Does Your Relationship Need a Sleep Divorce?

Giving each other a bit of space each night — literally — might help you and your partner get better sleep and get along better by day.

Young couple smiling at each other across a nightstand from their respective twin-size beds.
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We have our grandparents’ generation to thank for many things, including potluck-winning casserole recipes, the best silver-screen films, and plenty of dapper fashions. And we may be able to thank them for a better night’s rest: Our grandparents’ sleep setup may be the best way to get a good night of Zzz’s.

For decades, it was normal for couples to sleep in two twin beds. That setup was the norm on classic TV sitcoms such as The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even American presidents slumbered away from their wives, in entirely different rooms, although that didn’t become news until President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty chose to remain united from bedtime ‘til dawn.

Moving to separate beds is now called a “sleep divorce,” and duos from parents of young children to senior citizens are bouncing on — to their own mattresses.

What is a sleep divorce?

Essentially, sleep divorce refers to couples agreeing to spend the night in separate beds, or even separate rooms, rather than tossing and turning together in the same bed so both can sleep better.

Wondering what might compel people to sleep in separate beds? Though you may miss impromptu cuddles on a cold night, couples often get better sleep when they're not together. Sleeping in separate beds means you can avoid being woken up when your partner tosses and turns or gets up to use the restroom overnight. Even better, having separate mattresses means each of you can choose the comfort level and type of mattress that suits your body type and sleep style. But read on to see whether or not you should snuggle into your own best rest, then meet up at the breakfast nook.

These couples swear by their sleep divorce

After 23 years of marriage — many of them working together as the owners of Attractions Magazine — Matt and Jackie Roseboom replaced the California King in their Orlando bedroom with two adjustable twins. The beds are adjacent with separate sheets — each claims the other steals a shared one — but a single king blanket.

“Jackie likes to sleep with her head or feet propped and I don’t,” Matt explains. “She adjusts hers and I keep mine flat.”

In Las Vegas, Joy Hollander and her boyfriend, John Jacobson, went more extreme by occupying their own bedrooms. “John and I met at 52,” says Hollander. “We started in the same bed 12 years ago, but one time he slept in the guest room so I wouldn’t catch his cold, and as they say, the rest is history. He has multiple sclerosis and restless leg syndrome, and he snores like a buzz saw, and I sleep more soundly undisturbed.”

Hollander and Jacobson also find it easier to follow their own time schedules within their private spaces. “I’m a night owl and he’s in bed by 9 p.m., so I get to watch TV as late as I’d like,” says Hollander. How about intimacy? “We cuddle on our own terms!” This well-rested duo likes the arrangement so well, they even request two queen beds when traveling.

Does a sleep divorce solve everything?

Sleep divorce won’t work in all relationships. In fact, sleep data is inconsistent about whether sharing a bed is a boon or a bust practice, according Lisa Medalie, an insomnia specialist at the University of Chicago who created DrLullaby, a virtual insomnia treatment.

“Subjective data says that partners tend to perceive that they sleep better when sharing a bed even though objective data shows it can impact sleep quality,” says Medalie.

Is a sleep divorce right for you?

Two older adults with a strong relationship holding hands while lying on the couch
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Clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., suggests you ask yourself these two questions:

  1. “When I wake up at a hotel, a friend’s house or elsewhere not with my partner, how do I feel? More energetic? Well-rested? The answer is a clue.”  
  2.  “Have you tried to solve your sleep problems other ways such as sound machines, blackout shades and earplugs?”  

If you answered yes to both questions, you may need an evolution in your nighttime circumstances. Breus recommends starting a sensitive conversation with your partner.

How to start a conversation about sleep divorce

If you think a sleep divorce makes sense for you and your partner, but worry about how to have the conversation, plan to approach the topic in a non-judgmental and non-accusatory way. “Ultimately it comes to communication,” says Molly Atwood, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “Plan out what you’ll say and pick a time to bring up the subject.”

First, present the issue as a united problem that you and your partner want to solve together, as opposed to an ultimatum. Listen to your partner's thoughts and concerns.

As you speak, be clear in your request and open to compromise. Sleep concerns can be embarrassing, and many people can worry about stigmas from sleeping in separate beds.

Acknowledge your partner’s perspective and express things only from your own perspective, to help minimize feelings of defensiveness.  

Medalie reiterates the need to be “very, very delicate” around the subject. “Use ‘I’ statements like, ‘I notice I’m really struggling with my sleep lately. XYZ is helping and XYZ is hurting. I think it might make sense for me to sleep on my own to support these efforts,’” she advises.

Things to avoid when talking about sleep divorce

  • Using “blamey” phrases, such as, “You are really loud in bed.”  
  • Having the conversation when you’re feeling emotional or heated. 
  • Emphasizing on the negative effects of sleeping together as a couple.  

“Tell your partner that you’ll be better in the relationship if you can get better sleep,” Breus advises. “Emphasize that sleeping separately has nothing to do with him or her as a person.”

What to try if you're not ready for a sleep divorce

If you’re keen to remain in the same bed as your partner, the first step is to identify the source of your sleep concerns and try to address those issues.

For example, if one member of the couple is a hot sleeper, try cooling products, or try sleeping on a "split king," where a king-sized bed is really made from two twins pushed together. The warmer sleeper can opt for a mattress with cooling technology. If one member snores, opt for ear plugs or look into products to help lessen the snoring.

If your overnight awakenings are caused by tossing and turning or a partner who gets in and out of bed, opt for a mattress designed with motion isolation technology. This type of mattress is engineered to minimize the wave of movement caused by either of you sitting on the edge, laying down, or making another major motion. It’s usually accomplished with a mixture of memory foam and coils that are wrapped individually, but could be all foam or a traditional mattress with coils linked strategically by wires.

Depending on the issues, you might look into white noise apps or machines, eye masks, earplugs, sleep apnea machines, noise-cancelling headphones, decongestants, calming scents, or other remedies.

If those don’t work, it may be time to look into a sleep divorce — for a quiet nine hours out of 24.

“A sleep divorce doesn’t imply that you’re never returning,” Breus emphasizes, addressing most couples’ fears around the terminology. “It doesn’t mean you want to be divorced. It’s about alternative sleep schedules in a sleep environment that allows you to perform in the way you need to.”

How does a sleep divorce affect sex?

Couple in bed considering a sleep divorce
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Here's the good news: a sleep divorce might be good for your sex life.

After all, a well-rested partner is more likely to be game for intimacy than a groggy one.

Discussing sex is an important part of the conversation about a sleep divorce, so Medalie advises addressing how sex will fit into your new setup. “Suggest that you’ll come wake your partner up in bed in the morning, or you can schedule time. Make sure sex doesn’t take a back seat just because you’re sleeping separately.”

“I think there’s sleep time, and there’s intimate time,” says Amy Ranew, an Apopka, Florida, stay-at-home-mom whose husband, Jason, headed to the guest room regularly when she was nursing newborns. “I’m not sure I’d be OK with separate rooms forever,” she says, “but I’ll admit that I do sleep better when I don’t have his tossing and turning, which wakes me up.”

Separate beds often lead to more lovemaking, not less, Breus observes. “If you get good sleep all week long, you’ll be more ready to have fun on the weekends,” he says. “Plus, if your partner isn’t in your bed for five days a week, you’re both more likely to say ‘yes” when you’re back together.”

Ranew adds, “We have six kids, so clearly some sleeping apart hasn’t killed our relationship.”

The best beds for a sleep divorce

Two beds pushed together to make a large king size bed
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When it comes to a sleep divorce, the best advice is: Be creative. Whether or not you have a spare bedroom, here are some ways to try a sleep divorce.

Split your king bed

If your bedroom is big enough, switch to a “split king” bed. Those have the same dimensions as a king bed but are split in half, down the middle, since two twin extra-long mattresses (each at 38"x80") have the same dimensions as one king-sized mattress, at 76"x80". For those who blame sleep issues on temperature concerns or motion isolation, a split king may be enough to solve the problem.

And according to Stephen Ferguson, a Sleep Expert® at Mattress Firm, traditional king beds sometimes also come split just because that structure is more accommodating for moving and getting into a room.

Consider a split adjustable base to go with it

With split beds, you can also opt for a split adjustable base. There are numerous benefits to an adjustable base, including comfort and helping to alleviate joint issues and snowing. But for those considering a sleep divorce, having a split adjustable base allows for further personalization on each side, whether it’s for sleep positions or managing sleep disruptors. The TEMPUR-Ergo Smart Adjustable Base comes with a sleep tracker that can respond to your partner’s snoring and adjust their sleep position to fix the problem of snoring before you get up and retreat to the couch.

Place two twins side by side

If you need a bit more distance, but aren't ready for fully separate rooms, you can channel retro grandparent-style beds and opt for trying two extra-long twin-sized beds in the same room. Depending on the type of problem and the size of the room, you can be inches apart or across the room.

If you want to try a sleep divorce, schedule sleep time together and apart

You can meet halfway with other arrangements. For example, agree to shut-eye together every Saturday and Sunday, going your separate ways on other nights. Or, schedule a daily snuggle before lights-out.

You might miss twisting your feet together when it’s chilly at 2 a.m., yet you’re less likely to be awoken regularly. Reunite when it’s time for romance. In fact, one or both of you might want a larger-than-twin mattress to ensure that activity is comfy.