Should You Be Considering a Sleep Divorce?
Sleep divorces are gaining traction, but is sleeping separately the answer?
Posted Dec 21, 2019
I recently chatted with Wendy Troxel and Mina Kim on KQED’s Forum about the new phenomenon of sleep divorces—couples choosing to sleep in separate beds or separate rooms—and the discussion was lively.
A lot of listeners called in to report their own experiences of choosing to sleep apart from their romantic partner, often due to snoring or conflicting schedules. Sometimes they said a preference for sleeping alone cost them their relationship (their partner couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to share a bed); others said it saved their relationship (instead of hurting intimacy, it helped it).
Only a handful of studies have directly looked at the effects of co-sleeping with a partner. In terms of objective sleep, the results are inconclusive: A few studies have found that people, particularly women, objectively sleep worse when sharing a bed (e.g., Dittami et al., 2007; Pankhurst & Horne, 1994). But another handful of studies have found that young, healthy couples may sleep better when together compared with when alone (Drews et al., 2017; Spiegelhalder et al., 2017).
What these studies do agree on is that participants in the studies believe they sleep better when sharing a bed with their partner. That is, couples report better sleep quality when they shared a bed compared with when they slept alone, even when the objective measures of sleep suggested something else. If people report sleeping better when they share a bed with their partner, why have sleep divorces become a national phenomenon? What the researchers found with these healthy, young couples does not necessarily reflect the experience of a sizable minority.
For couples dealing with a sleep disorder, their perceptions might better match reality. Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, which often results in snoring, can negatively impact both partners’ sleep (e.g., Beninanti et al., 1999; Doherty et al., 2003). The treatment of such disorders can improve sleep quality for both partners, but the disorders have to be identified, and treatment is not always easy.
Although sharing a bed with a partner who suffers from a serious sleep disorder can be very disturbing, for the person who is actually suffering from the sleep disorder, some research suggests that having a bed partner may at times be beneficial. For example, it can promote adherence to treatment (e.g., Cartwright, 2008).
You don't have to be suffering from a sleep disorder for sleep to be an issue in your relationship—mismatched schedules, a chronic cover stealer, or temporary illness could turn your sleep haven into anything but. And adding in layers of blame (when your partner accuses you of disturbing their slumber) and anxiety and guilt (when you worry you're waking them with your tossing and turning) only heighten the issues.
What can research tell us about couples who share a bed and are worried about sleeping well? Sleep is important. Poor sleep has profound negative effects on nearly every aspect of our lives, including our relationships.
But you don’t necessarily need to rush out and get separate beds as a first step in meeting your sleep needs.
We are social beings who benefit from affectionate touching. While we may not need to sleep next to another person for warmth and safety the way we once did, we might still like sleeping next to someone else. Co-sleeping can meet attachment needs, and sleeping separately from a partner might be disturbing if couples are used to sharing a bed. For example, one study found that couples who usually sleep together reported more sleep problems when one partner was away on business (Diamond, Hicks, & Otter-Henderson, 2008).
If you enjoy the feeling of your partner in your bed but find that they do disturb your sleep, there may be other ways to help mitigate those issues. Can you identify what exactly those issues are: Is it snoring? Excessive movement? Cover stealing? Different preferences for when to go to bed? Different preferences for room temperature or the number of covers?
Figuring out the source of the problem may help you find a solution. (A memory foam bed that minimizes movement? Earplugs and an eye mask? White or pink noise?) For my husband and me, it was removing the top sheet. We were traveling and realized we’d been sleeping better than usual. It turns out that none of the European hotels we stayed in used a top sheet; it was just the bottom sheet and a duvet cover. We came home and removed our top sheet, and it made a surprisingly big difference in minimizing how much we disturbed each other (I highly recommend it).
Another way to make the most of a bed partner is to maximize the ways in which sharing a bed can be beneficial. There are lots of ways that our sleep gets disturbed, a bedfellow being only one of them.
If, as a couple, you can help each other maintain good sleep habits, the benefits of sleeping together could outweigh the costs.
For example, screen time before bed can negatively impact sleep (e.g., Christensen et al., 2016; Hale & Guan, 2015). Couples who are looking to improve their sleep could work together to keep screens out of the bedroom. Couples with similar sleep schedules can also establish bed and wake times and work together to maintain a consistent sleep routine.
Having another person who is holding you accountable can be effective in helping develop good habits, though be careful not to make your partner responsible for your success. Another way that couples who share a bed might make their co-sleeping more of a benefit is by wisely using the time before they fall asleep. Research suggests having more positive and less negative pre-sleep cognitions can aid in sleep quality (e.g., Harvey, 2000; Wood et al., 2009).
Make the time between getting in bed and falling asleep a relaxing and enjoyable time together (reading together and helping each other unwind, sharing positive moments, or making a gratitude list with each other are just a few possibilities); doing so has the potential to help not just your sleep but also the quality of your relationship. Of course, even if your beds are two feet or two rooms apart, you can still put many of these good habits into place.
Although couples report that they would ideally share a bed, it’s also worth remembering that just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better. One caller mentioned that her sleep was severely disturbed by her partner, but her desire to sleep apart ended her relationship because her boyfriend felt like there must be something wrong with their relationship or with her feelings if she didn’t want to share a bed with him. In our modern-day society, many adults do share a bed with their romantic partner (NSF poll, 2013), and those that don’t are often loathe to admit it.
The media depicts co-sleeping as typical of romantic couples, and separate beds signify an unhappy relationship. Without much thought, we’ve come to expect that couples should sleep together. Until recently, with the emerging phenomenon of the sleep divorce and more people admitting out loud that they’ve been sleeping apart for years.
But sleeping together in a single “marital bed” is a relatively new phenomenon for humankind. Historically, according to cultural anthropologists, the most common sleeping pattern was group sleep with individual bedding (Worthman et al., 2002), and there are periods of history when it was common for affluent couples to have separate beds in separate rooms. When significant sleep issues impair one’s ability to get a good night’s sleep, the expectation that happy couples sleep together can make an already difficult issue even more difficult.
For couples who cannot find a way to sleep happily together, they may need to find a way to sleep happily apart. For these couples, recognizing what you gain from co-sleeping (time together, ease of intimacy, an extra body to warm the bed?) and finding a way to replace it in other areas of your life might help stave off dissatisfaction with separate sleeping.
The bottom line: For most established couples, sleep is an inexorable part of their relationship, for better and for worse. There is very little research that directly addresses couples’ sleep, but the broader research on sleep and relationships provides some suggestions for how to sleep better together. It also points to ways to leverage your relationship to help you develop better sleep habits.
On the other hand, if you are someone who has the best night of sleep when your partner is away and cannot figure out how to repeat that when they are home and snoring loudly next to you, know that you are not alone. A “sleep divorce” does not mean the end of a happy relationship, especially if you both are getting a good night of sleep for the first time in a decade.
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