Why You Should Consider a Sleep Divorce for Your Relationship
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, couples are spending more time together than ever before. And if certain habits (think: snoring or late-night texting) are getting under your skin and interfering with your sleep, you're not alone. More and more couples are deciding that it's time for a sleep divorce. While it sounds dramatic, this sleep method has nothing to do with actual divorce. A sleep divorce is an agreement between a couple to sleep separately. If you're noticing your partner's sleep behaviors are impacting your own rest, trying this trend could improve your overall wellbeing—and the wellbeing of your relationship.
It's no secret that sleep is imperative to our physical and mental health. "Sleep is one of the most important factors in determining your overall well-being," says Christopher Barnes, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Washington who specializes in sleep and sleep deprivation. "Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality are important predictors of just about any health outcome you can think of (cancer, strokes, Alzheimer's, heart attacks, obesity and more), while good sleep health improves mood, lowers stress, improves relationships, and improves work outcomes."
So, we know better sleep can improve your relationship, but how does it help exactly? While it's a new area of research, Amie Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has focused her research on discovering the answer. "We found that people were more likely to report fighting with their partners after sleeping worse than usual, and when we watched couples interact in the lab, people who had slept worse the night before were more negative during a conflict discussion with their partner," she explains. "They were also less likely to resolve the conflict if either partner had slept poorly the night before." She adds that other researchers have found that people were less satisfied with their relationships if either they or their partner tended to sleep poorly.
But is sleeping together the cause of a dreadful night's rest? The answer isn't completely clear, Gordon says. "The little research that has directly examined co-sleeping in couples seems to find mixed results: One study found that couples report sleeping better together but actually appeared to disturb each other's sleep," she explains. "These tend to be studies with small samples, since they often require couples to sleep together in the lab." However, if your partner struggles with a sleep disorder—or if they're simply interrupting your sleep—there's a real possibility sharing the same bed could be causing problems.
Whether your partner snores loudly, comes into bed hours after you, or steals the cover, all of these things can impact your rest throughout the night. And if you feel your sleep deprivation is negatively impacting your relationship, it might be time for a sleep divorce.
What is a sleep divorce?
First thing's first: A sleep divorce doesn't include any kind of legal action or separation. A sleep divorce is an agreement between couples to sleep separately in order to improve their quality of rest (thus improving the quality of their relationship). It's important to note that a sleep divorce can look different for every couple. Some may opt to sleep in separate rooms every night while others may try it a few nights a week. You can also try getting separate beds if you'd like. The most important thing is to do what works best for you as a couple.
Is it time for a sleep divorce?
Real talk: You may be hesitant to try out a sleep divorce—and with good reason. Gordon is currently researching people's beliefs about sleep and its role in a relationship, and her findings speak volumes about societal beliefs. "We are finding that some people believe sleeping together is very important for a good relationship and see not sleeping together as a sign that something is wrong in the relationship," she says.
Challenging societal norms can be extremely uncomfortable, says Brittney Cobb, a licensed therapist and licensed clinical social worker in North Carolina. "We live in a society that can be rejecting or judgmental of anything that goes against the norm, so it makes sense for people to feel hesitant in challenging what our culture and society sees as the standard." Cobb says. "However, couples are entitled to create the rules in their relationship–even if people don't agree or understand."
Things other people might deem markers of success in a relationship (like sleeping together every night) could actually be the source of your troubles, explains Landis Bejar, licensed mental health counselor and founder of wedding planning therapy practice AisleTalk in New York City. "In relationships, we generally view physical togetherness as reflective of closeness and intimacy within a relationship," she says. "But sleeping together is not the only way to cultivate closeness—and continuing to sleep together in spite of negative impacts on one or more partners can actually lead to the exact opposite: feeling disconnected, irritable and resentful."
If you're experiencing any of these feelings because your nightly rest is being disrupted, then it's time to think about getting a sleep divorce.
How to Ask for a Sleep Divorce
It may seem impossible, but there are ways to ask for a sleep divorce without hurting your partner's feelings. The key is to approach the conversation with honesty and kindness.
Brainstorm Ahead of the Conversation
Bejar recommends you brainstorm reasons why you want to try a sleep divorce beforehand (to get better sleep so you can be less irritable or a more present partner, for example). It can also help to brainstorm solutions ahead of time. Can you try sleeping separately on weeknights and come back together on weekends? Having these solutions ready to go will make the conversation feel more constructive and positive.
Be Honest About the Cause of This Decision
Bejar says the most important thing is to be extremely honest about why you're asking for this. "Present your feelings and motivations for initiating this change," she says. "Be clear that this is not about wanting separation or distance from your partner in general, but about the reasons you reflected on ahead of time."
Use "I" Statements
When it comes to actually having the conversation, Cobb says it's important to take ownership of your feelings by using "I" statements. Start with a positive comment like, "I really enjoy the time we spend together" or "I'm really thankful for how well we are able to make time for one another." Then, move onto the constructive part of the conversation. An example would be: "I notice that I feel irritable when I don't get enough sleep at night, and I would like for us to try and fix that." Cobb reiterates how important it is to comfort your partner throughout this tak. "It helps to reassure your partner, that just because you are taking time to sleep apart, doesn't mean the love you have for them is any different," she says.
How to Stay Connected Through a Sleep Divorce
Here's the truth: Sleeping together conveniently affords couples built-in time for intimacy. Trying a sleep divorce means that you'll have to get more creative when it comes to maintaining your emotional connection. "If we're taking away this built-in time together, how do we build out time together in some other way?" Bejar asks. Turns out, there are several expert-approved ways to maintain your emotional connection despite sleeping separately.
"Communication (both in initiating the sleep divorce and in the ongoing navigation of it) is the most important ingredient in ensuring the change is a positive one for the relationship," Bejar says. "Sleep divorces can be permanent or temporary arrangements, but it's up to the couple to make sure they continue to be on the same page."
The first thing you should do is set clear parameters with your partner. Ask yourselves what you would like to achieve through this sleep divorce. Then, ask yourselves how you'll know if it's not working for you anymore. Knowing these important things ahead of time can help guide future conversations.
Once you try sleeping separately, we suggest setting up periodic check-ins to see how you're both feeling. This is also a great opportunity to make any adjustments to the plan. Maybe you want to spend one extra night together because you're starting to feel lonely. Or, maybe you plan an extra date night to have ample quality time together.
Many couples use the time in bed together at night for intimacy. If you're taking that time out of the equation, you'll need to find other ways to add it back in. "Although sleeping together is a common way for couples to form closeness or build intimacy, it's not the only way," Cobb says. "Both you and your partner should agree to be intentional about finding ways to increase emotional closeness and to stay accountable to make sure it happens."
This can look like a nightly ritual of cuddling, playing games or watching a movie together. You could also place the activity in the morning, like having breakfast in bed together on the weekends. "Any healthy method of increasing physical touch or time spent together can be beneficial," Cobb says.
Plan Quality Time Together
Your commitment to emotional closeness doesn't have to stop at your bed, though. In fact, the possibilities to build and strengthen your relationship outside of sleeping hours are nearly endless—you just have to get a little creative. "Join a book club or take a class and schedule intimate dinners to talk about it," Bejar suggests. "Having specific topics to discuss means a richer date night that isn't just going out to dinner to revolve around about bills, kids, or appointments."
Get Creative With Compromises
Of course, not every couple has separate rooms or spaces to make a sleep divorce possible. If that's the case for you, brainstorm compromises you could make. Perhaps a white noise machine could help ease the sound of your partner snoring. Or, maybe you can use separate blankets if your partner tends to steal the one you currently use. Work with your S.O. to come up with creative solutions. If you need extra help, talk to a therapist or primary care doctor for an outside perspective.
Trust in Your Relationship
It's natural to feel insecure when you're doing something different from the societal norm. Cobb says keeping it private can help protect you from outside judgement. "Nothing has to be wrong for couples to sleep apart," she says. "It doesn't have to be a topic for conversation with anyone outside of their relationship. Set boundaries and don't feel guilty for maintaining your privacy."
The key is to focus on what makes you happiest, not what society tells you you need to be happy, Barnes says. "Rather than letting societal norms decide whether a couple sleeps in the same space or not, they should decide based on what leads to good sleep, good health, and a good relationship," he says. "In some contexts, that will mean sleeping in the same space, and in other contexts it will mean sleeping in separate spaces."
If you're on the fence about sleeping separately, know that many couples have success with it. In fact, Bejar says couples who have successfully navigated sleep divorces report feeling more connected. It's a major test of your communications skills and problem-solving skills, which brings you closer together than ever before.
While some couples may love sleeping together, there's no shame in taking some space at night. Your relationship is all about what makes you happy as a couple. "We know there are many different ways to have a connective, healthy relationship," Bejar says. "The main thing is that, whether you're doing something inside the norm or outside of it, you do it with love, consent, clear communication and mutual respect for one another."