It’s meant to be a refuge, a place of sleep, harmony and intimacy, but for many long-term couples their bed has become a battleground. Snoring, tossing and turning, insomnia, blanket hogging and body heat spell doom for a good night’s sleep – and a new study shows more and more people are opting for a “sleep divorce” to get enough rest.
At least 200 000 Australian couples not only sleep in separate beds but in different bedrooms, the study found. Research conducted in the USA had similar findings: up to 25% of couples sleep apart and the home-construction industry recently reported a surge in requests for two separate master bedrooms in new homes.
Cape Town couple Elizabeth* and John* can understand the growing trend. They opted for a sleep divorce soon after their wedding in the early ’90s and believe it’s strengthened their relationship.
“I sleep very lightly,” Elizabeth (57) says.
“Every time my husband turned over or made the slightest sound I’d wake up – and that in turn would wake him up. We opted for separate bedrooms and it’s worked well for us.
“John often joins me in the early morning for a cuddle so the intimacy is very much still there – the only difference is I’m a nicer person because I’m not tired and crotchety all the time.”
Pietermaritzburg couple Sandra* (43) and Mike* (45) are seriously considering a sleep divorce.
“I snore, I’m restless, I make noises in my sleep,” Sandra tells us. “Sometimes I even wake myself up. Mike battles to sleep and I know it irritates him. In the morning he’ll ask, ‘Why were you so restless last night?’ I feel really bad because he’s exhausted.”
Jennifer Adams (53), the Australian author of the book Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart, has been happily married for many years even though she and her partner sleep in separate rooms.
“Sleeping separately doesn’t mean the end of a relationship – it’s a way of maintaining a relationship. It’s practical. If you’re being disturbed by your partner and you’re not getting enough sleep, then you need to do something to restore yourself,” she maintains.
Colleen Carney, director of the sleep and depression laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, is another advocate of sleep divorce.
“People say they sleep better together but when we actually monitor their brains we see their brain isn’t getting into deeper stages of sleep because they’re continuously being woken up by movement or sound,” she says.
We asked local experts to weigh up the pros and cons.
Zulumathabo Zulu, a relationship expert from Sandton says sleeping apart can actually save a marriage. “Sleep deprivation can introduce a lot of stress into a relationship,” he says. “Couples may think they’re doing the best thing they can by staying in the same bed but it could be having the opposite effect.”
Speaking openly is important because it delves into the realness of relationships, says clinical sexologist Dr Marlene Wasserman, better known as Dr Eve. “Although it’s far more common than we think, there’s still a sense of shame and secrecy around sleeping apart because of the norms we apply to romantic relationships.”
Acknowledging you want to have separate bedrooms is brave, she adds. “Although it’s the common term used to describe separate sleeping arrangements, ‘sleep divorce’ sounds quite negative – there’s nothing negative about prioritizing sleep.
“Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. If we don’t sleep, we’re grumpy, and it’s going to have an impact on intimacy. We need to break down this model that says separate bedrooms is a symptom of a lack of love or intimacy.”
THE SEX ISSUE
Sharing a bed doesn’t necessarily mean more or better sex. “Let’s be realistic,” Wasserman says. “If a couple isn’t happy it doesn’t make any difference if they sleep in the same bed or not.” In fact, she says, a separate arrangement can bring in what most people crave in a relationship: surprise, novelty and spontaneity.
“A couple’s sex life can actually become more refreshing as they have to negotiate how they’re going to be intimate and become creative.”
There are, she says, also advantages to staying put. “When two people share a bed and their bodies touch – not just sexually – a hormone called vasopressin is released. It makes people feel closer to each other.”
This is something that sleep divorcees lose out on, Wasserm but acknowledges it might be a small price to pay for a good night’s rest.
NO QUICK FIX
While a sleep divorce can help alleviate sleep problems it won’t solve issues overnight, according to Cape Town neuropsychologist and sleep scientist Mariza van Wyk. “Most people who experience disruptions from sharing a bed with their partner have pre-existing sleep disruptions or disorders. Their symptoms tend to be aggravated when sharing a bed,” she says.
“The most common complaints from patients include snoring and restlessness, but another often unrecognized problem can be a sense of frustration their partner sleeps through the night while they toss and turn.
“The main aim should still be to treat the underlying sleep disruptions or disorders.”
Speak to your doctor if you’re experiencing frequent patterns of insomnia.
ASSESS YOUR MOTIVES
When considering a sleep divorce it’s vital to know and understand why you want one. “Some couples propose sleeping separately as an excuse to avoid intimacy and difficult conversations,” Wasserman says. “In this case sleeping in separate beds creates much more of a disconnect, so it’s important to make sure you’re being honest with yourselves.”
Zulu says couples need to address the issue with each other openly to avoid feelings of rejection and hurt. “There must be uninhibited communication where partners feel free to discuss any concerns about the agreement without being ashamed, embarrassed, or feel like they’re being unreasonable or demanding.
”The partner who proposes sleeping apart must make sure they choose their words carefully, Zulu adds, and Wasserman agrees. “Start out gently. Say: ‘I love you and appreciate you but I’m finding it difficult to function with us sharing a bed. Can we talk about the possibility of separate beds or separate rooms?’,” she suggests.
Should you and your partner decide to go ahead it’s important to create rituals to try to maintain a connection, she adds.
“You could suggest cuddling in the morning before work or sleeping separately only on weekdays so you’re rested during the work week but still get to benefit from having a warm body next to you on weekends.”
EXTRA SOURCES: WASHINGTONPOST.COM, DAILYMAIL.CO.UK
* Not their real names.