivation and marital discord. Snoring can sound a death knell for intimacy.

"Patients sometimes fall asleep during sex," reports Millman, who adds that sleep is interrupted up to 60 times a night. "Often, they are so tired that they just aren't interested in sex. The snorer may have personality changes due to irritability. A couple of patients have problems with rage attacks. Patients have told me 'We broke up because of my snoring.' "

Snoring may not cause divorce, but it can undermine an already deteriorating union. "Snoring is a stress," said Stephen Sideroff, a staff psychologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "Anything else that is going on in the relationship tends to be magnified. For example, if the spouse has buried resentment, snoring amplifies it."

What exacerbated annoyances for the woman in West Los Angeles was her snoring spouse's insistence that he wasn't snoring. That's when she produced a videotape of him in the middle of one of his symphonic sessions. "He was shocked to see himself snoring that loud," she said. Her husband, 45, sought help from sleep specialists who determined a deviated septum and large uvula caused the snoring. Doctors recommended two surgeries: one to enlarge airways in his nasal passage, and one to reduce the size of his uvula. (Snoring treatments have an 80% success rate).

"The working premise in my office is that the spouse of the snorer is always right," said Millman. A snorer's bedmate often grows antagonistic as feelings that their partner is snoring on purpose swell, observed Millman. "In the middle of the night when you can't sleep," he said, "you get irrational. The noise of snoring can cause incredible havoc."

Not to mention hearing loss for both parties. Loud snores can hit 80 decibels, roughly equivalent to the loudness of a motorcycle. (A baby crying or a radio registers at about 60 decibels, according to the Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming).

Audrey and Rob Rodgers were driven to wits' end by his snoring and apnea. The Westwood couple experienced constant waking and lack of sleep for two years, making them both sleepy and irritable. "All methods of communication broke down, even the romantic," said Audrey, 34.

But what disturbed Audrey's sleep most was a fear her husband's cessation of breathing would cause brain damage or death. (Millman said when levels of oxygen plummet and levels of carbon dioxide increase, the brain triggers automatic waking, spurring apneacs to breathe again. People who have apnea and right-side heart failure, coronary artery disease, pulmonary hypertension or are morbidly obese are at risk of dying during sleep, but death during sleep is very rare even with these preexisting health risks, he added).

"When he stopped breathing, my anxiety would just shoot up," said Audrey. "The noise was punctuated by not breathing, then I would poke him." It was just as bad for Rob, who would start "passing out while driving" and would need a nap at 6 p.m. "It had a huge effect on our intimate life," said Rob, 45, assistant director of UCLA's Office of Instructional Development. "We were both tired. I would fall asleep all the time. Or if I was really tired I could start snoring while I was awake. I was very cranky."

Rodgers took trips twice with friends and family, only to awaken the next morning to angry people yelling at him about his snoring and, once, to an empty hotel room where his brother had left at midnight to check into another room. Finally, Rodgers consulted several physicians and discovered his apnea was causing his breathing to stop for 30 seconds, rousing him from sleep about 12 times a night. Doctors recommended surgery on his sinuses and his throat. Rodgers had the surgeries last year and hasn't snored since.

"I can't snore even if I try," said Rodgers. As for the West Los Angeles woman, she and her husband are looking forward to sharing a bed again. "My husband is having the operation," she said joyously. She will welcome the chance to sleep next to her husband again; the slaughterhouse sounds replaced by the synchronized sounds of two people breathing. Quietly.

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