For couples, sleeping apart actually could have health benefits

Young woman sending text message as her boyfriend sleeps in the bed, dark, copy space (zoranm via Getty Images)

When it comes to getting enough sleep, both quality and quantity matter. While at least a third of Americans are not getting the recommended amount of at least seven hours of sleep a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even fewer are sleeping well. The person sleeping next to you could be why.

Sleeping alongside one's partner may be sacrosanct - and not doing so may be perceived by some as a relationship on the rocks - but for others, it simply comes down to wanting a better night's rest.

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"Few things impact the quality of your sleep each night more than your sleep environment," said Meir Kryger, a professor of medicine at Yale's School of Medicine and author of "The Mystery of Sleep: Why a Good Night's Rest Is Vital to a Better, Healthier Life." "That includes who's sleeping beside you and how well you sleep together."

The problem, Kryger said, is that many of us already struggle with sleep problems such as restlessness, parasomnia (such as sleep terrors and sleepwalking), sleep apnea and late-night visits to the bathroom. Add in a bedmate who struggles with similar difficulties or one who changes sleep positions frequently, hogs the covers or follows a different sleep schedule than yours, and the odds of enjoying a night free of disturbances decrease dramatically.

Such bedroom incompatibility is, in part, why Eric Marlowe Garrison, a certified sex counselor and chair of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, said he is "a huge proponent of couples sleeping apart."

Garrison said that he has met with thousands of couples wanting to improve their relationships and has found that separate sleeping arrangements ("from twin beds in the same room near each other to double master bedrooms") has helped strengthen the bonds between many of them.

"Considering all the emotional and physical benefits of sleep," he said in an email, "the sum of two healthy/rested individuals who make up a loving couple are greater than their individual parts."

Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona had a similar take: "Sleep deprivation can cause devastating physical and emotional fallout. Electing to sleep apart can often minimize or eliminate sleep problems and save or enhance a relationship."

A University of California at Berkeley study found that poor sleep can result in relationship conflicts, and a Paracelsus Private Medical University study found that a lack of sleep and relationship problems often go hand-in-hand.

Beyond getting better sleep, Garrison said he has found that couples who sleep apart may also improve their sex life.

"A bed is always for two things only: sleep and sex," he said. "When you crawl into bed, one of those two Pavlovian bells should go off."

Regularly getting a good night's rest also reduces stress, and "stress is sex's Kryptonite," Garrison said, referring to the fictional material that weakens Superman.

What's more, Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the Rand Corp. and author of "Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep," has found that sleep separations make many couples appreciate their partner even more once they are together again the next morning.

"It's like taking a sleep vacation from each other, then reuniting," she said. "That can be refreshing for a relationship."

Such sleeping arrangements may not only improve romantic relationships but also help parenting skills, as well.

"Tired, sleep-deprived parents are rarely at their best," said Aude Henin, co-director of the Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry of Massachusetts General Hospital. "The decision to improve sleep quality can have a positive impact on parents' ability to respond to their children's needs, regulate their own emotions, problem-solve and more fully enjoy time spent together as a family."

In addition to improving relationships, getting better sleep also reduces the risk of chronic health problems and may improve motor functions.

"My opinion is that we are better at everything when we have had enough sleep," said Paul Rosenblatt, a professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota who views couples sleeping apart as one of the ways to improve sleep.

Although the majority of couples still sleep together, a recent YouGov survey of more than 12,000 adults found that only two-thirds of Americans want to share a bed with their partner.

"The most important sign that sleeping apart may enhance a relationship is that restful and adequate sleep for one or both partners is being compromised because of physical incompatibilities that disrupt sleep," Cilona said.

Couples considering sleeping apart should be aware of potential downsides and have a plan to counteract them. "The choice to sleep apart can be problematic if it is not mutual or agreed upon by both members of the couple," Henin said.

Rosenblatt cautioned that couples who sleep apart may also feel less safe when sleeping alone or feel concerned about the loss - or cost - of the additional room needed somewhere in the home to make sleeping apart possible.

Beyond such practicalities, "the primary downsides of sleeping apart are the possibility that there could be a loss of intimacy or closeness, which could lead to feelings of disconnectedness," Troxel said. "That's why I really emphasize to couples that it is less about the sleeping arrangement itself that matters, but rather how you arrive at the decision."

Anyone who is interested in sleeping apart from their significant other should approach the possibility of different sleeping arrangements with love, respect and understanding.

"Working together as a couple to find solutions that work for both partners, like sleeping apart, is not only essential but often really the only way these kinds of issues can be resolved," Cilona said.

Troxel stressed the importance of open and honest communication and of making sure the feelings and concerns of each partner are equally heard. "The key is to emphasize how strategies to optimize sleep for both of you is going to benefit the relationship," she said.

And if your partner is reluctant, Rosenblatt said it might be helpful to "talk about it as a temporary arrangement or as an experiment and not anything permanent - assuming that isn't a lie."

Above all, Troxel said, couples who decide to sleep apart should "schedule some time to be together in bed to cuddle, be intimate and just experience some closeness," even if you go your separate ways when it's time for lights out. "For many couples, it's the time before sleep that makes the marital bed so sacred."

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