Sleep Divorce Isn’t a Four-Letter Word, So Why Do We Treat It Like One?

Close-up shot of couple sleeping

As a sleep doctor, I work with a lot of patients who are in wonderful, healthy, loving relationships, but are totally different sleepers than their partners. Maybe you toss and turn all night while your partner snores. Maybe one of you can only fall asleep to the soothing sound of Netflix every night and your spouse needs complete and total silence to drift off. Whatever the reason, it’s very common for partners to be a great match for each other in most aspects of life – and totally incompatible when it comes to sleeping.

That doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed or that you have to wander through life a sleep-deprived zombie. One potential solution: sleeping separately (whether in separate beds or rooms). Otherwise known as a sleep divorce, it can be an effective tool for you and your partner when you just can’t get any sleep.

If you’re wary of giving it a shot, you’re not alone – the name can throw people off, thanks to the negative connotations around the word “divorce.” There’s often a lot of shame involved – people are hesitant to speak up and admit they want to give it a shot because they’re afraid it means their relationship is in trouble. They think being in a relationship means they should sleep in the same bed as their partner (though interestingly enough, sleeping in separate beds was normal until around the 1950s, according to Salon). So admitting that they just don’t want to, or that it’s just not working, can sometimes feel like giving up on the relationship – and each other.

I worked for years with a couple who couldn’t find a way to sleep together. The husband snored, and it was keeping his wife up at night. They tried everything: he was evaluated for sleep apnea (and nothing was found), they tried using earplugs, white noise machines. Nothing worked. When I suggested that they start sleeping separately, you could see the relief on their faces. It took a psychologist telling them that it was okay to give them the push they needed. And you know what? They’re happier and healthier now because they’re both sleeping better – and that allows them to connect with each other more meaningfully during the day.

Opting to sleep separately doesn’t mean you don’t care about your spouse, and it doesn’t mean you both are on the road to a literal divorce. On the contrary, it can mean that you’re completely committed to helping each other get the best sleep possible.

And there’s myriad benefits to getting more sleep: It can improve your immune system, boost your mood and memory, and decrease your risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. And while research that examines exactly how sleep impacts your relationship may be limited, a recent study suggests that losing just an hour of sleep per night is enough to increase irritation and decrease willingness to help others. The study didn’t look specifically at couples, but I’m sure anyone who’s ever snapped at their spouse after a bad night’s sleep probably relates to that feeling. It’s not a leap to suggest that getting more sleep can also improve your relationship – if sleeping in separate beds or rooms is what helps you both, there’s no shame in that.

Now, for a sleep divorce to work, it should be fair. That means both partners are willing to give it a shot and that one person doesn’t secretly resent the other for suggesting it.

It also means that your sleeping arrangements should be equal (no hogging the comfortable bed while your partner is relegated to the lumpy couch!) and that you both have to be open about discussing your specific sleep issues.

Lastly, it may mean having some sensitive conversations about intimacy and sex so that you can be sure that both your physical needs are being met once you’re no longer sleeping in the same room together (that might look like scheduling sex regularly, or designating one bed for sex and cuddling before you go your separate sleep ways).

But it’s time to do away with the stigma surrounding sleep divorce. It’s not a four-letter word, so it’s time we stop treating it like one.

Dr. Shelby Harris

Dr. Shelby Harris

Dr. Shelby Harris is on a mission to help you get a great night’s sleep. As a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine, she treats a wide variety of sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares, and narcolepsy, with a focus on non-pharmacological interventions. She is board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication.

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