What Is a Sleep Divorce? Why More Couples Are Sleeping Apart

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What Is a Sleep Divorce? cosmaa - Getty Images

If your partner keeps you awake at night snoring, getting up frequently, stealing the covers, or just being generally annoying in bed, it might be time for a divorce. A sleep divorce, that is.

What is a sleep divorce? Many couples who interrupt each other’s nightly rest have found refuge in sleeping apart, and discovered it helps not only their shut-eye quotient, but their relationship. According to a survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), over a third of American couples have filed for a sleep divorce.

“As a couple, if you enjoy sleeping together and can do so without one party disrupting the other's sleep, then that is a great outcome. However, it doesn't mean that your relationship is better than a couple who sleeps separately,” says Jennifer Adams, author of Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart, who sleeps in a separate room than her husband of 15 years. “Hundreds of thousands of couples are heading to separate rooms each night and enjoying a full life, and great relationships, because they get a good night's sleep each night.”

Co-sleeping has a long and complicated history

The social norm of married couples sleeping together in one bed is actually not that firmly established, either. Atlas Obscura explains that households right up through Victorian times often bedded down together, both out of necessity and to foster community. In the Middle Ages, peasants often slept on the floor with the entire family — livestock included — to keep warm and safe during the night. And as beds became fashionable in the 15th century, people built them as big and opulent as they could afford, with enough room for everyone to share and bond as they cuddled. Only the very upper crust would have had more than one bed, and even then, servants often slept with their lords and ladies so they could be at their beck and call at a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that separate beds became the norm, largely to avoid spreading germs between close bodies and to mark women embracing their newfound independence. Setting up twin beds meant wives didn’t have to make themselves continually available to their husbands, a sort of bedtime sexual revolution that lasted into the 1970s. Only then did the twin’s reputation flip, and people began to see separate sleeping as prudish and old-fashioned. That led to a resurgence in the close entanglement most of us expect of married couples today.

But sleeping apart can help your relationship

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends most adults get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and missing out can drive a wedge between you and your partner, as well as impact your health. A 2016 study found that sleep issues and relationship problems tend to occur simultaneously, and a 2013 study adds that when one partner gets a poor night’s sleep due to the other’s nighttime disturbances, it results in conflict the next day.

When Adams was conducting research for her book, she heard from many couples who reported snoring, schedule mismatches, environmental preferences and movement in bed as reasons they decided to sleep apart. And making that choice can really turn a relationship around.

“As soon as you are getting the sleep you need, I can almost guarantee the relationship will flourish because you won't be sleep deprived,” she says. “Feelings of resentment that build from lying awake each or most nights are destructive for a relationship and dealing with those feelings of resentment when sleep-deprived is not recommended.”

Your health also benefits from better sleep

It’s hard to find an aspect of your health that doesn’t benefit from restorative sleep, says National Sleep Foundation spokesperson Natalie D. Dautovich, Ph.D. “Among many other functions, healthy sleep is important for healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels, reducing risk for obesity, promoting healthy cognitive functioning, and promoting a healthy immune response,” she explains.

Your health can see negative impacts of disturbed sleep, even if you don’t remember waking up during the night. “We progress through multiple stages of sleep during the night, including spending time in deeper stages of sleep,” she explains. “If your sleep is interrupted multiple times during the night, you may spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, which are less restorative.”

How to start the conversation

If you’d like to try sleep divorce for yourself, Adams says timing and tone matter. “Make sure you know why you want to sleep separately and be very clear to your partner that it's not an act of rejection,” she advises. “It comes down to proving that you aren't trying to avoid your partner, you are focused on finding an environment that helps you sleep well.”

Adams recommends choosing a time when you both have plenty of time to talk through it, and carefully explaining the reasons why you want to try sleeping apart. Listen to your partner and do your best to put their minds at ease, especially if they express feeling hurt or rejected. And realize that sleep divorce may not be a one-and-done discussion. Many couples take time and trial and error to find the best separate sleeping situations for them, since sleeping arrangements can be as individual as your relationship itself. “Every couple will know their communication boundaries and what their partner values as important,” she says.

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