- Many couples choose to stop sharing a bed (i.e., get a sleep divorce) because their partner disturbs their sleep.
- But humans have a long history of sharing beds, and society can judge couples sleeping apart.
- Sleep studies show that we all get more rest when we sleep alone.
- Yet sleep divorce is still an emotional risk, and couples should work together to problem-solve before they try it.
Welcome to my daily airing of the sleep grievances: He woke up thrice. And every time he woke up, I woke up, so then I had to use the bathroom. His legs mysteriously shifted in the middle of the night, causing the bed to make a weird creaking sound that I assumed was a burglar, so I had to scrutinize the crack in the bedroom doorway for 20 minutes to ensure we weren’t sitting ducks in a home invasion. At around 5am, he exclaimed “Whoa!” from the living room, disturbing my dream about being behind on my schoolwork. Then for the next two hours I slept fitfully, wondering what had happened in world news to prompt the “whoa”. [Bob Saget had died. RIP.] Also, he snores.
But a few times a night when I’m between REM cycles and feeling uncertain, I extend my leg under the covers and my socked foot meets his bare foot and after giving him a little rub with my toes, I settle back to sleep. So do we get a sleep divorce or not?
First, let’s be clear: A proper sleep divorce is only for privileged couples. In order for significant others to sleep in separate beds or bedrooms so they can maintain their sleep hygiene, those separate sleeping quarters must be available in the first place. Aspiring sleep divorcés may not require two private master wings with their own master bedroom suites, but they would at least need an extra mattress. And mattresses cost money and take up space. Two people sharing a cramped apartment do not have the option of sleep divorce, unless someone is willing to sleep on the couch or on the floor. And that sounds punitive, not salutary. In an amicable sleep divorce, both parties are comfortable with the arrangements.
Second, if you told an alien visitor to this planet that every night you persisted in going to bed beside another human being who prevented you from falling asleep with their snoring, restless legs, night sweats, blanket hogging, tossing and turning, coughing, etc., thereby making you more susceptible to irritability, negativity, depression, anxiety, and health problems, they would probably think you were insane. But they also wouldn’t understand the emotional and cultural significance of sleeping side by side. Which is why you show them this blog. Kindly aliens, let me explain to you our humble customs.
A Brief History of Bed Sharing
It wasn’t so long ago when families all snuggled together in the same bed at night. Parents would get the softest real estate on whatever straw-stuffed mattress the household could provide. Then children would squeeze in, boys on one side and girls on the other, oldest to youngest in hierarchical positions. Then house servants. Itinerant salespeople, domestic animals… whatever bodies were available. Bed sharing provided warmth, intimacy, and security. And communal sleeping made financial sense. Beds and bedding were expensive. In fact, until 1851, Western travelers were forced to share beds with strangers when they stayed in boarding houses. Unless you were a wealthy European aristocrat who married not for love but for political alliance (in which case you probably got your own sleeping quarters), you were going to be piled into a single bed like a scurry of squirrels.
But cultures and attitudes change. In Victorian England, scientists discovered sanitation and began telling people that sharing beds could lead to a build-up of “miasma” in the bedroom. Family members would inhale each other’s bad air and/or steal each other’s vital electrical forces during the night. The only solution was to sleep apart, and a shift toward nocturnal privacy began. Even children began getting separate rooms. Between about 1870 and 1970, twin beds were all the rage for married couples. They were chic, middle-class, morally upstanding. But after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, twin beds seemed to represent priggishness and failed marriages. Couples who slept apart were stigmatized.
Significant others of today might have busy work schedules that don’t overlap. They might have the emotional fortitude to challenge cultural beliefs and expectations. They might be sick of spending every waking minute together due to pandemic precautions. Some of these factors might contribute to making modern couples say, “Hey, nothing against you, but what if we tried sleeping apart?”
The Trouble with Sleeping Together
Try to remember the first time you shared a bed with a romantic partner. Did you spoon each other? Did you lay awake trying to synchronize your breathing? Did you stay asleep or experience sleeping problems? Did you feel safe or vulnerable, childlike or grown-up? Did it intensify or diminish your romantic relationship? In any case, it was probably a significant moment in your life. Sharing a bed brings pillow talk, emotional and physical intimacy, giggles in the night, someone to share your nightmares with, someone to reach for if you’re scared of the dark. A bedroom is your and your SO’s private sanctuary (unless you have children, of course, in which case your mattress occasionally becomes a trampoline/jungle gym/pediatric fluid deposit).
But bed sharing also tends to disrupt your sleep. We’d all sleep better across the board if we slept alone. That’s just a fact. And if you’re sleeping in the same bed as a man, good luck to you, because men tend to move around more in the night. They also tend to have fewer complaints about sleeping with partners. Women, on the other hand, tend to be lighter sleepers, and their quality of sleep correlates to overall happiness in a relationship. Partners take note: It’s critical to your marriage that wives sleep well.
Studies show that couples who have similar sleep-wake patterns tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. It seems to be a feedback loop: Lack of sleep puts people in a bad mood. Bad moods can cause sleep disruption. Sleep disruption causes more bad moods, less “perspective-taking”, more relationship conflicts, etc. And there you are lying in bed beside your snoring partner, staring at the ceiling at 3 in the morning, irritated that they’re asleep and you’re not. In other words, sleep disruptions and relationship problems tend to happen simultaneously.
What About Sex?
If you get a sleep divorce, will you ever have sex again? There’s still a sexless, loveless stigma attached to those separate bedrooms. But many couples say their sex lives improved after they stopped bed sharing. They have a chance to miss each other during the night and seek out physical affection at other times. And not sleeping well can damage your sex drive, ergo you’d think that improving sleep would enhance libido.
But sleep divorce is still risky for a relationship. Humans are affectionate by nature. We bond with people and want to keep them physically close. We want to feel safety in numbers from those saber-toothed tigers at night. But we also need healthy sleep habits. According to studies, even though co-sleeping tends to lead to more fragmented sleep, those negative effects can be mitigated through sexual contact. So maybe there’s a good reason that people tend to equate sleep and sex: They have a bidirectional relationship, enhancing each other.
Successful Couples Solve Their Problems Together
Relationship experts aren’t going to tell you to get a sleep divorce or continue tolerating your SO’s sleep apnea until your head explodes. They are going to encourage you to solve your problem together, in your own unique way. They’re going to empower you and your spouse to figure out how to get the sleep you need to thrive while maintaining the health of your relationship. First, the easier fixes to consider:
- Change your bed. Upgrade to a king-sized bed, a differential/adjustable mattress, or two sets of blankets (if your SO tends to steal your covers).
- If your partner snores severely, they can get sleep disorder treatment. As an added bonus, sleep therapy can sometimes serve as a “gateway treatment” for psychological counseling.
- If your partner’s snoring is just a fact of life, you can also try a white noise machine or ear plugs. The snorer could quiet down by cutting out alcohol close to bedtime, changing position, or putting a humidifier next to the bed. They can also stay up about 30 minutes after their partner, allowing their partner to fall into a deeper REM sleep before they commence snoring.
Now for the harder stuff. If your and your SO’s chronotypes don’t match up, i.e., your body wants to go to bed late and your partner’s body wants to go to bed early, forcing one sleep partner to adapt to the other’s biological clock can lead to chronodisruption. So agree on some guidelines. For example, the bedroom must be for sex and sleeping only. The night owl can’t sit up in bed texting on their phone or reading under bright lights because this is likely to disturb their starling partner.
Therapists and sleep experts recommend keeping blue light-spewing devices out of the bedroom. A ban on smartphones in the bedroom has been proven to increase relationship satisfaction. And if you always peace out before your partner, you should still schedule quality time to connect intimately (either emotionally or physically or both) before bed. Just because your sleep routines don’t match up doesn’t mean you can’t create other routines and rituals together.
But the main thing you have to do is communicate. Love is important, but we also spend a third of our lives sleeping and we need to prioritize that sleep for our mental and physical health. So make a sleep alliance with your partner. Talk it through together. Bring up the sleep issue not when you’re experiencing insomnia and resentment in bed, but in neutral territory when you’re rested and have the wherewithal to use “I statements” and display compassion.
Don’t just banish your snoring spouse to the guest bedroom, making them feel abandoned. Explore alternatives. Maybe you could try sleeping apart just during the workweek, and meanwhile your SO can schedule an appointment with a sleep therapist. Maybe your partner is dealing with depression or anxiety, which can affect sleep. Maybe something is amiss in the relationship itself, preventing your body from relaxing at night. Any number of things could be contributing to your sleeping issues, and you won’t be able to get to the root of the problem until you communicate with your partner.
So snuggle up, talk it out, and do what feels right for you. And when the snoring starts up, be grateful that you live in modern times and only have to sleep beside the person you love and not random door-to-door salespeople. Good night!