Are You Headed for a “Sleep Divorce”?

woman on bed with her husband

I read this news story with great interest, as it covers a topic I get asked about a lot: whether it’s a good idea for couples to sleep apart to improve their individual sleep.

This is an issue that seems to come up with increasing frequency, as more couples appear to be sleeping in separate bedrooms. It’s estimated that 25% of couples in the U.S. are sleeping apart. This is a number that has been on the rise in recent years. What’s more, the residential construction industry in recent years has reported a substantial uptick in requests for two separate master bedrooms in new homes.

What’s behind the drive to sleep separately? There are a number of reasons that couples find themselves considering separate bedrooms. Here are some of the most common:

Different schedules: Early birds and night owls can disrupt each other’s sleep at either or both ends of the night.
Disrupted sleep: People who experience symptoms of disrupted sleep, such as snoring, or tossing and turning from insomnia, can keep their partners from sleeping well.
Poor sleep equipment and sleep environment: A too-small mattress can make couples’ sleep challenging. A room that’s too bright or too warm can be disruptive to sleep.
Divergent sleep habits: One person likes to watch TV late into the night or surf the web from bed. Partners can disturb each other with their non-sleep bedroom habits.
Conflicts over co-sleeping: Parents who don’t sleep well with children in bed, or who disagree about whether or not to co-sleep, can find themselves seeking separate sleeping spaces.

With sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea all too common and on the rise, it is understandable how couples might opt for separate bedrooms. There is no question that it is critically important for both partners to achieve restful and sufficient sleep on a regular basis. Disrupted sleep can increase risk for a range of serious illnesses, including cardiovascular problems, obesity and diabetes.

Poor sleep also can have negative effects on relationships. This recent study suggests that lack of sleep may diminish the positive feelings we have for our partners. Researchers found people with lower quality sleep demonstrated lower levels of gratitude, and were more likely to have feelings of selfishness, than those who slept well. What’s more, poor sleep on the part of one person in the relationship had a negative effect on feelings of appreciation and gratitude for both partners.

But is sleeping apart really the best remedy for couples whose sleep habits need improvement? I’m not convinced it is. For some couples, sleeping apart may indeed be the right choice. But couples who want to sleep together can and should consider addressing their sleep issues from within their shared bedroom before making the jump to separate sleeping quarters.

Often, discussions of the merits and pitfalls of bed sharing will separate the issue of individual sleep quality from the psychological and emotional desire to sleep with a partner. For couples that sleep together, this time can be one of deep closeness and intimacy, both sexual and emotional. The intimacy established by sleeping together is for many a cherished and valuable aspect of being a couple.

Here are some questions to consider before you set up separate bedrooms:

Have you addressed any sleep issues with your doctor? Anyone who experiences symptoms of disrupted or poor sleep should consult their physician. Undiagnosed, disordered sleep can wreak havoc with an individual’s rest and a couple’s sleep habits, but effective treatments are available. And evidence suggests that people being treated for sleep disorders can benefit from having a partner continue to sleep with them. This study found that male sleep apnea patients using CPAP therapy were 60% more likely to stay with their treatment plan if their partners remained in bed with them.

Is your bedroom sufficiently sleep-friendly? Several factors in your bedroom can enhance – or hinder – couples’ sleep. Having the right sleep equipment is critical, starting with a good mattress. Squeezing two adults onto a traditional full- or queen-size bed will not give many couples enough room to sleep comfortably. Invest in a mattress that is large enough for both partners to claim their own space – and still meet up in the middle. Memory-foam mattresses can lessen the impact of a partner’s nighttime movements. Does one of you like a firm bed and the other a softer one? Mattresses can be customized so each side has the right level of cushioning for both partners.

Creating a comfortable bedroom environment is also important. Darkness, a moderate room temperature and cleanliness all can affect sleep quality. Clean sheets and a dark and quiet bedroom can make a big difference to couples sleeping well together.

Can you marry your sleep habits? Maybe you’re an early riser and your partner likes to stay up into the wee hours. You like to read late into the night and your spouse prefers lights out at 10 o’clock. Rather than simply trying to tolerate your differences – or moving to the spare bedroom – can you find middle ground? This kind of compromise can actually help improve everyone’s sleep habits by moderating extreme tendencies and removing extraneous activity from the bedroom. If you get up much earlier than your partner, agree that you’ll take care of your morning routine – getting dressed, making a first check of email – outside the bedroom. If you’re in the habit of reading as the clock rounds midnight, consider opening your book earlier in the evening so you can move up your bedtime.

Here’s one great way to simplify your bedroom habits: remove the electronics. Televisions, computers and cell phones have no place in a restful bedroom. Both the light they emit and the stimulation they provide are disruptive for sleep. Bedrooms are for sleep and sex.

Like so many aspects of a relationship, sleeping well together as a couple is a dynamic process. By paying attention to sleep problems and sleep hygiene, many couples may find they can work out their sleep differences, avoid the “sleep divorce” and stay together in bed.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
www.thesleepdoctor.com