Sleep is important for our physical and mental health, but what happens when your lack of sleep starts to affect not just your well-being, but your relationship too?
Whether you have insomnia, your partner snores so much even earplugs don’t help, or you just sleep better on your own, it may be time to ask your partner for a sleep divorce. But, how do you ask for a sleep divorce without insulting your other half and affecting your sex life?
Katy Daly, relationship expert and co-founder of Amicable, takes us through what a sleep divorce is and how to navigate your way through one with your partner, so both your sleep and relationship quality improve.
The benefits of better sleep are vast — it supports your immune system, can lower blood sugar, improve concentration, and boost mood, just to name just a few.
“As people understand more about both the benefits of sleep and the detrimental impact insufficient sleep has on our ability to fight diseases such as dementia, more of us are taking sleep seriously,” says Daly.
New technology, such as smartwatches are trackers also give us the ability to track our sleep, meaning we’re all more aware when we suffer from poor sleep or need a better night’s sleep.
“A sleep divorce is a term used to describe a situation where two partners who share a bed choose to sleep in separate rooms regularly,” explains Daly.
Just because you are compatible in every other way it doesn't mean you’ll also have similar sleeping patterns with your partner. You may be a night owl and they could be an early bird, and while you may sleep erratically and snore they could be a quiet sleeper who never moves — so this is why some couples decide on a sleep divorce.
If your partner’s sleep habits are affecting your sleep quality, Daly says it could be for a variety of reasons, including “differences in sleep preferences (such as your partner preferring a different temperature or level of darkness), snoring, shift work or other sleep disturbances like sleep apnea.”
It’s not as uncommon as you may think, with a National Sleep Foundation survey showing that around 1 in 4 couples now sleep in separate beds or in different rooms. This was down to many reasons, including partners being disturbed by issues such as restless leg syndrome and even sleep disorders.
If a sleep divorce sounds like your idea of a nightmare, one study looked at how couples slept together and found that the most important aspects coupled tended to agree on was finding a happy medium in sleeping arrangements, such as how hot or cold their bedroom was, keeping sleep schedules consistent and even which side of the bed they slept on.
Instead of sharing a bed couples choose to sleep in different beds, although some like to snuggle or share a cuddle before they go their separate ways. Couples who decide to sleep in separate beds should also make an extra effort with their sex life — as this is one way to retain the emotional intimacy between you.
Of course, like an actual divorce, it doesn’t mean couples will go their separate ways permanently, just while they sleep. “While a sleep divorce involves partners sleeping in separate beds or bedrooms, it doesn't necessarily mean that there is a breakdown in the relationship,” says Daly. “Instead, it can be seen as a practical solution to a common problem that allows both partners to get the sleep they need.”
When sleeping together is interrupting feeling close and connected, it’s worth trying something else, since it’s no longer meeting those needs anyway.
A sleep divorce could bring you closer together, as better sleep has been proven to help our moods. However, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t affect the emotional or physical side of your relationship.
“Making sure you break up your nights of good quality sleep apart is also important to maintain physical and emotional closeness. Avoid just sharing a bed when you want sex — this can bring a transactional feel to the bedroom,” explains Daly. And remember that your bedroom is not the only place to have sex!
“Intimacy doesn’t have to start and stop on a bed or in the bedroom and not sharing a bed can encourage you to explore different times and places to have sex and be intimate.”
Ever argued with a partner when you were tired? These studies prove that it could be down to your lack of sleep.
A good night’s sleep can also help you communicate better and be more empathetic, two important qualities for a growing relationship.
“There are times in our lives when separate beds make a lot of sense for example in the parenting years when you can tag team childcare and makes sense to recover after nights of broken sleep,” adds Daly.
Couples who navigate new routines that better meet everyone’s needs — especially ones that look different from what marriage is “supposed” to look like — often have incredible communication skills.
“If the lack of sleep that is happening from sharing a bed is impacting you at such a deep level that it’s trickling out to other parts of your marriage, it’s absolutely worth trying sleeping separately,” says Moraya Seger DeGeare, licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired. “For couples who are great at expressing needs, they will also be able to share what needs might not be getting met by sleeping separately. Hopefully, continue to adjust routines until you find what uniquely fits you as a couple,” she adds.
“The willingness to work together to find what works and how everyone is most satisfied is what will support the couple feeling not only rested but even more secure in their relationship,” continues Seeger DeGeare.
Worried that even broaching the subject of separate bedrooms will cause an argument or affect the quality of your relationship? Here are some tips to make the conversation of a sleep divorce easier.
Just like talking about finances or anything which has upset you, it’s all about the timing. “Broaching any sensitive subject with a partner needs careful handling,” says Daly. “Timing is everything. Never start the conversation on the back of an argument about your partner’s poor sleep habits.” Start the conversation when you both are not distracted and no one is being rushed for time.
Asking for a sleep divorce when you don’t have the privacy to discuss both your concerns can sabotage the conversation from the start because your partner might not feel they have the space to speak freely, if you bring it up around people they don’t feel fully comfortable being vulnerable with.
“It’s an intimate conversation, so ensuring you have privacy is important,” says Daly. “Chatting whilst doing another task such as walking the dog, driving (not with the kids in the back seat!), or loading the dishwasher, where you don’t have to make direct eye contact, can be a good way to raise the issue initially and gauge their reaction.”
Once you’ve both decided on a sleep divorce, having regular check-ins, especially to begin with, allows you to understand the emotional side of your situation and how you feel about it. It can even be helpful to set a time to check in together that feels good for you both, it could be a few days or weeks. But having the set time allows each partner to experience a range of emotions and see if some change on their own or need to be discussed as a couple.
Lastly, as with anything in relationships, remind each other that we’re just trying something new. If it doesn’t work, we can always try something else. Frame the conversation as: “This is just an experiment and an experience, and we’re both doing this with the relationship as a whole in mind.” It can help us to be brave in a relationship when we know if we don’t love it, we have a partner that is willing to keep trying with us.