To stay together forever, get a sleep divorce
Reviewed by Monika Cope-Ward, LCSW
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 09/19/2023
When Emily’s partner of 13 years suggested they start sleeping separately, she felt upset at first. “It was Dennis’s idea, and I wasn’t super stoked about it,” she says. But Emily and Dennis both struggle with insomnia and they work different shifts, so it made sense to at least try.
Within a few weeks, Emily realized she was getting more rest than she had in years. “I really do better when someone isn’t kicking the covers off the bed or moving all night,” she says. “We’re both markedly more pleasant humans when we sleep well.”
Emily and Dennis have opted for what some experts call a “sleep divorce,” a trend that’s grown dramatically in the past few years.1 According to a New York Times survey from January 2023, one in five American couples now sleep in separate bedrooms.2 This number is expected to grow as people learn more about how poor sleep affects our physical and mental health.
But despite the potential benefits of sleeping apart, there’s still a stigma around it that may make couples reluctant to try.
Why couples choose to sleep separately
Alexandra Solomon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and host of the podcast “Reimagining Love,” says there are many reasons why couples choose a sleep divorce.
Medical concerns: These include frequent bathroom trips, snoring, and disorders like sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome. It’s reasonable to worry about your health if you don’t get enough rest: Lack of sleep puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and even early death.3 It can also affect your mental health, possibly leading to anxiety, depression, and stress.
Sleep hygiene: Solomon says that in her experience, different sleep habits are the most common reason couples opt for a sleep divorce. Maybe one partner likes to fall asleep with the TV on, while the other needs silence. One might use a sound machine that grates on the other’s nerves, or partners might have different sleep or work schedules. These disparities may seem minor, but both people may feel strongly enough for compromise to be out of reach.
Co-sleeping: Parents of newborns and young kids frequently co-sleep with their children, and people often let their pets in bed also. Emily loves co-sleeping with Maudie, their six-year-old rescue, and finds great comfort in how the dog nestles against her at night. With Dennis in the bed, including Maudie wasn’t an option. Plus, Emily says, “she likes to snuggle first thing in the morning, but she wants her space at night. It’s a good balance.”
Disconnect in the relationship: Solomon admits there are times when a sleep divorce means something more. “Sometimes sleeping separately can be a reflection of relationship stress, and it’s a step on a journey toward increasing separateness, loneliness, and parallel lives,” she says.
But no matter why a couple chooses to sleep apart, Solomon adds, this shift also has the power to help strengthen or repair the relationship by requiring both partners to become more intentional about staying connected. “It may feel paradoxical,” she says, “but sometimes couples need to create space to generate closeness.”
Tips for staying close while sleeping apart
Once you and your partner have decided to sleep divorce, what’s next? Solomon says this gives you a reason to focus on building closeness through what she calls intimacy-boosting practices. “When your bodies are not next to one another at night, you have to create other ways to feel connected,” says Solomon. These practices might look like:
Making an effort to touch each other: Intimacy comes in many forms, not only sex. Sometimes just touching one another can feel exciting or comforting. “This is especially true if your love language is physical touch,” says Solomon. This might mean holding hands while walking, cuddling up under a blanket to watch a movie, or showering together.
Planning a date: If you and your partner sleep apart because of work schedules, consider co-sleeping on the weekend or your days off. You could also plan a sleepover after a date night or wind up in the same room spontaneously. “The world is really your oyster here,” says Solomon. “You can have a lot of fun with scheduling.”
Spending time together in bed: Having different bedrooms doesn’t mean you can’t snuggle up before falling asleep. If you and your partner like reading in bed together, for example, try keeping that tradition intact before you go your separate ways to snooze.
For Emily and Dennis, making joint decisions about when and how to be intimate reflects the parity in their relationship. “It’s nice that we’re more open and vocal about wants and needs because it’s not just habit or routine,” Emily says. “We are choosing time with one another.”
What if one of you doesn’t want a sleep divorce?
Maybe your partner has expressed interest in sleeping apart, but you’re not there yet. Like Emily, you may feel worried about your relationship at first. What can help you in that moment?
“The thing you don’t do is try to prove your case that sleeping together is better than sleeping apart, or bring in other peoples’ opinions,” Solomon says. “You and your partner look together at the problem, which is most often sleep incompatibility, not the relationship and not either partner.” By facing the issue with your partner and trying not to see their request as a personal slight, you’re more likely to engage in intimacy-boosting practices and have fun with them.
If agreeing fully to a sleep divorce doesn’t sit right with you, take it day by day and try the arrangement as a trial. Many couples choose sleep divorce for short-term situations like pregnancy or a medical procedure. One recent study showed that partners may choose to co-sleep again after that period for a variety of reasons, including missing each other.4
If your partner asks for a sleep divorce because of a fracture in the relationship, Solomon says, it may be time to consider couples therapy. In that case, sleeping separately might give each person the space to do some therapeutic work and repair the partnership.
How a sleep divorce can affect kids
If you opt for a sleep divorce, it’s normal to worry about how your children (and your friends) will perceive your relationship. Here are some ways to help kids understand what’s happening.
Talk openly about your decision. If you’ve always slept separately, this may not be necessary—but if it’s a recent decision, your children should be looped in. “Reassure them that your relationship will not be changing, just the sleeping arrangements,” says Solomon. She suggests explaining clearly what the shift will look like and welcoming any questions they have.
Normalize all kinds of families. Take this opportunity to ask your kids about families they know and what those look like. For example, your family or a friend’s family might have two dads or two moms, a single parent, or a grandparent in the house. All these differences should be embraced, says Solomon: “When kids experience different family structures, it gives them permission to grow up and create their own families according to what works best for them.”
Don’t get hung up on “normal.” “Whatever a kid’s family does is just normal to them,” Solomon says. “So if a kid grows up in a home where they see affectionate, connected, loving, happy parents who sleep in different rooms, that will feel normal. The mere existence of parents sleeping in separate rooms is not predictive of any harmful consequence for kids.”
When the kids take over the bed
It’s common for one or both parents to co-sleep with their kids, despite the possible risks associated with sharing a bed with an infant.5 In a recent study of 2,000 parents, one in four reported sharing a bed with their kids, and an equal percentage said they share a room with their kids.6 This can sometimes leave one partner feeling left out or displaced, which can put a strain on the parents’ relationship.
If that’s true for you, Solomon urges you to play the long game. “Kids are small for an incredibly short amount of time. Sometimes parents do what they must to help kids sleep well,” she says. “But most kids are going to want independence and separateness. It won’t last forever.” Waiting it out tends to work much better than fighting it out, she adds.
Why we still feel weird about sleeping apart
The stigma around couples sleeping in separate spaces comes from the romantic mythology built into our culture, says Solomon. “I always joke that Disney did us dirty,” she says. “Most popular culture portrays relationships where partners sleep together and live what they think is a more traditional lifestyle. I spend so much time deconstructing these so-called norms.”
So while we might bump on the thought of sleeping apart from our partner at first, Solomon says it’s important to remember that’s just the mythology talking. There are many benefits to this decision. Not only is a good night’s sleep better for your health, but it can improve your mood and lead to clearer thinking.7 And if both partners are committed to being more intentional about intimacy, it can actually strengthen your relationship.
Even so, Emily still has a moment of hesitation when the topic comes up in conversation or she and Dennis invite new people over. “It felt weird at first, and it still can—almost like people are judging me for not sleeping with my husband,” she says. “But then I discovered there are a lot more people doing this than I realized.” Ultimately a sleep divorce benefits their relationship, Emily says, and she and Dennis are closer than ever.
That’s no surprise to Solomon. “Every relationship is different,” she says. “You have to do what works for both partners.”
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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