Why you should care
Sleeping solo is stigmatized as a sign of a failing relationship, but it might make a lot of sense.
Each night, Kelly Kandra Hughes nestles under the weighted blanket of her queen-size bed around 9 pm. She usually reads before her husband, Heath, comes in to chat about their plans for the next day. If it’s been a long day, he’ll crawl into the bed and run his fingers through her hair. After kissing Kelly goodnight, he turns off the lamp.
When Heath goes to bed a few hours later, he heads into his own bedroom. The couple has been sleeping separately since about seven months into their marriage. Because Kelly has narcolepsy, her husband’s nighttime movements disturb her sleep. But recent studies suggest that their situation — which has been coined a “sleep divorce” — isn’t all that unique. In fact …
46 percent of Americans in a relationship would rather sleep alone at least some of the time, according to a 2018 survey.
The survey of 2,000 people, conducted by OnePoll, found that 24 percent think sleeping separately can actually improve a relationship — even though those who slept in the same bed were twice as likely as their non-bed-sharing counterparts to rank their relationship happiness a 10 out of 10.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon: In the U.K., 15 percent of Brits surveyed said they prefer to sleep in a different bed than their romantic partner, according to a 2018 YouGov survey of nearly 2,100 British adults. Britain’s Sleep Council report found that the percentage of couples who sleep separately at least some of the time increased by 9 percent between 2013 and 2017, while the proportion of couples who always sleep alone rose from 8–12 percent.
“If you’ve slept in your own bed your entire life, sleeping with somebody else in the same bed is a huge deviation from what you are accustomed to,” says Bill Fish, a sleep science coach who co-founded the Tuck Sleep Foundation. Habit formation becomes especially relevant as people marry later. Hughes is one example: She and Heath were 38 and 32 when they married, and she says they’d developed independent routines over decades.
Sleep disturbances, personal preferences and simple logistics play a role. For one, snoring: It’s estimated that partners lose up to an hour of sleep every night because of a significant other’s snoring. Other seemingly minor disturbances add up, particularly when partners operate on opposite timetables. Colleen Noon and her husband began sleeping solo initially because he was getting up several times a night to care for their infant son, and waking her in the process.
What’s more, people increasingly are bringing screens into the bedroom — but partners may prefer different content, or be unable to fall asleep when they want to. “I had to beg my wife to stop watching ER 10 years ago as I was trying to sleep because it was giving me the worst nightmares,” Fish says. On a physical level, blue light from mobile screens has been found to disrupt natural sleep cycles.
One tricky aspect of a “sleep divorce” is the link between sex and sleep. Most sexual encounters take place between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms. Plus, there’s the intimacy drawback: Bedtime could be the only time couples can have one-on-one time to catch up after the workday or caring for their children. Psychotherapist Fran Walfish says sleeping separately has put a wedge of distance between some couples she’s treated, adding there’s no doubt that the spontaneity and frequency of sex decrease for couples sleeping separately.
Noon, however, would push back on this rationale, as she says sleeping alone hasn’t disturbed her sex life. For solo-sleep couples, intimate moments don’t result from operating on autopilot; they require intentionality instead. Nonetheless, stigma still exists: Many judge sleeping apart as a sign of failing relationship health. But, Hughes says, “needing sleep is not a character flaw.”
One of Hughes’ favorite rituals involves waking her husband up in the morning, hours after she’s already exercised, read and meditated. She brings the dogs upstairs and flips the lights on, snuggling into bed alongside him. To her, these moments of connection are meaningful precisely because she chooses them.