Sleepless in America

Healthy rest, problem sleep, and the dreams and nightmares therein

Sleeping Alone

Sleep disorders contribute to more couples sleeping separately.

Every night millions of people in relationships are sleeping alone. Others are trying to sleep but are unable to do so due to their bed partner and are thinking about moving to a couch or another bedroom. Perhaps the most common scenario occurs when one person is desperately trying to cover his or her head with a pillow in a futile effort to block out the nerve racking snoring coming from the other side of the bed. Or maybe the awake partner is getting kicked unpredictably from time to time. More frightening is the sudden violent lashing out of a bed partner that can result in significant injuries to either or both people. Others are unable to sleep because their significant others are restless due to insomnia or perhaps have chronic illnesses which keep them from sleeping soundly. The repeated jerking or shifting of position of the uncomfortable person can keep the other person from getting needed sleep. The "land of Nod" can be elusive, indeed.

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One of the most interesting things about these kinds of sleep problems is that the person with the disorder is often less affected by it, at least in the short run, than his or her bed partner - or other people in the house. Loud snoring can be so bad that people in other bedrooms or even other floors of the house may be unable to sleep. In fact snoring may reach 69 decibels - which is indubitably very loud! A pneumatic drill produces, for example, 70 to 90 decibels. There are many other sleep related problems which can also result in couples sleeping apart - in different bed rooms or in different parts of the house.

It also turns out that people are not sleeping alone just because of sleep disorders. Other factors such as the need for space or problems in relationships can also contribute. Surveys taken since 2000 indicate a large and growing number of people are sleeping separately. A random national telephone survey in 2001 found that 12% of married Americans were sleeping alone and that jumped to 23% in a survey conducted in 2005. While some may be sleeping apart because of a need for emotional or physical space or because of emotional distance created by the breakdown of a relationship, the vast majority are doing so because it is the only way they can get some sleep.

Of course the most common reason for sleeping apart is snoring. Snoring occurs when soft tissue structures in the pharynx vibrate with breathing during asleep. While snoring is most likely not a completely benign problem for the snorer, it often takes its greatest toll on the bed partner. It is also possible that both bed partners have significant snoring and who gets to sleep on any given night may depend on who gets to bed first or who can best sleep through the sound of a rail car passing beside the bedroom window.

Another potentially disruptive sleep problem is periodic limb movement disorder. Periodic limb movement are repetitive, stereotyped movements of the legs and sometimes the arms that occur in a pattern of at least four in a row, lasting 0.5 to 5 seconds that are repeated after 4 to no more than 90 seconds. These movements may or may not wake the person with them but they can interfere with the bed partner's sleep as he or she is repeatedly kicked or elbowed during the night.

In a previous post I discussed an unusual and rather rare sleep problem, REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD). This disorder can be fairly dramatic and harmful to the bed partner. In RBD the sleeper acts out movements related to the dream state, for example, lashing out forcefully to protect against an attacker. Unfortunately this can have severe repercussions for the bed partner who may be struck and perhaps seriously injured. When a partner has untreated RBD it may be necessary to sleep in another bed to prevent injury.

The most commonly diagnosed sleep problem is insomnia. The restlessness and poor sleep habits of the insomniac can have a significant and deleterious impact on the sleep of the bed partner. It can be very difficult to get comfortable and fall asleep if your bed partner is constantly moving about, changing positions or getting out of bed and returning frequently throughout the night.


If you are sleeping alone while your partner is in another room, it may be due to relationship or personal space issues. In today's world, more than in the past, people are accepting of the need for personal space and sleeping apart, at least from time to time, may be a part of that. If relationship problems are the issue, counseling may be helpful. If it is because of a partner's sleep disorder, then help is also available. For each of the disorders discussed above there are effective and well researched treatments. You don't need to sleep alone because of a sleep disorder - your own or someone else's.

John Cline, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, Diplomate of the the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a clinical professor at Yale University.

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