- Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
- Terry Cralle, RN, Terry Cralle, RN, is a board-certified and registered nurse specializing in respiratory and sleep disorders. As a meticulous and empathetic provider, she seeks to deliver high-quality health care that addresses the needs of the ever-growing and diverse community in New...
- Wendy Troxel, PhD, sleep expert and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation
Despite the harsh name, a sleep divorce simply refers to the decision to sleep in a separate bed (or room) from a romantic partner with whom you were previously sharing the space. And it can be a particularly effective decision to make when your sleeping pattern or habits just don’t align with your partner’s.
“If you think about it, sleep compatibility is a tall order,” says registered nurse Terry Cralle, RN, clinical sleep educator and spokesperson for the Better Sleep Council. “For starters, some sleep hot; others sleep cold. Some like a firm mattress; others like a soft one. Some want to be able to hear a pin drop; others like the hum of a ceiling fan. And some partners are blanket bandits and pillow thieves, while some have toes like icicles, and still others have misaligned sleep chronotypes.”
"If sleeping separately means both of you can get better quality sleep, that’ll benefit the relationship." —sleep-medicine specialist Wendy Troxel, PhD
Any of those discrepancies (and anything else in that realm) could negatively impact your sleep or that of a partner in a shared bed, potentially warranting a sleep divorce. And contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t have to spell relationship doom. In fact, if sleeping separately means both of you can get better quality sleep, that’ll benefit the relationship, says sleep-medicine specialist Wendy Troxel, PhD, senior behavioral scientist at the public policy research organization RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep: “Well-slept partners are simply better partners.”
But before you grab your pillow and split, it’s worth taking into careful account what sleep-affecting issues you may be grappling with, and how your relationship might naturally change when co-sleeping is no longer involved.
What to think about before deciding to sleep separately from a partner
Because of the tendency to conflate sleeping with someone and being intimate, any decision to split your sleeping arrangements with a partner can quickly become fraught with questions about your relationship: What does that say about us that we can’t sleep well together? How might sleeping separately affect our sex life?
As a baseline, though, it’s important to note that sleeping separately does not indicate or reflect an unhappy or unhealthy relationship, says Cralle. And that’s because relationship compatibility does not necessarily imply sleep compatibility, and vice versa.
Noting that key distinction can help you figure out when to consider a sleep divorce: If the decision is springing from a sleep disturbance and nothing more, then the issue is simply one of sleep incompatibility and not relationship incompatibility—and there’s no bigger disconnect lurking beneath the surface. “Getting clear about your intentions from the start can make the transition easier and keep any hurt feelings at bay,” says relationship therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT.
In general, any instance of sleep incompatibility that threatens either person’s sleep quality or quantity—á la different bedroom preferences, sleep schedules, or sleeping habits—is a scenario where deciding to sleep separately could prove beneficial. (If snoring is the culprit, though, Dr. Troxel stresses the importance of an evaluation with a sleep specialist in order to rule out sleep apnea, which would require medical treatment.)
“Getting sufficient, quality sleep on a daily basis should always be the priority over maintaining a certain sleeping arrangement,” says Cralle. After all, sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on you and your relationship: Not only can it leave you tired and irritable (aka no fun for your partner to be around), but research also shows being sleep-deprived can worsen and increase the frequency of relationship conflicts.
How to have a sleep divorce without losing a shred of intimacy
Sleep, sex, and intimacy are often intertwined in relationships, so it’s important to go about the sleep-divorce talk with care and honesty. “Have an open conversation about what’s working and what’s not when it comes to your sleeping arrangement, and focus on why getting good sleep is a mutually beneficial goal for the health of your relationship,” says Dr. Troxel.
It’s worth reiterating that the decision to sleep separately, however that might look, should be totally mutual. If, by contrast, it were to create any relationship stress or resentment, it’s unlikely to bring about better quality sleep—even if the physical conditions for good sleep are better for both folks than they were in a co-sleeping arrangement. To that end, taking care to figure out a separate-sleeping situation that feels good for everyone involved and that accounts for any real or perceived loss of intimacy is essential.
Perhaps you plan to try sleeping separately on a temporary basis first, just to see how it goes. Or, alternatively, you might try sleeping apart only on weekdays and then reuniting to share the bed on the weekends when stress levels and the demands of work may be lower, suggests Dr. Troxel: “Some couples even find that to be sexy and romantic—a way to rekindle the relationship fire.”
No matter what works best for you and your relationship, if you decide to sleep separately at all, just remember to actively make space for intimacy, in order to avoid a (purely circumstantial) dip in how often you’re having sex or even cuddling, which has its own set of relationship benefits. “You may have to be proactive and extra thoughtful,” says Thompson. “Can you share intimate moments reading in bed, having sex, or talking about your day before you part ways to go to sleep? This will foster deeper connection.” On the flip side, you could use the mornings as a time to get back together in the same bed and reap all the mood-boosting, energizing benefits of a morning sex session.
Dr. Troxel also suggests scheduling sex as a way to prioritize it while you continue sleeping separately. “Though it may not sound romantic, the truth is, setting aside time for you and your partner to be intimate is a great way to show that you’re committed to the relationship and that intimacy matters enough to plan for it.” And if that sounds like a task? Just consider all the extra verve and vigor you’ll have once you’re able to sleep soundly without so much as a peep or a kick from your partner.
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