Could a “Sleep Divorce” Save Your Marriage?

More married couples are sleeping in separate beds to log uninterrupted Zzzs. Are they onto something?

by Adam Bulger

Steve didn’t set out to sleep separately from his wife. But looking back, it seemed inevitable. When she was pregnant, the 34-year-old father from New Jersey took to the couch to give her additional room in the bed. It worked out well: she was more comfortable and he slept better with no one poking him when he snored too loudly. After the baby was born, the arrangement just, well, continued. It didn’t seem weird. Their relationship wasn’t worse for it. They just slept better.

Little did Steve know that he was part of a rising trend. Earlier this year, Architectural Digest reported that dual master bedroom suites are the hottest trend in luxury home building. It seems safe to assume that both of those bedrooms are being slept in. A 2015 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that as many as a quarter of couples slept in separate beds while 10 percent of couples slept in separate bedrooms.

Despite a long-standing stigma about couples sleeping apart, there’s evidence that separating to steal quality “Zzzs” is becoming a more popular — and acceptable — option.

For a long time, no one paid much attention to sleep. It was something we all did, sure. But it was nothing examined with any sort of reverence. Then, the wellness boom hit. And everyone started to understand just how integral sleep is to every part of our existence. It improves our memory, mood, and immunity. It helps us retain information, build muscle, and be more productive. Even better, our decision-making and emotion-regulation improve, and we’re less likely to fly off the handle. In other words, it makes us better people to be around.

When we get enough of it, that is. Lack of sleep leaves us, among other things, grumpy and unable to react sensibly. Lie down next to a snoring spouse and you’ll know how quickly your patience deteriorates without sleep. A lot of people want to avoid that — and just score some undisturbed sleep.

“For centuries people have been saying, ‘If you don’t sleep together, something’s really bad and wrong with your relationship.’ People now understand that that’s no longer true,” says James Maas, a former Cornell professor who, among other things, coined the term “power nap.” Maas now works as a sleep consultant for professional sports teams and high-powered corporations and says that, while there’s long been a stigma about couples sleeping apart, many are starting to see the benefit breaking off at bedtime.

“I don’t think it’s a question of people not getting along, or being mad at each other,” Maas says. “I think it’s a question of people starting to learn the value of sleep, and starting to see the importance of not being sleep deprived.”

There’s no single reason couples seek the comfort of separate beds. It could be due to incompatible work schedules. Or, one or both could have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea that makes sharing a bed impossible. Hell, it could be something as simple as incompatible levels of body heat. In the case of Brendan from New Jersey, it was a combination of factors.

“We’ve been sleeping separately for a few years,” Brendan says. “I have sleep apnea and sleeping next to my wife is like sleeping in a furnace. When we had [our son] Liam, it just became convenient to sleep in different rooms.”

The couples we spoke to have no bad blood about their arrangements. In fact, they see it as the only way to score the sweet bliss of uninterrupted sleep — and be better partners in the morning. But, of course, making the switch requires more than just a second bed.

Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has spent much of her career studying relationships and sleep, and how sleep affects general health. She believes there isn’t a one size fits all approach. Sleeping separately, she says, can help many couples.

“We know that couples who are sleep deprived are less able to show empathy for their partner, so they are less able to read their emotions,” Troxel says. “And being able to read what your partner is telling you, emotionally, is a really important skill in a relationship.”

It does, however, require careful communication.

“Finding ways to sleep apart while maintaining intimacy might be a problem for some couples,” she says. “It really requires good, open communication so that neither partner feels abandoned.”

For Christoph Noetzli, an Aquarist at the Minnesota Zoo, incompatible schedules and snoring led to solo sleep in his marriage.

“I’m a very light sleeper and wake up extremely early for work— 5 a.m. My wife, Jenni, goes to bed relatively late and likes to read at night,” Noetzli says. “When we slept in the same bed, the light from her reading and her going to bed later was really eating into my sleep.”

The jagged sleep started to take a toll on his daytime life.

“I was very tired all the time and it made my work days miserable,” Noetzli says. “And apparently I can snore as well, which bothered her. So, we decided to try separate beds for a bit and have never looked back. We will sleep in the same bed often on the weekends since we are both up later, and I don’t have to get up early.”

Once you have such an arrangement, however, an obvious question arises: what about sex? Do separate sleepers start evenings in a shared bed and, in the immortal words of James Brown, hit it and quit?

Apparently, yes.

“I try to do it quietly so as not wake up my wife downstairs,” Noetzli said. “Just kidding.”

He continues: “You are exactly right. Though the sex part is mostly on the weekends when we share a bed. If not, then we split off right after and enjoy the post-orgasmic glow with all the room in the world.”