Although it’s been dubbed a ‘sleep divorce’, couples choosing to sleep in separate beds isn’t a sign of marital strife – in fact, it could be the key to a happier relationship.
Actress Suranne Jones has reportedly told The Daily Mail that she and her husband, screenwriter Laurence Akers, sleep apart when they need a good night’s shut-eye, saying: “A separate bed – there’s stigma against that but if we are just tired and I need a good night’s sleep, and I want to get to bed at nine o’clock and I don’t want to put my ear plugs in or I don’t need to be disturbed by snores, then that’s OK, to say ‘I just need my space.’”
The Dr Foster star is not alone (apart from in bed) – a recent National Bed Federation survey found nearly one in six (15%) of British couples who live together now sleep apart – with almost nine out of 10 (89%) of them doing so in separate rooms. And ‘sleep divorce’ is on the rise – a 2013 Sleep Council survey found fewer than one couple in 10 (8%) had separate beds, suggesting separate sleeping has roughly doubled in seven years.
Snoring is the most common reason for sleeping separately, with slightly more men (38%) than women (36%) saying it’s a problem.
Here, sleep experts discuss sleeping in separate beds.
You sleep worse with a partner
In a recent TED talk, US sleep medicine specialist Wendy Troxel said when sleep is measured objectively, people actually sleep worse with a partner.
“In fact, if you sleep with someone who snores, you can blame them for up to 50% of your sleep disruptions,” she said. “But when you ask those disrupted sleepers, ‘Do you prefer to sleep with your partner or do you prefer to sleep alone?’, most say that they prefer to sleep with their partner.
This suggests that our social brain is prioritising our need for closeness and security at night – even when it comes at a cost to our sleep.”
Do sleep problems mean relationship problems?
A 2016 study by Paracelsus Medical University in Germany, found sleep issues and relationship problems tend to occur at the same time. And another 2013 study by the University of California, Berkeley, found one partner’s sleepless night caused by disturbances from the other partner can result in relationship conflict the next day. “Couples experience more frequent and severe conflicts after sleepless nights,” says study lead author Amie Gordon.
Works both ways
Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at Oxford University, says: “A lot of people prefer to sleep with their partner, naturally, but when people move around in bed they do disturb their partner when they turn over – that’s just part of what happens during sleep and it’s not something that usually keeps you awake, it’s just something you get used to. And some people find they don’t sleep so well when their partner isn’t there, so I guess it works both ways.”
Elbow the snoring problem
“Some people choose to sleep in separate beds because of a problem like snoring,” says Espie. “Snoring does interfere with another person’s sleep, but you become used to it – it’s like living next to a train station, although it can be irritating.
“Snoring is the vibration of the upper airway and a narrowing of the airway, but air’s getting across – it’s just noisy sleep breathing and it’s more likely to happen if you’re lying on your back because all the ‘bits’, like your tonsils and your tongue, fall to the back of your throat. So quite often people elbow their partner to push them on their side so they’re less likely to snore.”
Tackle other issues
“The worst situation is when a problem could be resolved and it isn’t being,” says Espie. “If people lose weight, for example, they don’t snore so loudly or so much, because when they’re overweight the baggy tissue round the neck tends to make it more likely that the airway will be partially obstructed, so losing weight and improving the muscles around the throat can reduce snoring.
“Drinking less alcohol can also help, as alcohol is a muscle-relaxant and tends to make it more likely that people will snore.”
Get to sleep first
If your partner is a snorer or a fidgeter, falling asleep before them can help prevent sleep disturbance, suggests Espie. “Moving into a separate bedroom is just one solution, but it’s not the only one – there may be other ways of addressing problems.
In some cases, people might have clinical disorders that need treatment – if their breathing stops at the end of a snoring episode it could be obstructive sleep apnoea which is a medical condition that needs investigation.”
Talk about it
Espie suggests couples should ask what the problem they’re trying to solve is, and does separate beds solve the problem?
“Another thing to consider is how the sleeping arrangements affect the relationship,” he says. “Snoring can at times lead to tension in the relationship, and the best thing to do is discuss it and have a plan of action.
Maybe you’d sleep in separate beds, or you could ask your partner if they mind you elbowing them in the ribs to stop them snoring. Or just say you’ll go to bed first and fall asleep before them.”