"In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves." (Psalm 127:2, NIV)
Several years ago, my wife, Erin, received a call on her cellphone around 1 a.m. After the fourth or fifth ring, we both stirred from our sleep. As Erin fumbled for her phone, I ran through negative scenarios in my mind: a medical problem with one of our elderly parents or our oldest daughter has been in an accident. But nothing could have prepared me for what Erin whispered. "Someone is calling us using our home phone!"
"What are you talking about?" I asked confused.
"The caller ID," Erin explained in a scared voice, "It says 'home'!"
This is a classic horror movie plot line—a serial killer calling his victims using their home phone.
And then the realization hit me: Someone was in our house calling us!
Erin and I quickly sprang into action. Our first order of business was to check on our children. We ran to the first bedroom, which happened to be our son's room. But I was confused when I found Garrison's door locked.
"Something is wrong," I whispered to Erin. "Garrison never locks his door."
I quickly went about picking the lock with a nail that I pulled out of the wall. Once the lock released, Erin and I burst through the doorway to face whatever evil was holding our son hostage.
It would have been a cool story if Erin and I had fought off some scary monster to save our son. But the boring truth is that Garrison had placed one of our home-phone handsets next to his bed and simply rolled over during the night and accidentally hit the redial button. I didn't sleep for the rest of the night!
Sleeplessness creates many challenges for a marriage. Late night feedings, crying babies, thunderstorms, bad dreams, strange noises, financial worries, pets sauntering across the bed, a snoring spouse, kids wanting to snuggle — all can make for a night of interrupted sleep. And that means that two exhausted individuals will be more irritable with each other the next day.
Although Erin and I have little control over what disrupts our sleep, we have discovered a key moment during the day that we use to strengthen our bond. After 25 years of marriage, we are convinced that one of the most sacred times in our relationship is from the time that we get into bed until we fall asleep. We may not be able to stop our kids from waking us up in the middle of the night, but we can be intentional with the time at the end of a busy day.
Here are five ways to use bedtime to enrich your marriage:
Make your bedroom a sanctuary. Second Chronicles 5:7 says, "Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house." I love "sanctuary" as an analogy for your bedroom. According to Merriam-Webster, sanctuary means a place of refuge or safety — where "someone is protected … or given shelter." Having a sacred space that is set apart from the rest of the house — and from your children — is critical. Thus, don't let children sleep in your bedroom. When kids sleep in your room — or worse, in your bed — it interrupts your sleep and severely hinders your ability to reconnect as a couple. Instead, teach your children that Mom and Dad need their alone time and maintain a firm boundary that your bedroom is a sanctuary for just the two of you.
Leave technology out of the bedroom. Digital distraction is all around you — don't voluntarily use it into your bedroom. When television is a nightly ritual, it becomes a major distraction and keeps you from experiencing authentic intimacy. My advice is to remove the TV from your bedroom. Furthermore, a recent study found that 46 percent of couples feel "Pphubbed" — phone snubbed or ignored because someone is on the phone. Don't allow your cellphone to distract you and rob your time together. If you like to check your phone or watch TV, do it after you've connected as a couple. Don't just be in the same bed; be together.
Go to bed at the same time. Many couples go to bed at separate times because of individual schedules, TV, kids, internet or social media. Don't fall into this trap. An article in The Wall Street Journal says, "Researchers found spouses who go to bed at different times report significantly less relationship satisfaction than those on the same schedule. They have more conflict, spend less time in shared activities and serious conversation, and have sex less frequently than couples with similar sleeping schedules." Make your goal to converge as a couple around the bedtime of the earliest spouse. View this time as an opportunity to unwind together by talking, snuggling and having sex. This stimulates the bonding hormone oxytocin. Once you've connected as a couple, the night owl can get out of bed if necessary.
Practice pillow talk. Many couples find that bedtime is the best opportunity for meaningful conversation. Dubbed "pillow talk," this is a time when you get to know your spouse — when you talk about your spouse's inner world (emotions, fears, dreams) and social world (work and friends). This is how you stay current with your spouse. But don't use this time to administrate your marriage — talking about the budget, schedules, task lists, kids, conflict. One of the most practical approaches that helps Erin and me foster this type of communication is to play the "high-low" game — we ask each other about the best part (high) and the worst part (low) of the day.
Speak positive words to your spouse. Words of praise should be the last thing your spouse hears before falling asleep. First, thank your spouse for something specific that he or she did that you appreciated: "Thanks for giving the kids a bath" or "Thanks for cleaning up after dinner." Then pray together. This requires you to discover his or her needs and requests, which deepens your understanding of your spouse.
How you say good night might affect the feeling your spouse will hold all night long. I want Erin to drift off to sleep relaxed and relationally connected — and to experience a burning desire to be with me the next morning.Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.