Should you get a 'sleep divorce' from your significant other?

Elena Sheppard
·5-min read
LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 1: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz portray Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo in the CBS television series
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's TV sleep style on "I Love Lucy" may have been an unwitting precursor to the sleep divorce.(Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

On I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ricky, a married couple both on-screen and off, famously never shared a bed. Instead, they slept in side-by-side single beds. As it turns out, their TV sleep style may have been an unwitting precursor to a 21st-century trend: the sleep divorce. 

Research shows that co-sleeping, even with your partner, can lead to sleep disturbances, and sleep disturbances, in turn, can lead to waking disturbances. Quality of life goes down when sleep is less than optimal, and tiffs with your partner are more likely to take place. Enter, the sleep divorce. So how does it work? 

"A sleep divorce is a mutual decision between two individuals who, by social convention, would typically share the same bed, but decide to sleep separately in order to improve quality of sleep," Dr. Sujay Kansagra, author of My Child Won't Sleep and director of Duke's Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program, tells Yahoo Life. "Although classically a sleep divorce means sleeping in different rooms, there are a variety of other less drastic ways to improve sleep between couples. For example, sharing the same bed but using a different blanket can help. Alternatively, sleeping in the same room, but keeping the beds slightly separated so motion is not transferred to the other partner." 

"If the reason to sleep separately is to ensure a good night’s sleep, then it is a positive choice for the couple," says Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in New York City. "A better quality of sleep with fewer disruptions will benefit your health in many ways. If you find yourself tired during the day, with lower brain functions, low mood and irritability, you may want to consider the benefits of sleeping apart which in turn can improve your relationship and your quality of concentration at work."

While a sleep divorce may seem somewhat dramatic to many, research numbers show that the practice is perhaps more common than people might think. In 2013, Ryerson University Sleep and Depression Laboratory director Colleen Carney told CBC that as many as 30-40% of couples sleep in separate beds. Meanwhile, a study by bedding company Slumber Cloud found that nearly half of adults would rather sleep by themselves.

There are many reasons why a person's sleep may be impacted by sharing a bed. The person beside them could be a restless sleeper, they could snore, have sleep apnea, take up too much space, have poor pre-bed hygiene — the list goes on. A 2007 study published in Sleep and Biological Rhythms also found that women are more likely to sleep poorly when they are sharing a bed with a man, whereas the man's quality of sleep was not impacted by a female partner. 

The idea of sleeping as a pair or even alone is a relatively modern one. Communal sleeping — often comprised of entire households — was common practice up until the Victorian era when people, including married people, began sleeping by themselves. Prior to that, warmth and safety dominated decisions around sleep, and both warmth and safety could be more easily found in groups. 

Unsurprisingly, there are many benefits to sleeping together. "Sleeping together is yet another thing you do together. Sleeping in the presence of another is vulnerable and vulnerability can deepen closeness," Brateman tells Yahoo Life. 

"You have six to eight hours of uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact when you're sleeping with your partner," says Mary Jo Rapini, a relationship and intimacy psychotherapist in Texas. "And we know that that stabilizes hormones and it helps couples feel connected." 

There is also the idea that not sleeping in the same bed means intimacy will suffer, but experts say that doesn't have to be the case — you just need to make sure to find ways to make up for the lost time together. 

"Everybody thinks if you move out of the bed with your partner, you'll have sex less. But that isn't necessarily so because many couples are exhausted when they go to bed. One is exhausted and the other one is wide awake and the wide-awake one initiates sex," says Rapini. "I see more conflict about having sex at night." However, Rapini notes, finding time for intimacy even when you're not sharing a bed, is important. "Some of the closest couples that I have worked with have slept in separate beds," she says. "They've been very successful at establishing other times for intimacy." 

Of course, deciding you'd like to sleep separately from your partner and actually doing so is a delicate tightrope with the potential for hurt feelings, and experts advise talking about the decision a lot and establishing that a separate bed might not have anything to do with the foundation of a relationship.

"Remember that sleeping together is a social construct that has been passed on. Societal norms suggest that sleeping together means more than a good night's sleep," says Brateman. "Some view sleeping apart as a problem in the marriage rather than a problem of snoring, insomnia, tossing and turning and all the other reasons sleep can be interrupted." 

Rapini recommends that if you're the one to initiate the conversation, focusing on the desire for a good night's rest is more beneficial than focusing on what your partner is potentially doing that is prohibiting that good night's rest. "Maybe you have a partner who was resistant to going and getting treatment for sleep apnea. Those conversations should be made separate from the one: I just need to sleep," she says. "I would focus on the aspect that you need to have some uninterrupted sleep. And as it is right now, you can't find a way to secure that."

Then there's also, of course, just the barrier of language. "The term 'divorce' sounds negative," says Kansagra. "So perhaps a better name is a 'sleep arrangement' or 'sleep agreement.'"

Hey, maybe Lucy and Ricky were on to something. 

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