In many ways, physical health and mental well-being start and end with sleep. Not getting enough sleep can lead to decreased immune function, chronic pain, and a range of physical ailments and complications. In addition, sleep deprivation leads to mental health complications such as irritability, depression, and anxiety. Like all mental health issues, the effects of sleep deprivation thus not only affect individuals not getting enough sleep but also their loved ones. In particular, when you don’t get enough sleep, your romantic relationships are bound to suffer.
This is partially due to the fact that the quantity and quality of sleep that partners in a romantic relationship get also has a profound impact on sex life — even if partners sleep apart. That’s because sleep regulates the body’s hormone levels; when you don’t get enough sleep, sex hormones levels drop as stress hormone levels rise, leading to sexual dysfunction for reasons both physical and psychological.
Aside from impacting sex lives, not getting enough sleep can simply lead to arguments and tension in relationships due to the nefarious effects that sleep deprivation has on one’s mental well-being. If you want to maintain healthy relationships, you’ve got to be healthy yourself. In fact, a recent study from Ohio State University suggests that getting a healthy night’s sleep each night may be the single best thing you can do for your relationship.
For that reason, more and more couples are opting for a “sleep divorce,” meaning partners sleep apart from one another. A recent survey reports that more than 30 percent of Americans admit that they would prefer to sleep apart from their significant others. Could a “sleep divorce” be the answer to many couples’ sleep issues?
The Pros of Sleeping Apart
Ask any couple that sleeps apart why they chose a sleep divorce and they’ll likely give you a long list of reasons why the arrangement works for them. Atop these lists is usually the fact that sleeping apart allows partners to set their own sleep and wake times independent of one another. Partners who share a bed but go to sleep at different times can wake each other up when climbing into bed or getting up in the morning; sleeping apart makes sense for those couples. Rather than sleeping apart, though, couples could also simply choose a mattress that doesn't allow for much motion transfer. The important thing is that each individual can set her or his own wake and sleep times in order to maintain a consistent and healthy sleep schedule.
Another one of the top reasons some couples choose to sleep apart is snoring. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study found that on average, individuals who sleep with a partner lose an hour of sleep per night due to their partner’s snoring. Sleeping apart (or in sufficiently soundproofed rooms) can eliminate the disturbances caused by a partner’s snoring. In some cases, changing sleep positions or various anti-snoring products can help with these disturbances, but many times sleeping apart is the only solution.
Cover pulling is also consistently given as a reason why couples sleep apart. Unfortunately, there’s no single-bed solution for this one unless couples want to sleep with completely independent sets of bedding. One of the reasons cover pulling is such a nighttime nuisance is that individuals have their own preferences in terms of sleep temperature. While there are mattresses designed specifically for hot sleepers or cold sleepers, mattresses with dual temperature zones can be pricey. If partners can’t agree on a sleep temperature or have problems wrestling the covers away from one another, sleeping apart might be the best option.
In addition to disagreements over bedding and temperature, many couples disagree over levels of light and sound while sleeping. For example, I hate white noise machines, but my wife loves them, meaning I either have to sleep with uncomfortable earplugs or she has to lie awake in bed hearing every little noise in our house. As with snoring, separate, sufficiently sound-isolated rooms might be the key to these types of scenarios.
An increasingly common problem couples report when sleeping in the same bed is caused by our growing reliance on phones and devices. Many sleep-deprived individuals report being kept awake at night by a partner looking at a phone in bed. The light from mobile devices has been found to disrupt the body’s natural sleep cycle, and given that Americans spend twice as much time watching Netflix as they do with loved ones, it’s no surprise that bedtime screen time is an increasingly common cause of sleep disturbances among couples. If one or both partners are known to use their phones or tablets in bed, sleeping apart might be the way to avoid waking one another up.
The Cons of Sleeping Apart
Sleeping apart might be great for couples who disturb one another’s sleep for the reasons above or any other reason, but there are some negatives. For one, bedtime is often the only time couples can talk and bond with one another due to busy or different daily schedules. In households with children, bedtime can sometimes be the only time partners get to enjoy each other’s company one-on-one. Couples that sleep apart might find themselves missing those conversations.
Since sex before bed has been found to lead to healthier sleep, sexual health is closely linked with sleep health. Thus, one of the most serious setbacks to sleeping apart is the fact that separate beds or bedrooms can significantly impact sex lives. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms found that married couples have the most sex at bedtime between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. When sleeping apart, many couples can miss out on this important time when sex is often the most frequent. Of course, it’s still possible to maintain a healthy sex life when sleeping apart, but it requires cooperation and planning.
Aside from sex, cuddling is often an important part of a nighttime co-sleeping routine. Cuddling — whether tied with sexual activity or not — plays a vital role in couples’ feelings of intimacy and connectedness. Post-sex cuddling has even been linked with a healthier sex life. As with sex, couples that sleep apart can still find time for cuddling, but given that most couples have most of their physical interactions in bed, these might be more difficult to come by.
To Sleep Apart or Not to Sleep Apart?
Like all things sleep-related, there is wide variation among individuals in terms of sleep preferences and habits. One of the main sources of friction in relationships comes from individuals having to merge or compromise sleep habits in order to sleep with their partner. While options like mattresses designed for couples with adjustable firmness on each side can help with some of these issues, sometimes sleeping apart is the best or only option.
Still, there remains some stigma about sleeping separately: Many people view sleeping together as a sign of relationship health and might feel that sleeping apart somehow "weakens" their connection. However, given all of the recent attention paid to the worsening sleep crisis and its effect on both public health and the economy, perhaps it's time more couples discuss getting a “sleep divorce” and seeing what sleeping apart can do for them both individually and as a couple.
Guest post by Chris Brantner, Certified Sleep Science Coach and founder of SleepZoo.com.