Getting a “sleep divorce” is all the rage now. Article after article touts the benefits — namely a good night’s sleep and a healthier relationship. Actual people are trying it, too: A 2010 study found that nearly one-quarter of married couples are choosing to sleep separately, double the number from 15 years earlier.
There are, in fact, a multitude of reasons why people might decide to part ways at bedtime. “Many late and overnight shift workers do this, at least on weekdays,” says Robert S. Rosenberg, a board-certified sleep medicine physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety. It may also work for couples where one partner often brings their work into bed, as the blue glow from their laptop can make it harder for the other person to sleep. Children, too, are a common factor, especially if they’re still sleeping in your bed.
The biggest reasons, though, are snoring and general nighttime restlessness: “As men age, they especially spend far less time in deep sleep,” says Rosenberg, explaining that this makes us far more prone to waking up from the smallest of stimuli.
In Rosenberg’s line of work, he’s seen sleep divorce work well for people, resulting in both parties getting more sleep and functioning much more clearly the next day. That, though, doesn’t address sex, which may be the biggest concern for couples contemplating separate beds.
But there’s good news here, too: “If you don’t always sleep in bed with each other, when you do come back together, it can create a little excitement and heighten your experience of being sexually aroused,” says sexologist Michelle Hope. You may even find yourself getting a little more horny, because sex takes on the feeling of being something new again, or perhaps a special occasion.
So, if you’re going to sleep better, be more productive and get more sex, why doesn’t everyone get a sleep divorce?
Here’s one damning reason why, per psychotherapist and relationship expert Lisa White: Having separate beds could also mean that there’s something wrong in the relationship that won’t be fixed by his-and-hers bedrooms. While White notes that, if it works for a couple, “to each his own,” she believes that having separate beds means, “There’s a separation happening and a certain amount of intimacy is being disrupted.”
Sleeping together is fundamental, she feels, and while there may be legitimate reasons why people sleep apart, there are also options to address basically every one of those issues: For the restless sleeper, for example, getting a bigger bed may help; for a snorer, there are countless cures out there. If it’s important enough, and you want to maintain that shared space, White believes you should try everything you can to preserve it.
If this doesn’t happen, White cautions that it can lead to bigger problems. Not sleeping together may create a distance which, in many cases, could lead to further separate activities until people end up “leading entirely separate lives,” she says.
The insidious part is that this often happens without people even noticing. Children can create this dynamic, where one parent wants to sleep with the baby and the other sleeps alone, but nothing is ever discussed or decided upon. Or perhaps you and your spouse are on different sleep cycles, so one spouse falls asleep on the couch watching television hours after their partner has gone to bed. If this is your daily routine, while you may not have decided on a formal “sleep divorce,” you’ve effectively still created one. And while a sleep divorce may be or may not be the right decision for you as a couple, it’s still a decision, as opposed to a rift that’s gone unaddressed. “It can sneak up on you,” White warns. “You may not even know it’s happening.”
There are other concerns, too. “If you go to bed upset or angry and you’re also sleeping separately, that can lead to an opportunity to let that frustration fester,” says Hope. Rosenberg, meanwhile, notes, “For some of us, cuddling reduces anxiety and makes it easier to sleep.” If you’ve spent years sharing a bed, suddenly switching that up may be a big problem psychologically, making some people feel rejected or insecure without that key bedroom bonding time.
So is a sleep divorce right for you? As with every other decision a couple makes, communication is the key. In fact, Hope believes that the initial communication around the idea may be even more important than actually agreeing on a solution, since even a discussion of it will force you both to address the reasons behind it. If everyone’s concerns are out in the open, she argues, it may lead to you and your spouse figuring out a solution that doesn’t require separate rooms.
As with a regular divorce, the mere suggestion of a sleep divorce may be the kick in the pants your relationship needs before it falls apart — or into separate beds.