It’s meant to be a refuge: a place of sleep, harmony and intimacy.

But for many long-term couples the marital bed has become a battleground and the days of blissful slumber in a tangle of arms and limbs are long gone. 

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” in a bid 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 American home-construction industry recently reported a surge in requests for two separate master bedrooms in new homes.

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Cape Town couple Elizabeth* (57) and John* (65) 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 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.”

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Sandra* (43) and Mike* (45) from Pieter maritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal 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 leaves me be, but he 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 14 years despite sleeping in a separate bedroom.

 “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 your self,” she maintains.

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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 that their brain isn’t getting into deeper stages of sleep because they’re continually being woken up by movement or sound,” she says.

We asked local experts to weigh up the pros and cons.

Bedtime blues

Sleeping apart can actually save a marriage, says relationship expert Zulumathabo Zulu, who’s based in Sandton, Johannesburg.

“Sleep deprivation can introduce a lot of stress into a relationship,” he says. “Couples might 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 about sleep incompatibility is important because it delves into the reality of relationships, says Cape Town-based clinical sexologist 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.”

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Acknowledging you want to have separate bedrooms is brave, she adds. “Although it’s the common term used to describe separate sleeping arrangements, I think ‘sleep divorce’ sounds quite negative – there is nothing negative about prioritising 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. “It doesn’t work that way,” Wasserman says. “Let’s be realistic about that. If a couple aren’t happy, it really doesn’t make any difference if they sleep in the same bed or not.”

In fact a separate arrangement can bring in what most people crave in a relationship: surprise, novelty and spontaneity, she says.

“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.”

But there are advantages to staying put too, she says. Couples who bed down together benefit from bonding hormones.

“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 divorcés lose out on, Wasserman says. But she 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 things overnight, says Mariza van Wyk, a Cape Town-based neuropsychologist and sleep scientist.

“Most people who experience disruptions from sharing a bed with their partner have pre-existing sleep disruptions or disorders and their symptoms tend to be aggravated when sharing a bed,” she says.

“Although the most common complaints from patients include snoring and restlessness, another often unrecognised problem can be a sense of frustration that their partner sleeps through the night while they toss and turn.

“The main aim should still be to treat the underlying sleep disruption or disorder.” Speak to your doctor if you’re experiencing frequent patterns of insomnia.

Asses 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.”

Couples need to address the issue openly to avoid feelings of rejection and hurt, Zulu says.

“There must be uninhibited communication where partners feel free to discuss any concerns about the agreement without being ashamed or embarrassed or feeling as if 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 by saying, ‘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?’ ” Wasserman suggests.

Should you and your partner decide to go ahead, it’s important to create rituals to try to maintain a connection, she adds.

“Maybe you could suggest cuddling in the morning before each of you heads off to 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.”