What Is A ‘Sleep Divorce’ And Is It Healthy For A Marriage?

Sleeping in separate beds could help reduce disturbances for couples, but is it good for your relationship in the long run? Here's what experts say.
Shot of a young woman covering her ears with a pillow while her husband snores in bed
PeopleImages via Getty Images
Shot of a young woman covering her ears with a pillow while her husband snores in bed

Sick of your sheets being stolen and incessant snoring from your partner? It might be time to consider a “sleep divorce.”

For many of us, getting a good night’s rest is a nightly challenge ― and the pandemic has only made things worse. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 36% of Americans reported difficulty sleeping due to pandemic stress.

As much as you love cuddle time with your S.O., the last thing you need when you finally doze off is to be woken up by the bright light of their iPad or an errant arm hitting your face.

Sleeping in separate beds or rooms is more and more sounding like a dream for some couples ― especially if you’re working from home together, said Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.”

“Given the extra ‘togetherness’ we have been sharing with our family during extended stay-at-home orders, sleeping apart, at least temporarily, during COVID may also benefit some couples who are just feeling starved for some alone time,” she told HuffPost.

“The key, though, is making this decision as a couple and to make it clear that the decision is for the benefit of your relationship, not a sign of abandonment,” she said.

Jennifer Colbourne, a Ph.D. student in Austria who studies tool use in cockatoos (but not their sleeping habits, alas), is among the married people currently going it alone come bedtime.

She and her husband often live apart for stretches of time when Colbourne is collecting data. When she came back from one such research trip in the middle of the pandemic, the pair struggled to sleep side by side in a small double bed.

“In all fairness, we have a particularly bad situation, because I have several sleep disorders,” Colbourne told HuffPost. “I no longer sleepwalk or scream in my sleep now that I have a CPAP machine to treat my sleep apnea, but I still have restless leg syndrome and I still thrash, moan and steal blankets.”

“My spouse, on the other hand, is a very light sleeper and struggles with insomnia. It’s a lethal combination!” she joked.

“There’s a stigma to sleeping separate, but being tired and resentful of your partner can’t be good for your relationship.”

- Jennifer Colbourne, a Ph.D. student who sleeps in a separate bed from her spouse

They recently moved to a new place and decided to start sleeping in separate beds. Now they’re both resting more soundly.

“To be honest, our relationship is the best it’s ever been in the 10 years we’ve been married,” she said. “There’s a stigma to sleeping separate, but being tired and resentful of your partner can’t be good for your relationship. Finding that balance of being independent but still needing each other without being codependent is a fine line to walk, and I think having your own personal space can help with that.”

Indeed, research shows that when you are well-rested, you’re a better communicator, happier and more empathic ― all important attributes in developing and sustaining healthy, long-lasting relationships. If you can swing an extra bed or extra room, sleeping separately is a pretty sweet deal, Troxel said.

“There are are just times when strategically, it makes sense for a couple to ‘divide and conquer’ by sleeping apart, so at least one partner gets some much needed shut-eye,” she said.

For example, she said, for sleep-deprived parents of newborns, “giving each partner an occasional break to spend the night in a separate room while the other parent takes on infant caregiving duties for the night is a great way to ensure that both parents don’t become chronically sleep-deprived.”

Sleeping a la Lucy and Ricky Ricardo can also be beneficial if you and your partner have different sleep cycles, said Jennifer Adams, the author of “Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart.”

That was one of the major reasons Adams and her husband decided to sleep in separate rooms. Her husband is an earlier riser, while Adams is a night owl.

“I would head to bed and want to read when he was asleep and had to get up early in the morning for his job and then when he wakes in the morning, gets up and dressed, and ready for work, he would wake me,” she recounted.

In their waking hours, both were left with guilt and some residual resentment ― which is actually a common experience among co-sleepers. A 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that one partner’s restless night caused by disturbances from the other partner can lead to conflicts in the relationship the next day. Another study showed that sleep issues and relationship problems tend to crop up simultaneously.

“The reality is, your sleep cycle is hard-wired,” Adams said. “It’s incredibly difficult to change your inbuilt sleep rhythms to satisfy those of another person.”

This whole “sleep separation” pitch sounds promising, but let’s turn to the question on everyone’s mind: What about sex? Does sleeping in separate rooms or beds put a damper on a couple’s sex life?

Not at all, said Raquel Fuqua, a Colorado woman who decided to “sleep divorce” her boyfriend over the summer due to some pretty incompatible sleep habits. (He sleeps diagonally and punches and kicks through the night. She sleep-talks and kicks, too. It’s all very MMA, but unwittingly-in-your-sleep MMA.)

“I think sleeping apart allows us to decide when we want to cuddle ― we just get into the other’s bed,” she said. “Sleeping in separate beds has increased and improved our sex lives.”

If anything, the nightly absence makes the heart grow fonder.

“We do wake up missing each other because you’re not rubbing up on them all night,” Fuqua said. “It makes you crave physical affection a little more, especially in the mornings. We both work opposite work schedules so this works for us.”

Sujay Kansagra, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center and sleep health expert for Mattress Firm, said that there’s no need for intimacy to take a hit because of arrangements like this.

“Really, beds should be used for only two things — sleep and sex,” he said. “When you walk into your bedroom, your mind should start focusing on sleep or intimacy and not on things like work or watching TV.”

If you recognize that, it can help maintain intimacy as a priority in the bedroom, should you go forward with a “sleep divorce,” Kansagra said.

For couples who aren’t interested in a sleep divorce but want to improve their co-sleeping regimen, syncing up their sleep schedules can positively impact their intimacy. (Granted, this advice isn’t too helpful for people working different work schedules.)

“If you can make this adjustment, some great activities for couples to engage in that will help sync their sleep routines include drinking herbal tea to relax, massages and being intimate,” Kansagra said.

Whatever tweaks you make to your bedroom regimen ― sleeping separately, syncing up schedules ― make sure that you explicitly communicate your relationship expectations and boundaries with your partner, Adams said.

“If you’re sleeping separately because you need your sleep, your partner should, and probably will, understand. We all need sleep,” she said. “If you are sleeping separately to escape your partner each night, you probably need to read a different article.”

“I Love You But” is a series that offers advice on how to love someone when you don’t love a big aspect of their life ― from their sex and sleep habits to their pets.

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