IF YOU AND your partner doze off easily side by side, kudos. Not everyone is so lucky. If your partner’s sleep habits disrupt your rest, you might consider the so-called sleep divorce. The idea is simple: You and your partner retreat to different beds or rooms overnight. And ideally, you sleep better and then live better and communicate better when you’re awake.
It’s not rare at all: A 2023 survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that 45 percent of the men who responded said they sleep in another room either occasionally or consistently to accommodate a bed partner. Yet the name may be causing stigma around an option that could be great for both of you—especially considering that getting good sleep is now considered to be essential for health, optimal performance and wellbeing.
What is a sleep divorce?
A “sleep divorce” is actually an unfortunate name for what might actually be a very healthy habit. It’s the practice of not sleeping in the same bed on some or all nights because you’re not getting good rest when you sleep together. Many experts, including Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couples Guide to Better Sleep, support the concept, but not its colloquial name. “The word ‘divorce’ has such negative connotations,” she says. “I like couples to think about forging a sleep alliance and to move away from the idea that it represents the death of a relationship.”
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Experts agree people have historically placed way too much emphasis on the value of sharing a bed. Choosing to sleep separately isn’t that different from choosing to do other mundane things solo, says W. Chris Winter, MD, Men’s Health sleep advisor and author of The Sleep Solution. If you want to run together, great—but if one of you prefers going in the morning and the other at night, that’s totally fine, too.
Who should consider a sleep divorce?
Anyone whose sleep is interrupted by their partner could consider trying a sleep divorce. Maybe they snore, or move around incessantly, or work early or late hours. Maybe their CPAP machine makes a lot of noise, or they steal the covers, leaving you freezing and having to untangle a whole twisted pile of fabric just to be able to stretch your legs and have them covered, too.
Sub-par sleep could be a third-party issue, too, if you have a newborn who needs overnight care or your partner welcomes the dog into the bed even though you find it disruptive.
In those cases, sleeping together can be detrimental to your quality of sleep, as well as to your relationship, and sleeping apart can actually bring you closer together.
What are the benefits of a sleep divorce?
Think back to the last time you tossed and turned all night. How did you feel the next day? Chances are you were more hostile, irritable, and impatient than normal. “Research from Berkeley also shows people are less able to see their partner’s perspective or read their emotions when they’re underslept,” Dr. Troxel adds.
That can start a vicious cycle of arguing, feeling more stressed, and sleeping even less.
The bottom line: “It’s a lot more fun to be in a relationship when you’re both well rested,” says Dr. Winter.
How to Make a Sleep Divorce Work
First of all, acknowledge that it’s not necessarily a permanent situation. You might choose to sleep solo right now because of a newborn or very different work schedules. But in a few weeks or months, those needs may change.
Yet for those who are partnered with snorers or restless sleepers, it might not change. Use these strategies to help things go more smoothly.
Talk it through.
Stomping out of the room in the middle of the night and crashing on the couch isn’t the way to point a sleep divorce experiment toward success. It’s more like a recipe for resentment.
Instead, you need to have an open and honest conversation about how your current situation is affecting your wellbeing. Start with “I” statements, then check in with your partner. “It’s about telling them: This is impacting how I behave with you, and that matters to me,” Dr. Troxel notes.
Frame the situation as a shared goal that you can work toward together for the sake of your relationship, not something you’re doing out of spite. Then figure out what you would like the new arrangements to look and feel like.
Decide things ahead of time.
Dr. Winter, for one, likes people to take a scheduled approach. Pick two nights a week, like Mondays and Thursdays, to sleep in different rooms, he says. “It works because you don’t have to make the decision every night, and it’s kind of fun to have these periods where you’re away and then reunite.” Make sure both of you have good sleep situations—that you’re in dark rooms that aren’t too warm, and that you still do all those “sleep hygiene” practices that help you sleep well. (Here’s a 30-day sleep-better challenge that helps you with all the habits that get you better Zs.)
Spend time together before you spend time apart.
It doesn’t mean intimacy will be a thing of the past. “The couples who do this successfully preserve the time together in bed before going to sleep for cuddling, intimacy, and being together,” Dr. Troxel says. “It’s often the one period when we’re not facing distractions and chaos of the day.” If you typically have sex at night, you might have to be more on top of making sure that still happens, she adds.
Then, go your separate ways, and come back together in the morning actually feeling rested and ready for the day ahead.
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