I once lived next door to a beautiful senior couple who doted over one another completely. They were clearly very much in love, even after many years of marriage, and the way they looked at each other was enough to melt even the coldest of hearts. You know the couple in the Disney film “Up” — just like them.
One day I was eavesdropping on a conversation they were having with my mum when I heard them mention that they sleep in separate bedrooms. My mum must have looked a little confused because they laughed and followed cheerfully with, “yes, it’s the secret to our relationship.”
As a teenager at the time, it didn’t make sense to me so I just assumed that maybe this was something that happens to older married couples. Fast-forward 12 years and I now completely understand what they meant.
The Importance of Sleeping Together
Couples sharing a bed at night is generally seen as the done thing, particularly in Western societies. Not sharing a bed tends to raise eyebrows and the occasional question from a nosy family member. For some reason, many people attach a stigma to sleeping apart as if it implies a relationship on the rocks.
Yet sleeping together could actually have negative implications on the quality of your sleep, your health, and ultimately your relationship.
Dr. Wendy Troxel, sleep scientist and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep”, talks about this in her TEDx talk, saying “when sleep is measured objectively, people actually sleep worse with a partner.” But, Dr. Troxel goes on to explain, when these same people are asked whether they prefer to sleep alone or with their partner, most would say they prefer to sleep with their partner. “For many, the psychological benefits of snuggling up next to a loved one trumps the objective costs of sharing a bed”.
Unsurprisingly sleeping apart isn’t something we like to admit in public. It’s not exactly a topic people discuss at a dinner party, let alone in a lab environment. One study suggests that only 14% of couples sleep separately every night (interestingly, when asked why they sleep apart, a whopping 46% named snoring as the reason), but overall we know very little about the topic. It’s certainly not a regular subject of discussion, nor is it commonly portrayed in popular media.
Regardless, if we’re not sleeping well as a twosome, why do we continue to do so. Why do we prioritize sharing a bed over a good night’s sleep?
In most cases, it stems back to those social conventions I talked about earlier; it’s the “done” thing. As Dr. Troxel says, sleeping together is “largely a socially constructed belief system”; it’s not science-based, nor is it a biological need.
In fact, couples sleeping together is a relatively recent trend, which may offer a deeper explanation of why some couples struggle to sleep now. For straight couples, in particular, it’s sometimes even worse as men and women tend to react differently to sleeping together compared to sleeping alone. Although it’s important to point out that most of the research conducted so far is focused on straight couples, even less is known about sleep quality and relationship satisfaction in gay and/or transgender couples — an interesting future research topic.
Of course, sharing a bed isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for many people it’s the only way they can sleep, knowing a loved one is right next to them. Plus, sharing a bed certainly has its benefits (I’ll save you time, the study indicates that couples have more sex at bedtime).
Going to bed and waking up together is an intimate human action which usually intensifies romantic connections. It’s a time for closeness, intimacy, and social interaction, in a place that’s (usually) private and personal to a couple. However, sleeping next to a partner just because we feel we should when actually our sleep suffers because of it, is something that should be publicly acknowledged.
Sleeping Apart Can Be Beneficial
When we’re well-rested we’re much nicer to be around; generally, our brain just works a little bit better so we’re better able to communicate and hold intelligent conversations. Research also shows that we’re happier, more empathetic, and we feel more attractive, even sexier when we’ve slept well — so despite what I said earlier, perhaps sleeping apart is good for our sex lives.
Sharing a bed with someone can affect the quality of our sleep for a number of reasons, depending on who you’re sleeping with. Whether it’s nighttime wriggling, duvet stealing, persistent coughing, regular bathroom visits, the light from their phone or laptop, or their snoring habit. When we’re tired we’re irritable and cranky, so no surprises then that poor sleep can cause tension in relationships, even leading to more frequent and more severe fights. So if your partner is the reason you’re awake at night (and not in a good way) then the tension is only going to be worse.
Separate bedrooms, or even just separate beds (slumber party-style), could be key to a better relationship; both partners can finally get the sleep they need, in the environment they prefer, at the time that’s right for them.
Night Owls vs. Early Birds
The hour we go to bed and the time we wake up is very personal thanks to different attitudes toward sleep and our unique circadian rhythms. Put simply, some of us are night owls and some are early birds; this is not just a personality trait but a trait based on biological factors. These different sleep-wake schedules also have an effect on our ability (or inability) to sleep together.
Many couples face challenges because their sleep-wake schedules are out of sync. Night owls naturally feel sleepy later in the evening and tend to stay up later as a result; early birds get tired earlier in the evening and rise with the sun (as the name suggests). Night owls may prefer to work late as they’re more creative or productive in the evening. While early birds will need an early night so that they can rise early and make the most of their most productive time, the morning.
It is possible to sync sleep schedules but in reality, this can be difficult not only because you may both have different work hours but there are a number of other factors that may inhibit your ability to sync your sleep schedules.
How To Sleep Together, Apart
Be honest with each other, and yourself. While this apparently unconventional sleeping arrangement works for some couples, it may not work for others. Figure out the root of the problem first and find solutions to improve sleep quality for both of you from there.
If you think sleeping apart will benefit both you and your relationship, start by making some small adjustments. Maybe try sleeping apart one night a week at first and see how you go. As Dr. Troxel says “There really is no one-size-fits-all sleeping strategy for all couples. It’s about finding the strategy that is going to work best for you both. But all couples should make sleep a priority because healthy sleep is a cornerstone of healthy relationships.”
If you have the night owl vs. early bird issue try separate bedtimes. When you feel tired, go to bed, even if your partner is not sleepy yet. If your sleep schedules are different, then they’re different. As we learned earlier, sleep-wake cycles are as much a biological feature as they are a personality trait.
Of course, some of us live in one-bedroom apartments, or the second bedroom is now an office (thanks Coronavirus). Or perhaps you really want to sleep together. In any of these cases, consider separate duvets or blankets — you’ll avoid disruptions from midnight cover stealing, fidgeting, overheating spouses, and you’ll be able to completely cocoon yourself in your own duvet.
If you or your partner (or both) have trouble sleeping in the same bed it’s time to put socially constructed beliefs aside and push your health to the forefront!