Who takes a ruler to bed anyway?

By Robert Meadows

The BBC NEWS website recently carried a story on couples’ sleep.  Research, we were told, had found that happy couples sleep nearer to each other than unhappy couples.  As the article put it:

“Partners who sleep less than an inch apart were more likely to be happy with their relationship than those maintaining a gap wider than 30 inches” [see the full article here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-27037476]

Having spent a fair bit of time researching couples’ sleep, I found myself considering this article more than I really wanted to.  My initial reaction was to think that if I slept 30 inches away from my wife I would fall out of bed; but things got slightly more ‘sociological’.

In 1942 Becker and Useem wrote a wonderful paper entitled Sociological Analysis of the Dyad.  For these authors, the dyad/pair can be characterised by four things:

(i)                  the “type of interaction”.  Two individuals become classified as a dyad when there are intimate relations which have existed for some time.  There must be “patterned mutual action” (Becker and Useem 1942: 14).  My relationship with my doctor is not dyadic.  I rarely see him, and when I do it is a very quick, circumscribed form of interaction.  It is possible for this relationship to become more personal (and thus dyadic) but it would probably involve me seeing him way more than is healthy;

(ii)                the “limitation to a duality of elements”. Dyads – by definition – involve two people.  As George Simmel noted many years ago, this limits some forms of interaction but expands other forms.  Following, C. H. Cooley we can also think that one’s self becomes a composite of the two individual’s sense of self.

(iii)                the “limited meaning in the pair”. Memories, concepts, habits and ideas arise out of joint experiences and become symbolic of the pair.  It is not necessary to verbalize every feeling and thought.

(iv)              the “divisions of functions”.  There is a separation of roles and rights which stems from external and internal conditions.  Becker and Useem (1942) also highlight how any study of dyads must include an awareness of cultural patterns and ‘external circumscriptions’.  The external patterns work alongside the internal peculiarities of each dyad.  Sometimes there will be a mismatch between the external patterns and the internal patterns and the dyad may have a ‘public’ and ‘private’ version of itself.


Dyads can therefore take many forms; including friendship pairs, sexual pairs, generation pairs and common-interest pairs.  So where does this leave us with respect to the news article?  First, it made me wonder whether we should stop talking about “couples’ sleep” and instead start explicitly using the term ‘dyadic sleep’.  This will keep us alert to the fact that these are social relations, located within particular socio-cultural contexts.  It might also prompt us to start thinking about what is peculiar about these dyads.  As Becker and Useem note, many of the processes found within couples are just ‘special variations’ of things which are common to all groups/dyads pairs.  Perhaps ‘bed sharing’ is what distinguishes the ‘sexual pair’ from other dyad forms.

Second, we need to ensure that we use research methods which are sensitive to these ideas. In a research setting, the dyad is potentially playing out its ‘public’ version.

Finally, the article and my associated thinking, has left me wanting to know more.   What external patterns are at play here, for example?  The sociology of sleep group at Surrey have spent a fair bit of time trying to unpick the dynamics of couples’ sleep (or rather, ‘sexual pair, dyads’ sleep’) – and some of this work is highlighted here www.surrey.ac.uk/sociologyofsleep.   We perhaps need to make more use of Becker and Useem.  From September I will be carrying out a British Academy funded project entitled ‘‘Using longitudinal dyadic data analysis techniques to explore gender identity and sleep within couples’.  I will keep Becker and Useem in mind throughout.  The news article also made me ponder whether sleep walking counts as exercise – but that is just because my mind tends to wander……..


Becker, H. and Useem, R. H. (1942) Sociological analysis of the dyad, American Sociological Review 7(1): 13-26


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