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5 Signs a 'Sleep Divorce' Might Be Right for You

irritated man sleeping next to woman snoring
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMay 31, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Do you enjoy sleeping in the same bed with your significant other? Or have you considered sleeping in separate beds, also known as a “sleep divorce”?

For better or worse, our bed partners often affect the quality of our sleep. Some people find they don’t sleep well when their partner is away, while others sleep better.

Couples therapists often recommend sleeping in the same bed, as it offers a regular opportunity for cuddling and closeness which can reinforce the couple’s attachment bonds. It also fosters more frequent sexual intimacy, which is linked to relationship quality.

But what about the opposite effect—when sharing a bedroom might be hurting, rather than strengthening, your relationship?

Sharing a bed is obviously a very personal decision. If you or your partner sleep worse when you share a bed, here are five signs that a sleep divorce might be right for you.

You’re on very different schedules.

Couples who go to bed hours apart often wake each other up. For example, one partner might go to bed at 9:00 pm and get up at 5:00 am; her partner will disturb his sleep when she comes to bed at 1:00 am, and she’ll disturb his partner when she gets up at 5:00. In the hours their sleep does overlap, it's unlikely that there will be enough cuddling and closeness to offset the sleep disturbance (and potential relationship friction).

Sleep problems are hurting your relationship.

When one or both partners aren’t sleeping well, their relationship tends to suffer. The tension can be particularly high when one partner is causing the other’s sleep difficulties, like because of loud snoring. A vicious cycle can ensue, in which worse relationship quality leads to further sleep problems, more problems in your relationship, and so forth. The concern about loss of intimacy through not sharing a bed may be dwarfed by the obvious problems the sleep difficulties are causing. In these situations, sleeping separately can actually increase relationship satisfaction.

Sleep problems are affecting your (or your partner’s) health.

Interrupted sleep can have serious effects on your health. For example, if you’re battling a serious illness, good sleep can make all the difference. In these cases, your health (or your partner’s) takes priority. Remember to revisit the issue of sleeping together when you’re well again.

You or your partner needs to sleep through the night for safety reasons.

Consistently interrupted sleep can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, which is a serious safety concern during activities like driving. In these cases, the partners might arrange “sleep separations” on critical nights.

For example, a couple with a baby in which the mother is a commercial pilot might decide that the father will be on baby duty the nights before his wife has to fly; she’ll sleep in the downstairs bedroom with a white noise machine so she’s not woken up when their baby cries. They may switch places when she has a day off and he’ll be driving long distance the next day.

Your relationship is strong enough to handle it.

If you and your partner generally enjoy each other’s company and are satisfied with your relationship, there’s a better chance that you can maintain closeness and sexual intimacy even if you sleep apart. You can apply your shared problem solving abilities to navigate the “break-up,” and even use it to build, rather than weaken, your relationship. For example, you might plan dedicated “snuggle time” in one of your bedrooms (“Your place or mine?”) before separating to sleep.

In some cases a sleep divorce might indicate a deeper problem in the relationship, such as drifting apart or unexpressed resentment. Before opting for a sleep divorce, have an honest discussion with your partner about whether there are any issues that you need to address—possibly with the help of a couples therapist.

A sleep divorce can be managed successfully, just like any challenges that arise in healthy relationships. Through honesty and open communication, you and your partner can maintain intimacy and connection—and you might get more out of your waking hours together.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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