If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy, you probably noticed that the characters’ bedrooms looked different from what we see on TV today.
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Thanks to censorship rules called the Hayes Code, movies and television shows couldn’t show a married couple sharing a bed, even when — like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — the actors were married in real life. Instead, husband and wife had to occupy twin beds separated by a nightstand or a chest of drawers. If a couple was shown in bed together for any reason, one of the actors had to have a foot firmly planted on the floor, just to be sure the audience didn’t get any ideas.
Of course, old timey movies and TV shows bent those rules until they finally broke. These days, it’d be surprising to see a fictional couple sleeping in different beds — and even stranger to see them in separate rooms.
But should it be? Research suggests sleeping apart is becoming more and more popular every day, with Millennials leading the charge.
We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about the unfortunately named concept of “sleep divorce.” She explains why we need a new term for this popular practice — and why so many of us are choosing to sleep solo.
What is a sleep divorce?
When you hear the phrase “sleep divorce,” it probably conjures stereotypical images of a wife banishing her husband to the couch after an argument. That’s why Dr. Albers prefers to use terms like “sleep separation” or “alternative sleep arrangements” instead.
“We’re talking about couples consciously choosing to sleep in either separate bedrooms, separate beds or to have another kind of sleep separation,” Dr. Albers says.
It’s a growing trend — estimates by organizations like The Better Sleep Council and the International Housewares Association suggest approximately 1 in every 5 couples are sleeping separately most or all of the time. So, why don’t we ever hear about it?
Dr. Albers explains that the term “sleep divorce” has a lot to do with it, as do cultural ideas about what good relationships should look like.
“There is a lot of stigma, embarrassment and shame that comes with talking about sleep separation,” she notes. “Fortunately, a few celebrities that have come forward and said that they and their partner sleep in separate rooms, so I think it’s becoming easier for people to talk about and more normalized.”
Why do people sleep separately?
Why would people in a happy relationship choose to sleep apart? There are actually a lot of good reasons, but Dr. Albers says that most of them come down to having incompatible sleep habits.
Perhaps your partner works the night shift. Maybe it’s your turn to handle the baby’s 3 a.m. feedings for a while. It could be that the noise from their CPAP machine keeps you up at night. Or your significant other needs a room that’s pitch black, silent and cool to fall asleep — and you need exactly the opposite. Perhaps one of you spends the night tossing and turning due to restless leg syndrome, insomnia or another condition. Maybe your significant other sleeps like a human burrito, leaving you blanketless and bereft.
Having different sleep patterns and preferences can take a serious toll on even the strongest relationship. It may be called “sleep divorce,” but for many couples, opting to sleep apart actually strengthens their partnership.
The benefits of a sleep divorce
“Sleep is the cornerstone of our mental health,” Dr. Albers says. Research shows that improving sleep quality can improve depression, anxiety, stress, rumination and even psychosis. It’s probably not surprising, then, that we’re better partners when we’re sleeping well.
“Research indicates that when we are well rested, we communicate better, we interact better and we have better intimacy,” she adds.
We all know that overtired babies and toddlers tend to be fussy and cranky. The same thing happens to adults. When we don’t get enough sleep, our inflammation levels go up. That’s bad news for our physical health, yes, but it can also change how we respond to stress. The result: More conflict, hostility, bad decisions and difficulty empathizing with other people. Research even suggests we don’t trust people as much when we’re sleep-deprived!
Here are some of other ways that sleeping separately can improve your physical, mental and relationship health.
- You get your personal space. Sleep separation gives you the chance to customize your environment — and your schedule — to fit your needs. Alone time is vitally important in relationships. Flying solo, even for short periods, can allow you to rediscover yourself and your interests. Maybe you can go to bed earlier, or finally get back to reading before bed like you used to. Maybe it’s time to pull your favorite stuffed animal out of storage. Whether you’re decorating your space, choosing a sleep soundtrack or just enjoying the chance to “starfish” for a while, the chance to “do you” can be invaluable for your mental health and your partnership.
- You have fewer things to fight about. Just imagine it. You don’t have to go to war over how soft or firm the mattress should be anymore. Gone are the days of falling asleep to that podcast you hate. And the debates over the merits of eating in bed? They’ve have officially ended. Perhaps even more important, the next time you find yourself in a horrendously bad mood, you don’t have to worry that you’re going to snap at your beloved because they made the mistake of … you know … being nearby.
- Your relationship is more intentional. When you aren’t sharing a bed, pillow talk, snuggling and sex become an affirmative choice you and your partner make together. You also get to have a bit more control over how your significant other sees you. You get to say “no” to morning breath, bed head and drooling — and “yes” to flirtation, anticipation and excitement.
Sleep divorce drawbacks
While sleeping separately can have many benefits, it’s definitely not for everyone or every partnership. Dr. Albers explains the downsides of sleep separation:
- It may decrease intimacy. “Sleeping in separate rooms may create some emotional distance or disconnection,” Dr. Albers acknowledges. “There’s something about being in a bedroom at night — a privacy that leads to talking with your significant other in a way that you don’t when you’re outside of that space.”
- It may hurt your sex life. While sleep separation enhances many couples’ romantic life, it can do the exact opposite for others. Even if it doesn’t hurt your sex life, Dr. Albers notes that spooning, cuddling and touch are important in most relationships. If you aren’t intentional about intimacy, sleeping separately can dim the afterglow, prevent pillow talk and diminish desire.
- It may be expensive. Let’s be real: Many of us don’t have enough cash on hand to furnish a whole second bedroom. And even if we did, a lot of us don’t have an unused room in which to put all that expensive stuff. Dr. Albers concurs. “Sleep separation may not be an option for you and your partner because you simply don’t have an extra space to sleep.”
- It may be lonely. You used to hate the sound of your significant other working on their laptop next to you for hours at a time. But now that you’re sleeping by yourself, you find yourself actually missing that reassuring “clack clack clack.” If you’re used to having somebody next to you in bed every night, it’s not surprising to find yourself longing for a little less “me time” and a little more “we time.”
- It may feed insecurities. With a name like “sleep divorce,” it’s little wonder that some people get nervous about sleeping apart. “It can send a confusing signal,” Dr. Albers notes. “People may interpret the separation as a sign of issues or problems in a relationship. For many people, sleeping in different rooms marks the end of a relationship.” Others may feel embarrassment or self-judgement because of the cultural stigma attached to sleeping separately.
- It may foster resentment. For a sleep separation to be successful, both parties need to be comfortable with the arrangement and willing to sort out concerns as and when they arise. Without sufficient communication, your sleeping arrangement could once again become a bone of contention.
How to know when it’s time to discuss a sleep divorce
If you’re new to the concept of sleep separation, it can feel like a big deal. How do you know when it’s time to even consider a change like that?
Dr. Albers says it’s all about listening to your body … and your partner. Are either of you complaining about not getting enough sleep — or not feeling well rested, regardless of the hours logged? Is irritability becoming a problem? Do either of you talk about “feeling like a zombie”?
“Those are all red flags that an individual’s not getting enough quality sleep for their mental health,” Dr. Albers says. And that’s reason enough to have a serious conversation about sleep. “It gives you a chance to compare — one partner may be getting better sleep than the other.”
When you talk about what sleep arrangement works best for you, Dr. Albers urges, “Don’t rely on convention or stereotypes or expectations. Focus on what will work and is practical in your home.”
And remember: You don’t have to be wedded to the idea of a sleep divorce to discuss your sleep situation. In fact, sleep divorce shouldn’t be the only thing you talk about! It may be time for one (or both) of you to see a healthcare provider about having a sleep study done. Maybe it’s time to be a bit more deliberate about sleep hygiene or stress management.
No matter what you decide to do, talking about sleep shouldn’t be a one-time thing.
Do a trial run
If you and your partner are considering changing your sleep situation, Dr. Albers suggests waiting on any big purchases or permanent changes. Instead, treat it as an experiment, an opportunity to collect data.
“Ask yourselves: How does it feel?” she recommends. “Does it increase the time and the quality of the sleep you’re getting?” Be sure to schedule time together to discuss your findings. And to make up for any intimacy you might be missing as a result of your sleep set up.
Sleep is a big part of our lives, and losing it can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. It can have just as profound an impact on our romantic relationships. That’s why over one-fifth of all couples are now opting to sleep apart. Despite the unfortunate name, many people are finding that “sleep divorce” is exactly what their partnership (and their sex life!) needed.
A so-called “sleep divorce” isn’t going to work for every couple, but if you or your partner are struggling with sleep deprivation, it’s worth a conversation — and maybe a trial run. Just make sure you’re communicating with your significant other and making time for intimacy outside of sleep hours.