Could a sleep divorce save your relationship?
Tossing and turning at night? Kept awake by snoring? More and more couples are choosing to sleep apart for a better night's rest, writes Tanya Sweeney, but there are pitfalls as well as benefits
Field opinions on the concept of a sleep divorce - sleeping in a separate bed from your partner - and reactions are usually "so jealous" or "that would be living the dream!"
In the US, a quarter of couples are already reportedly living this dream: a survey by the Better Sleep Council showed that one-in-four sleeps separately for a better night's sleep.
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Elsewhere, 30pc of respondents in a Slumber Cloud survey admitted they have discussed new sleeping arrangements with their partner.
It's certainly the best way to kick into touch those niggling nocturnal quirks that might otherwise drive a person insane: snoring, restless leg syndrome, tossing and turning, getting up in the middle of the night. It's a long rap sheet.
In my house, neither my partner nor I are without sin. He, like 40pc of the male adult population, occasionally snores. I, meanwhile, seem to like to get all my physical exercise done in the dead of night, and toss like a Mexican jumping bean. Adding insult to injury, I have night sweats. We are both 'spreaders'. Every time I flip, I can feel him stiffen in mild irritation. I have to nudge him onto his side as a measure to thwart the snoring. We have thrown everything in the book at this: separate duvets, ear-plugs, sleep masks, snoring aids. We wake in the morning, grumpy and short with each other.
Occasionally one of us will have had enough of it all and will take to the guest bedroom. We haven't floated the idea of making the arrangement any more solid or permanent - having our own sleeping space feels somehow like anathema to romance. And yet, it's a revelation. Feeling rested, both of us can get on with the day without feeling on the backfoot. And we're much less irritable with each other.
It's not just my imagination: a 2016 study from Paracelsus Private Medical University in Nuremberg, Germany, showed that sleep issues and relationship problems tend to occur in tandem with each other. A separate 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that one partner's sleepless night caused by the other's annoying bed habits can result in conflicts in the relationship the next day.
Deirdre O'Connor, founder of Deep Sleep Clinic in Dún Laoghaire (deepsleepclinic.com), notes that sleeping beside a partner can significantly impact sleep quality. Even if you appear to be in complete harmony with your bedfellow, sleep can be affected.
"The reality is, if you're an insomniac, or you're a light sleeper, you'll be stirred back out of your sleep," she explains. "It's to do with 'safety', not in terms of feeling safe with your partner, but rather your whole nervous system. We've been wiring ourselves in a certain way to [notice] sleep disturbances. Everyone wakes up 10 times a night, although most people aren't conscious of it as it's pretty momentary. If you're a light sleeper and your partner is beside you and breathing heavy, it's really going to stimulate you, especially if you're being woken up 10 or 12 times a night."
Sleeping alone, O'Connor notes, means that you're "able to do your own thing. You're not on alert for anything that's happening outside your control, like how much noise someone makes, or if they get up to go to the bathroom. In time, these just become larger issues."
Knowing that sleeping on your own promotes a better night's sleep is one thing: broaching it with a partner is quite another.
After all, sleeping in the same bed is seemingly the societal norm for couples, and synonymous with togetherness, intimacy, and romantic solidarity. And, of course, sex.
Little wonder that some people might find the idea of sleeping separately a harbinger of tension and, well, a sex-free relationship.
People reckon that if they're not sleeping together, they won't be (air quotes) sleeping together, either. But according to the experts, the opposite is true. Regular sleep means that reproductive hormones increase and stabilise, and so sleep divorcees often report a better physical relationship.
"If you don't have energy, the last thing you want is sex," affirms O'Connor. "And if your partner is keeping you awake, a pattern of resentment will build up. It will affect harmony on many levels and you're much more likely to withdraw."
Still, the closeness very much needs to be worked at if you are sleeping in separate rooms, and 'sleep divorcees' need to be extra careful to incorporate physical intimacy into their lives.
"Sleeping separately can sometimes have negative consequences on a relationship," notes family therapist David Kavanagh. "If they don't have skin-on-skin contact, they lose the endorphin rush that occurs when two bodies are in bed, and that can lead to a distancing in the relationship.
"Unless a couple makes a specific point to be physically affectionate, things will divide and the next thing you know, you're essentially living as housemates."
The more secure partners feel in their relationship, the more comfortable they tend to be with the idea of sleeping separately.
Oftentimes, one partner wants to instigate the sleep divorce more than another. And sometimes it can be rooted in gender: a study published in 2007 by the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms found that women are more likely to be disturbed by a man's presence in bed than men are by a woman's.
"That doesn't surprise me," admits O'Connor. "The fact is that women have more issues with sleep than men do, and they wake up more easily. Their sensitivity barometer is higher. Women also sometimes have more of a language for these kinds of discussions."
Ultimately, it's up to this person to allay the other's concerns about the emotional aspect of the relationship.
"You're going to have to have a real conversation about it, with real reasons about why you're doing it," suggests psychotherapist Trish Murphy. "I see a lot of people in my practice who sleep separately, but they're very certain they're wanted or desired. Problems arise when they need to sleep in the same room, like when they're on holiday.
"A lot of the time, people have had a history of poor relationships, and can be on high alert," Murphy adds. "I think it's a good idea to make sure that one person isn't over-thinking the situation and reading too much into things or seeing a downward turn where there isn't any."
Rather than broach the idea of a sleep divorce, try floating a 'trial separation' first. According to research, around 40pc of couples start sleeping in the same room but are in separate locations by the morning.
"Another way to maintain a balance is to go to the same bed that you always sleep in, and spend some time together that's special," says O'Connor. "If you're able to sleep together for a short time and then get up, that seems to work well, but there's something really important in setting the stage and having an open discussion."
And, if your conscious (nocturnal) uncoupling is a successful one, you'd do well to be more mindful of the physical side of your relationship.
"People think that romance is spontaneous, but it's really not," notes Murphy. "You have to make the effort on an ongoing basis, like having breakfast in bed on a Saturday morning, and then texting a few days beforehand: 'I'm really looking forward to Saturday morning'. So many people are coy about sex and don't want to make it a formality, but you do have to plan it, or it's not going to happen."
"One thing that is affecting sex lives is people bringing smartphones and tablets into the bedroom - that's a real disaster," adds Kavanagh. "Instead, focus on each other and get close with a non-sexual massage or cuddles. Sometimes, physical contact needn't be about sex or having orgasms… it needs to be about pure affection."