Whether you live with your partner or not, the expectation is that couples should sleep together, so choosing to sleep in separate beds seems like an unconventional choice.
Does the idea of sleeping in separate beds — better yet, entirely separate rooms — conjure up images of a dissatisfied middle-aged couple on the brink of separation? You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that.
Our cultural attitudes make us assume that partners who sleep apart under the same roof must be in a loveless, sexless, union.
There’s even a term for this: “sleep divorce.” And yet, despite the seemingly negative connotations, partaking in a “sleep divorce” doesn’t mean your relationship is on the rocks. On the contrary, sleeping in separate beds isn’t always the beginning of the end.
We asked two experts whether sleeping in separate beds is truly a symptom of relationship issues, or whether couples who sleep apart stay together.
Sleep is vital (quite literally) for our physical and mental health, but what if we told you it could affect the health of your relationship, too?
Research shows that a good night’s sleep helps you communicate better and be more empathetic, two important qualities for sustaining romantic relationships.
Sleep issues and relationship problems often go hand-in-hand, and some studies even found that people are more likely to lash out at their partner after a sleepless night. Meanwhile, better sleep is associated with more satisfying relationships.
While it’s true that beds are partly made for sex and cuddles, the actual sleeping element is also important. Maybe you’re a light sleeper and your partner’s tossing and turning is keeping you up. Maybe they hog all the covers. Or maybe their body turns into a human furnace — do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
If you sleep with someone prone to snoring or sleep apnea you can blame their nasal problems for up to 50% of your sleep disruptions. This sets off a vicious cycle of poor sleep and resentment, neither of which help with relationship quality.
“It's important for couples facing these issues to try their best to avoid being influenced by negative social stigma and judgment around sleeping apart and be as creative and innovative in finding solutions that work for them,” explains Dr. Joseph Cilona, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert at Paired.
Admittedly, there’s a scarcity of systematic research on how sleeping in separate beds can affect relationship quality — most likely because of the taboo surrounding the practice. That being said, there are plenty of reasons why sleeping apart is the most logical option.
If your sleep-wake cycles aren’t in sync, whether it’s because of work schedules or personal preference, it might make more sense to not share a bed.
Some studies found that couples whose sleep schedules were aligned were more satisfied with their relationship. Meanwhile, partners with mismatched sleeping habits reported lower relationship satisfaction, higher rates of conflict, and less sex.
If one partner is pregnant, going through a period of insomnia, or has other sleep issues, that’s even more reason for each partner to have their own space. Some research suggests that your romantic attachment style might even dictate your sleeping arrangements.
Although a restful night makes a solid case for sleeping in separate beds, it does bring up the question of intimacy.
The conjugal bed is where the magic happens for most people, so you might not want to miss out on those moments of physical intimacy. Others might really cherish waking up next to their partner. Sleeping together isn’t the be-all and end-all of intimacy, but it can foster closeness and safety.
If you’re worried about how sleeping in separate beds might affect your intimacy, Dr. Cilona recommends creating a bedtime routine with your partner.
Creating a routine around connecting with your partner either physically, emotionally or both can be helpful.
“Even if you aren’t planning to sleep in the same bed, creating a routine around connecting with your partner either physically, emotionally or both can be helpful,” he says.
“For example, choosing a comfortable location and creating a ritual and routine that can be shared such as talking, touching, sharing details of the day, and spending intimate time with your partner are some possibilities. When it’s time to sleep, both retire to separate beds or then engage in other independent bedtime preparations.”
You could read together or have a cuddle before going to your respective beds, and wake each other up in the morning with a hot cup of coffee. You can also find other ways to be intimate throughout the day. After all, it’s less about the sleeping arrangements and more about making time for closeness.
“Couples spend nearly one-third of their lives sleeping together, so it’s important to tackle different sleep needs, preferences, and problems head-on,” says Dr. Marisa T. Cohen, a relationship scientist, coach, and expert at Paired.
Dr. Cohen explains that the first step is to communicate your sleep needs to your partner. “If you’re finding it difficult to reach an understanding of each other’s sleep needs, start by listing the top five things you need for a good night's sleep,” she says.
“This could be the ideal time you like to go to bed, the amount of hours you need to get, optimal sleeping conditions, positions to sleep in, or access to covers. Ask your partner to do the same.”
A qualitative study of couples found that reaching an agreement on issues — like which side of the bed to sleep on, the temperature of the room, bedtime, and waking time — was important to achieve a good night of sleep.
Reassure your partner that sleeping apart isn’t an indication of lack of love or affection, but rather an attempt to actually make the relationship better.
Dr. Cohen points out that the main goal is to ensure both partners’ (sleep) needs are met, which could even mean you don’t have to sleep in separate beds at all.
“Once you’ve identified the issues and specific problems that are important to each of you, you may realize that there are more differences than you thought,” she says.
“If so, work through your priority list and tackle them one at a time. For example, you might find short-term solutions such as earplugs, having your own blanket, or installing black-out blinds. Some may require more effort, such as changing bedtime habits, switching phones off before bed, or sleeping in the guest room when you work early shifts."
Work together to find a strategy that works for everyone and ensures you’re both getting a good night’s sleep. You’ll rest easy knowing your partner is also catching those zzz’s. “When sleep becomes a battle in a relationship, it can reach a point where it may be healthier to sleep apart,” adds Dr. Cilona.
“In that case, it’s important to reassure your partner that sleeping apart isn’t an indication of lack of love or affection, but rather an attempt to actually make the relationship better,” he says.
“When broaching the idea with your partner, focus on the positives. Well-rested people are generally happier and more alert during the day. Getting a good night's sleep can leave you with more energy to connect better throughout the day.”
The bottom line is that there’s no right or wrong way to sleep when you’re in a couple. Being together doesn’t mean you have to share a bed if you don’t want to, and if you’d rather starfish than spoon, there’s no shame in that.
Are your sleeping arrangements affecting your relationship? Download the Paired app for more relationship advice and couple exercises designed by experts.