Teeth Grinding Is Destroying My Relationship

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
It's 1.30am. I'm awake, listening to branches screech against my bedroom window. Then I remember: there are no trees anywhere near my window. What I am actually hearing is my fiancé's teeth grinding. Hooves skidding over metal grates in the pen that holds the sleep sheep. The squealing eek of enamel on enamel.
R is oblivious and looks too peaceful to disturb his sleep, with the dog curled up on his feet. I try and roll over, breathe, ignore – but then there's that sound again. Like vinaigrette for the ears, slipping into my soul, causing big, acidic bubbles of hatred. I kick him swiftly in the shin.
There is no definitive cause of bruxism but it is likely due to an increase in general stress levels, which causes tension in the neck and jaw, manifesting in the mouth. According to researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU), women suffer more from these symptoms than men, and 35 to 55-year-olds suffer most.
Untold dental problems can arise from teeth grinding and clenching – particularly when it happens at night. A sleeping person doesn't realise (and cannot correctly monitor) their bite strength, which means they can clench their teeth shut with up to 250 pounds' worth of force – ten times that of normal chewing. Years of insistent, involuntary grinding can damage teeth, cause jaw disorders and lead to headaches. Luckily, R hasn't experienced any side effects. Thank goodness.
He would probably argue that he has gained a pain in the arse, though, because of my annoyance. Glibness aside, one crucial and under-explored side effect of sleep bruxism is the strain it puts on your bedfellow's ability to get good rest and their subsequent build-up of frustration, both of which can seriously impact your relationship.
The importance of sleep in relationships is well documented. A 2017 study investigated the link between sleep and relationship satisfaction in a group of 68 newly wed couples. It found that "spouses were more satisfied on days after which they had slept for a longer period of time." If good sleep is like unwinding and replenishing in a warm bath at the end of a day, lack of sleep is like continually doing the ice bucket challenge. And a teeth-grinding partner like R is the one throwing the bucket.
I build a barrier of R-shaped resentment which sinks deeper into the pillow with each wakeful night. The cause of this resentment is twofold.

Firstly, R doesn't understand how bad it actually is. I've tried catching him in the act by recording him but he's a stealth grinder. He always manages to stop thumping his gums as soon as I point the phone at his face. "It can't be that bad," he'll say in the morning, my red eyes trained on his jawline like a sniper. He is un-empathetic at best and disbelieving at worst. In all honesty, I feel a bit gaslit. Am I making it up? Is it as bad as all that?
Secondly, and probably worse, is the sound aversion I have developed through a decade of bearing witness to the nightly grind. Your teeth are not supposed to be the pestle and mortar of the skull, and it is natural – sensible even – for the brain to have an adverse reaction to such a sound (or so I tell myself). Besides teeth grinding, I suffer from misophonia, an intense form of sound fear and fixation. I've had it since I was a child, with 'mouth noises' being one of my most overwhelming triggers. The best way I can describe it: when you hear a trigger sound (which can be anything from neighbour noises to breathing), you experience a wave of intense terror that begins in your stomach and ends in your ears, washing over you like a sonic boom to the point that you want to rip out your hair. Try getting back to sleep after that.
When you do get a good night's sleep, the amygdala (the part of your brain that ties emotions to memories) functions as it should. A 2013 study linked amygdala activity in poor sleepers to depression and stress during the day. And so night turns into morning and there's R, rewarded by rest and ready for the day. Meanwhile my vicious circularity continues, which I invariably take out on him. "The truth is, poor sleep is hard on relationships but everyday relationship stress and challenges can be hard on sleep," explain sleep experts Jason Wooden and Kristal McKinney.
"Get him a mouth guard," friends tell me. We've tried that. While it's good for the teeth, it doesn't necessarily mask the sound. "Night guards do not stop patients from clenching and grinding but it does protect the teeth and joint while doing so," says dentist Dr Yanell Innabi-Danial. Mouth guards are also prohibitively expensive and cannot work for everyone. A custom-designed guard (beyond the one-size-fits-all or even the mould-your-own-at-home situations) can cost between £300 and £1,000 from your dentist.
Sleep divorce (where one of you decamps to the spare room) could help, too. No such luxury in our one-bed flat, unless one of us agrees to hop on the sofa – an immovable impasse so far, I'm afraid.
So where are we left? Real divorce? Not an option. Despite what you have read here, we are both willing to put love above sleep and mouth noises. As is the case with most couple stuff, therapy is probably the best option – for both of us. "If you’re dealing with a sleep crisis, it’s possible you’re up against more than you think," write Wooden and McKinney. "Chronic sleep loss can strain the best of relationships while every day relationship stress and issues can take a toll on sleep." R can get to the root of what's causing his sleep bruxism and I'll find ways of coping with intense misophonia. Together, we can move back in the right direction of pillow talk.

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