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How Separate Bedrooms Can Improve Sleep — AND Mental Fitness

These tips will help you make it work.

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Everett Collection (colorization by Sanna Dullaway)
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It was the third wakeful night in my new school year as a sixth-grade teacher. I struggled to sleep while my husband snored and twitched.  I finally nodded off, only to hear the alarm moments later. “I can’t do it!” I wailed. “I can’t deal with 100 12-year-olds and back-to-back parent conferences on no sleep!”

My nightly rest, never good, had steadily worsened. By this time, both of us in our mid-50s, we had reached a point of no return. If I’m not in the bathroom, I’m struggling to get comfortable or hearing noises or simply wakeful. Another body in the bed renders sleep all but impossible. Forgetful of teacher meetings and short-tempered with students, I fantasized all day about a nap. 

At night I went to bed and started the whole awful process again. According to studies conducted by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, sleep enables our brains to maintain pathways for learning and memory. 

During sleep, brain toxins are removed and the body heals. Conversely, studies show that poor slumber increases the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, obesity and even dementia. The findings indicate that driving while sleep-deprived can be as dangerous as drunken driving.

My better half is a compassionate partner. Still, it took him years to understand the severity of my sleep issues. I now realize that my headaches and complexion problems were related to lack of quality shut-eye, as were too-frequent arguments over minor annoyances.

For his part, my husband told me he kept to his edge of the bed, afraid to move a muscle, lest I wake and complain. This, in hindsight, was a good argument for separate sleep but maybe we were too tired to see it. 

Although most studies have focused on individuals, sleep researcher Wendy Troxel (author of Sharing the Covers) works with couples. Unsurprisingly, her research found that when one partner disrupts the sleep of the other, the relationship suffers. Troxel calls this a “negative feedback loop” between a couple’s sleep and their relationship satisfaction. Poor sleep affects the relationship and vice versa.

In addition to mismatched coupling — morning lark vs. night owl — reasons for couples’ shut-eye difficulties abound. For some, according to Troxel, it is an issue of working different shifts; for others, snoring is the culprit. Different temperature tolerances, restless legs and passing gas can also make co-sleeping difficult. If this weren’t enough, sleep problems often multiply as we age. 

In a National Institute on Aging survey of people 65 and older, 42 percent reported difficulty falling asleep and staying in the z’s zone. Each chapter of Sharing the Covers ends with a quiz to help couples assess their sleep patterns. The author dislikes the term “sleep divorce,” opting instead for “sleep alliance.” I tried earplugs and a white noise machine. We bought an expensive king-size mattress — the one onto which, on the commercial, a bowling ball is dropped and the glass of wine remains still. Sadly, it didn’t end our troubles or the tearful conversations about disrupted sleep.

I wanted to think that my husband’s reluctance to consider separate beds was due to his being unable to bear being apart, but the truth is likely more complex. Despite the example of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a happily married couple who slept separately, the myth has long persisted that spouses who do not sleep together have troubled marriages. This may be the result of sleep and sex happening in the same place. In Sleeping Apart, Not Falling Apart, author Jennifer Adams challenges the assumption that separate beds equal a poor marriage.  Slumber is such an individual pursuit, Adams maintains, that there is no single “right way.”

According to a 2017 National Sleep Foundation survey, 1 in 4 married couples sleep in separate beds on some nights. I can’t help wondering how many more wish they were doing so. When I finally got my husband to agree to separate beds, we ordered two full-size mattresses and went shopping for headboards. We were sent to the children’s department! I thought about suggesting that he get the race-car bed while I take the dollhouse. But our détente was fragile, so I said nothing. We found suitable headboards online. The mattress fellows gave each other quizzical looks, which I hoped were lost on my better half. No dude wants to be judged unmanly by delivery guys. When they had gone, we stood in the bedroom looking at the new arrangement. I was thrilled to know I would finally have a chance at some sleep.

Both Troxel and Adams make the point that planning for physical connection is important, especially if our unconscious hours are spent separately. This requires open communication and flexibility.  

Sleeping apart actually improved our sex life because I’m not constantly exhausted. Who feels like getting busy when you’re falling-down tired, especially with the one who made you that way?  

After the delivery guys left, my spouse quipped, “Do you want to be the home team or the visitor tonight?” That’s when I knew we would be all right. We have a little ritual where he comes into my bed every night. We hold each other and talk. It’s just a few minutes, but it’s important to both of us. My sleep problems haven’t disappeared. I can’t sleep in hotels because those heavy doors of neighbors startle me awake as people come and go at all hours. Although we started out as a two-bed, one-room couple, we now live in a house that allows each of us a bedroom. He can fall asleep to a podcast and move around to his heart’s content. 

Meanwhile, I have a shot at the seven hours I need to feel my best. If you are struggling with sleep and no longer enjoy sharing a bed, try these tips.

1) Take an honest look at the impact of your sleep issues. Health, happiness and relationships often take a hit when we are deprived of shut-eye.

2) Start the conversation. Both of the books mentioned above offer suggestions for broaching this delicate topic.

3) Be open-minded and creative. Sleeping apart doesn’t have to mean loss of intimacy. Better sleep might just bring you closer as a couple. It worked for my husband and me!

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