Is It Time for a Sleep Divorce?

Couples Counseling Dallas

That buzz saw snoring next to you, the freezing room, the elbow in your face. One way to a better night’s sleep may mean creating a separate sleep space.

Maybe Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (and the censors) had it right all along: Sleep in your own bed.

While most couples consider sharing a bed to be an expression of intimacy and togetherness, research show there may be grounds for sleeping separately — like the bedroom scenes in the 1950s TV show “I Love Lucy,” starring Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.

Couples who sleep in the same bedroom are more likely to experience nocturnal disturbances from their partner (like snoring, bad hygiene, tossing and turning and different schedules). And all this can lead to health problems, sexual dysfunction and marital spats.

A 2016 study from Paracelsus Private Medical University in Nuremberg, Germany, showed that sleep issues and relationship problems tend to occur simultaneously. In fact, a 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that one partner’s sleepless night caused by disturbances from the other partner can result in conflicts in the relationship the next day.

“While there are benefits to sleeping together, one partner’s troublesome sleeping or annoying bed habits can affect the other and increase production of the stress hormone cortisol, thus causing issues that impact the couple as a whole,” said Mary Jo Rapini, a relationship and intimacy psychotherapist based in Houston.

Feeling rested, the experts say, could help you manage life with more focus and control, which in turn can make you feel more content and happier in your relationship.

“When both parties are getting a restorative night’s sleep it allows them to feel emotionally, mentally and physically healthier without one resentful of their partner for keeping them awake, nor the other feeling guilty for disturbing his or her mate,” said Jennifer Adams, the author of “Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart” (Finch Publishing, 2015). “That’s a good foundation on which to build and weather a relationship.”

Not sharing a marital bed is becoming many couples’ dream.

A 2012 survey by the Better Sleep Council showed that one in four couples sleeps separately for a better night’s sleep. Yet 46 percent of 2,000 Americans polled last year by the marketing research company OnePoll on behalf of the bedding retailer Slumber Cloud said they wished they could sleep apart from their partner.

“Some couples feel strongly that sleeping apart has made their relationship more solid,” said Ken Page, a psychotherapist based in New York City and the author of “Deeper Dating” (Shambhala Publications, 2015) and the host of a podcast by the same name. “I have worked with couples who have said that not having to worry about their sleep being disturbed was such a relief that it allowed them to appreciate the good things in their relationship and lifted any resentment they may have felt in the past.”

Couples, of course, have their own reasons for sleeping apart.

“Spending some nights in separate beds was not so much a choice, as a practical solution to my difficulty getting a decent night’s sleep sharing a bed with my husband,” said Jill Goebel, 52, a professional home organizer from Brisbane, Australia. “It was a combination of his increased snoring and my increased difficulty settling into sleep.

She said that she and her husband, Dr. Brett Goebel, 52, a scientist, “eventually agreed on me sleeping in the spare room a few times a week, but we still share a bedroom.”

The more secure partners feel in their relationship, the more comfortable they tend to be with the idea of sleeping separately.

“Happy, long-term couples are more inclined to have well-developed communication skills and patterns, which are key to making separate sleeping arrangements work,” Ms. Adams said.

Some say that gender also plays a role. “It’s usually the wife or girlfriend who favors the idea of separate beds,” Ms. Rapini said. “Women are more sensitive to their bed mate’s bad habits and pregnancy and hormonal changes or problems can cause them to want to sleep alone.”

A study published in 2007 by the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms found that women are more likely to be disturbed by the man’s presence in bed than men by a woman.

“We started sleeping separately when I was pregnant with our first child. I would toss and turn and not get enough sleep, so on occasion I would sleep in the spare room,” said one 41-year-old woman from Brisbane, who did not wish to be identified for fear of being stigmatized in her social circle. She has been married 18 years and has two children with her husband, also 41. “Once I was pregnant with our second baby, one of us would sleep in the spare room to ensure we both got a good night’s sleep,” she said. “My husband’s snoring and blanket-hogging frustrated me when I was very tired and I would sometimes wake him up to tell him to stop, which of course he didn’t appreciate. It wasn’t until years later that it became more routine.”

Separate sleeping arrangements can include pairing side by side beds of similar size, having a smaller plus a larger bed in the room that the couple could share when they want to be intimate, or designating nights in a spare room. Separate bedrooms is another option.

Tina Cooper, 45, a licensed social worker who owns a home in Baltimore with her boyfriend of 10 years, Donald Smith, 63, also a social worker, prefers having her own room. “I’m a private person and need space,” she said. “Everyone I’ve ever dated knew that if we married I would want my own bedroom. If they tried to change my mind I knew he was not the one for me.”

Like many other couples who like having separate bedrooms, Ms. Cooper and Mr. Smith have opposite sleeping habits.

“I’m a night owl, he’s an early bird,” Ms. Cooper said. “I need soothing sounds to fall asleep to, he likes silence. He likes a hard mattress, mine is soft and full of pillows. And because I don’t like the early day’s sunlight, Donald gave me the master bedroom which gets less light and he has the second largest room that gets the sunrise he loves.”

Being open and honest with your partner about why you want to sleep separately is essential. “What’s equally as important to why you want to sleep apart is how you plan to ensure intimacy is retained in the relationship,” Ms. Adams said. “Making sure you have a routine and set times to connect is key, such as having breakfast together each morning or a drink together before bed at night, and welcoming each other into your room.”

Ms. Cooper said that she and her boyfriend “do spend a lot of time together. We hang out in each other’s bedroom, but mostly in the kitchen. And we share the third bedroom as our office, where we each have our own desk.”

Healthy couples who sleep separately can be as happy as healthy couples who sleep together. “They seem to have as good a sex life as couples who share the same bed,” Ms. Rapini said. “They feel very close to their partner. Maybe it’s because they respect each other’s personal space.”

Paulette Sherman, a psychologist based in New York City and author of “Dating From the Inside Out” (Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2008) also noted that “some couples who sleep separately report missing one another and that it adds some excitement and longing to their sex life.”

The Australian woman who wanted to remain anonymous said she and her husband have a “wonderful relationship and in terms of intimacy we have a very healthy sex life. We certainly look forward to a night away and when at home he will either go back to his bed or we remain in mine the entire night if his snoring isn’t bad.”

Philip Shen, the chief executive of SleepChoices, a mattress company based in Coral Springs, Fla., has helped many couples resolve sleep issues by helping them choose the right mattress for their lifestyle. “Over all, the primary factor doesn’t stem from a lack of desire to be with a partner.,” he said. “It’s usually the case that their current sleep environment makes it challenging for both parties to enjoy quality sleep together.”

For couples not ready for separate sleeping domains, a happy medium could be met with the right sleep solution. Investing in an adjustable mattress that accommodates both partners sleeping needs or pushing together two separate mattresses can help solve conflicts while still allowing a couple to remain close.

“And have conversations about working out your sleep incompatibilities when you’re both feeling comfortable and connected,” Mr. Page added. “Not in the middle of the night when your partner’s snoring is driving you nuts.”

By Ivy Manners
Image by Ellen Weinstein