What Is a Sleep Divorce?

Sure, it’s nice to have a warm body to fall asleep next to. But what happens when that warm body starts snoring like a buzzsaw?

It might just make you wonder if you’re better off sleeping alone.

As we get older, changing sleep patterns make it harder to fall asleep. We spend less time in deep sleep, making it easier to wake up. Women in menopause often report not sleeping as well as they used to due to achy joints, hot flashes and night sweats. But in addition to frequent wake-ups from hormonal changes and bathroom visits, many women say their partner’s snoring also keeps them awake.

Licensed psychologist Melissa Brand, Psy D., knows all too well the toll that lack of sleep can take on a marriage. “Sleep was a problem even before we got married. My husband had severe insomnia and needed cave-like conditions in the bedroom while I slept lightly,” said Brand.

For couples like Brand and her husband, sleep deprivation caused frustration. “His snoring kept me awake while I tossed and turned in the dark, feeling angry and resentful.”

Read: “She’s Sweating, He’s Freezing — and Nobody’s Sleeping” >>

The importance of sleep

Lack of sleep is bad for our health and has negative effects on our mental and physical well-being.

According to Smita Patel, D.O., an integrative neurologist and sleep medicine physician who is a member of HealthyWomen’s Women’s Health Advisory Council (WHAC), when we sleep, our body flushes out toxins in the brain, protecting it from memory loss and dementia. “Without enough sleep, our immune system weakens, raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease.”

Deborah Winters, LCSW, a therapist and member of HealthyWomen’s WHAC, noted that lack of sleep can be damaging to relationships. “Sleep is everything. When people are sleep deprived, they’re more easily agitated and have trouble regulating emotions.”

Read: The Day After a Bad Night’s Sleep >>

Sleep is vital to healthy communication, and couples should work together to find solutions. Georgina Vass, a relationship and sex therapist said, “Research shows partners experience more conflict in their romantic relationships following a poor night’s sleep and are better able to problem-solve when well-rested.”

Brand said her relationship suffered when they slept in the same room. “We were irritable throughout the day and it became clear that sleeping together was driving a wedge between us, threatening the relationship.”

What is a sleep divorce?

For couples like Brand and her husband, a “sleep divorce,” where partners sleep in separate beds or bedrooms, is the solution. “After a year of trying to sleep together, I got custody of the master and he took the study.”

Brand said initially she felt like they had failed as a couple. “I missed being held by him, but I started to get a full 8 hours every night.”

In recent years, sleep divorce made headlines in The New York Times. Couples interviewed said having their own room helped their relationship thrive. With many people working remotely, partners spend more time together under the same roof. This lack of alone time combined with chronic sleep disruptions can make for unhappy coupling.

While sleeping in separate bedrooms can bring a welcome restful night’s sleep, it also brings concerns. Vass said, in her experience, people seem more relaxed about sleeping separately when it occurs in a circumstantial way (getting home late, not feeling well, co-sleeping with kids, etc.). “Creating a more formalized arrangement can be more uncomfortable for couples to digest.”

Is it time for separate bedrooms?

Patel said there are things to try before considering separate quarters: earplugs, eye masks, and light-blocking window coverings in the bedroom. Another option if you can spend the money is to invest in adjustable beds so each partner can achieve maximum comfort and temperature control.

Vass said it’s important to rule out medical issues like sleep disorders before modifying sleeping habits. “Finding solutions that address the specific difficulties you’re having with sleep and discussing this difficulty openly with your partner should be the first step.”

Making a pros and cons list together and developing a specific plan for how to proceed can help both partners feel valued. Vass recommended making time to evaluate together if the plan is working. “Talk to each other and avoid unhelpful thinking styles like mind reading, making assumptions or catastrophizing.”

Brand and her husband tried everything before deciding to get a sleep divorce. “We used ear plugs, white noise, hung blackout curtains — even went to sleep at different times.” Nothing helped.

Sleeping in separate beds but still sleeping together

Couples considering sleep divorce worry that it will ruin the intimacy or damage the relationship. “I thought if we didn’t sleep in the same bed, it meant that there was something very wrong with us, like we couldn’t be fully vulnerable with each other,” said Brand.

But sleep experts and couples therapists agree that exhaustion and lack of energy aren’t good for libido. If both partners are getting a good night’s sleep, separate bedrooms can improve intimacy.

Vass said research shows women who got an extra hour of sleep per night reported higher levels of sexual desire. She recommended planning micro-dates to strengthen intimacy. “Find 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to have coffee, take a walk or sit on the couch with a partner.”

Winters emphasized the importance of making time for each other. “Couples can fall asleep together when possible or make time to cuddle before bed,” she said.

As a therapist, Brand’s advice to couples considering trying a sleep divorce is to listen to your partner’s concerns. “Make it clear that your desire to sleep separately is not a rejection of the other person, but about what you need to be a good partner.”

Brand said sleep divorce has deepend communication with her husband. “It has been one of the things that has helped me sustain 20 years of marriage.”

Bottom Line: Do what works for your relationship. If a sleep divorce saves you from a real divorce, it could be worth it. But if you decide you want to stay in the same bed, get some good earplugs.

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