The Sleep Divorce Debate

by Sarah Moe, CEO of Sleep Health Specialists & AMEC Member

Do you remember a time when your grandparents slept apart in two twin size beds on opposite sides of the room or in completely different rooms? I do, and grew up thinking how lucky my grandma was that she didn’t have to sleep with my grandpa. When my mom complained about my dad’s snoring, I thought: “just do what grandma did and kick him out!”. So, have you heard the term “Sleep Divorce” lately? It is defined as “an agreement between couples to sleep separately to improve their quality of rest.” While the term is fairly new, we know that the concept or practice is clearly not.

Couples have been sleeping separately for centuries, but modern life has brought this conversation back to the forefront. What is causing the current shift in perspective on co-sleeping with our partners? My insight as a Sleep Expert is that it reflects the shift in our mindset regarding wellness. History gives us varied accounts of co-sleeping practices which were largely determined by our station in life. The bed being the most expensive piece of furniture in the house meant that poorer families tended to share it- for convenience, warmth, and lack of other options. Families with more wealth were able to afford homes with many rooms and multiple units of bedroom furniture to sleep separately. But actual bedtime looked- and continues to look quite similar in all households. Humans need connection, and bedtime is a time for intimacy.

I am not just referring to physical intimacy- intimacy looks different depending on the nature of the relationship. It could be siblings that fight all day long yet crawl into each other’s beds at night because they are scared of the dark. It can be the case of a son caring for an aging or ill parent who worries they may not wake up, so he sleeps beside them to provide help if needed. For whatever the reason, sleeping beside someone provides comfort for most people- and we have been more than willing to sacrifice refreshing sleep for that comfort.

Fast forward to our current global pandemic. As a collective whole, we are more focused on our own well-being than ever before. We have learned that nutrition, exercise, and sleep are The 3 Pillars of Health, and each one is needed to keep us as healthy as possible. Attempting to exert control over our diet and exercise entails more simple choices- we can choose to make a healthy meal at home and bring it with us to work instead of getting fast food. We can take a daily walk or make time for the gym or a yoga class. But what shall we do if our bed partner is disturbing our sleep? What if we are unable to achieve the rest we need due to someone else’s disruptive presence? Here is why the “Sleep Divorce” has re-entered our conversation.

Did you know that in 2020, 1 in 4 couples reported sleeping separately? Sadly, this is a taboo subject sliding under the radar. Choosing not to sleep with your partner is not the same as choosing not to love them. In fact, the healthiest and most loving relationships have the ability to thrive when everyone is achieving optimal sleep and, thus, harmony.

If the concept of a “Sleep Divorce” sounds like a good solution for you, consider taking the following steps. To start, let’s not call it a “Sleep Divorce”... it is not a bad or negative thing to get refreshing sleep on your own! You can call it a “Partner Break” or “Nighttime Freedom” in order to start the conversation with your spouse on a positive note. With your partner’s agreement, give it a try for a mutually decided amount of time- maybe 3 nights in a row. Then meet again to honestly discuss how it felt and go from there to determine the best sleep pattern. This does not have to be an “all or nothing” experiment. You may decide that during the week you take your “Partner Break,” and on the weekends, you co-sleep again. Every relationship is allowed to look different.

It is important that we all do what we need to in order to achieve optimal wellness. And if that means going to sleep in separate beds, throw on your eye mask and slumber for eight undisturbed hours to wake up refreshed… now is the time to give sleep a chance.