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Can Sleeping in Separate Beds Actually Be Good for Your Relationship?

Not sleeping with your partner doesn't always signal intimacy issues — sometimes you just need a good night's rest.

by Scott Muska /
Blasting the AC and playing rain sounds isn't always conducive to having a sleeping partner. Shutterstock
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I am a single man and I prefer to sleep alone, even when I’m seeing someone.

This tends to hurt my chances of entering and maintaining a serious relationship. Many women I’ve attempted to date haven’t been very enthused when I decline an adult sleepover, especially on weeknights. I tell them it’s not them, but me and my insomniac tendencies. Most of the time they accept it for a while before calling things off or letting them fizzle out. I don’t blame them at all; having someone want to be with you but not want to sleep next to you seems counter-intuitive. I can’t imagine it makes them feel very good, and that makes me sad.

But sleep has never come easily for me. The bags under my eyes are perpetual. I can’t recall the last time I slept the recommended eight hours, no matter what medications, herbal remedies, meditations or countless other potential sleep aids I’ve tried at the recommendation of doctors, the internet or my mom. Apps and devices I’ve used to monitor my sleep show I tend to get somewhere between four and six hours a night — usually split into rather short increments interrupted by the inevitable times that a frightening dream, my bladder or the smallest noise wakes me up.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that nearly one in four American couples sleep in separate beds or rooms.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that nearly one in four American couples sleep in separate beds or rooms.

For the past six months, I have been incapable of sleeping past 6 a.m., though I would certainly not call myself a morning person. I run hot, so I sleep on top of a mattress-cooling ChiliPad set to 55 degrees, and try to keep my studio apartment at or below 68 degrees during my attempted sleep hours. If it’s very far above 70, I will just lie there sweating into my sheets, wondering what it must be like to feel fully rested.

I’m also a very active sleeper who sometimes sleepwalks. In college, I fell asleep next to my girlfriend one night and woke up the next morning in my boxers, lying on a dirty couch in the basement laundry room four floors down from where I had initially passed out.

My inability to sleep well makes the hours of sleep I am able to get very important to me, and since bringing another person into the mix adds several more variables, like body heat, additional noises and, like, touching, I actively avoid it.

My restlessness combined with the abnormal environment (if we’re at my place) also isn't usually conducive to a partner getting a good night’s rest, unless they’re a very deep sleeper.

I don’t want to be uncomfortable sleeping with other people. I know it’s detrimental to what little love life I currently have.

I don’t want to be uncomfortable sleeping with other people. I know it’s detrimental to what little love life I currently have.

I’ve always thought this preference was partially because of my lifelong battle with rest, but also symptomatic of a deeper issue with commitment and intimacy. However, the more I’ve researched and spoken with other people on the topic — two things I often do when trying to obtain validation that I am not an irrevocably broken human being — the more I’ve realized that despite society’s expectation that you share a bed with your partner or spouse, many people sleep in separate beds or rooms.

And they don’t do it because of intimacy issues at all.

FOR SOME,SEPARATE BEDS MAY MEAN BETTER SLEEP

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that nearly one in four American couples sleep in separate beds or rooms. It’s not (always) because they no longer love each other or don’t value the physical closeness that is part of the foundation for most lasting healthy relationships — though I’d be naive to believe that deep relationship issues aren’t accounting for a significant number of people who are still together but sleep alone.

“Sleeping in separate beds, while not very romantic, does offer some potential benefits to sleepers — especially if one of the bed partners is disruptive,” says Dr. Neil Kline, a sleep physician, internist and representative of the American Sleep Association. By disruptive he means, for example, one of the partners snoring, a sleep issue he says affects about half of the adult population.

Often, however, the decision to sleep apart isn’t made because one person is disruptive, but because couples may have incompatibilities in sleep preferences, like what temperature to keep the room or what time to say lights out.

People like myself will often attempt to adjust their preferences to satisfy a partner, but Dr. Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan-based psychologist, says these predispositions are sometimes permanent and cannot be changed — a morning person will likely always be a morning person.

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LESS SLEEP CAN MEAN MORE STRESS ON A RELATIONSHIP

While most assume sleeping apart can have negative effects on a relationship, the opposite can also be true: Without even being aware of it, having your sleep disrupted by your partner may spur negative feelings towards them.

Like that recurring 10 p.m. fight about shutting off the TV, or mentally noting every time your significant other kicks off the covers and wakes you up.

“Blaming or holding someone accountable for something that is out of their control can cause serious conflict in a relationship and result in anger, resentment and general dissatisfaction,” Cilona says.

But even if you’re not blaming your partner for things that are leading to your lack of sleep, the lack of sleep itself can lead to relationship issues.

The negative impact of one or both partners being consistently sleep-deprived can be devastating for the relationship.

The negative impact of one or both partners being consistently sleep-deprived can be devastating for the relationship.

“The resultant negative impact of one or both partners being consistently sleep-deprived can be devastating for the relationship, as well as to physical health, work success and in other life areas,” Cilona says.

When someone isn’t sleeping well, whether it’s for reasons related to their partner or not, they experience cognitive changes that increase moodiness and make them more irritable during the day, something that is often taken out on the people you’re closest with. Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, neurologist, sleep medicine physician and Chief Medical Officer at FusionHealth, says people who aren’t getting enough sleep tend to experience a lack of judgment, and say and do things they wouldn’t generally do if well-rested.

People are unable to process emotional content as well when they’re sleep-deprived, he says. “For a couple, this could lead to miscommunication and perhaps worse relationship issues, and sometimes when you’re sleep-deprived that concept of being mindful of each other and taking each other into consideration, that all goes away.”

Separate Beds Is a Potential Fix, But May Not Be the Best One

A significantly large population of adults have undiagnosed sleep disorders.

A significantly large population of adults have undiagnosed sleep disorders.

I don’t want to be uncomfortable sleeping with other people. I know it’s detrimental to what little love life I currently have. It bothers me a lot, and has always been something I’ve viewed as chronic. I think most people in a similar situation to mine share the sentiment that if they could consistently sleep well with their loved one next to them, they’d prefer that over sleeping separately.

Fortunately, Durmer believes that in many cases this is a possibility. He acknowledges that getting better sleep can positively influence a romantic relationship, but says it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re waking your partner up or vice versa, sleeping in separate beds or rooms eliminates the initial irritant, but it might not necessarily be your best solution. It’s more of a stop-gap that doesn’t always address the issue that is at the root of the problem — which is commonly a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, snoring, insomnia or restless leg syndrome. Durmer says a significantly large population of adults have undiagnosed sleep disorders.

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“These disorders can create as much a problem for the partner they’re sleeping with as it does for [the person experiencing them],” he says. “The idea of people sleeping apart might be helpful for those who elect to, but if a sleep disorder is the underlying problem, it can be addressed.”

Once you figure out if you have a sleep disorder and take the steps to correct it, you could be back in bed with your partner, with both of you sleeping soundly. Even if you do simply dig sleeping alone because of something like environmental preferences, you may still want to consult a sleep expert and see if you may have a sleep disorder, as they can wear away at both your physical and mental health over time. Durmer recommends finding a certified sleep specialist for diagnosis and treatment, instead of going to going to a primary care physician who might not be fully qualified to deal with those types of issues.

NOT SLEEPING TOGETHER DOESN’T MEAN “NOT SLEEPING TOGETHER”

If I do someday end up in a serious, lasting relationship, it’s possible I will still prefer sleeping alone. Even if I’m finally able to find something that alleviates my insomnia, I will probably always rather sleep in cold conditions with rain sounds blaring, while my theoretical partner may not.

I feel optimistic that if this imaginary person and I stay communicative about it, we can sleep in different beds every night and still have a loving, happy and healthy relationship on every level, including the physical.

I will probably always rather sleep in cold conditions with rain sounds blaring, while my theoretical partner might not.

I will probably always rather sleep in cold conditions with rain sounds blaring, while my theoretical partner might not.

I’ve always taken exception to people calling sex “sleeping with someone.” To me, the two aren’t synonymous, and it’s important to remember this if you’re going to sleep in separate beds --or rooms -- than your partner.

Alicia Sinclair, certified sex educator at b-Vibe and Le Wand, says that since most of us have sex in our bedroom, often before falling asleep together, sleeping in separate beds or rooms just means that a little bit of extra effort, planning and commitment might be necessary. She recommends scheduling sex, even if it seems at first blush that doing so may take some of the fun out of it.

“I find that when each partner schedules time for sex, more effort and thought goes into the experience,” Sinclair says. “A scheduled event allows each partner to clear their calendar, plan sexy things ahead and reserve energy so they can fully focus on each other.” Also included in this scheduling process is an opportunity to discuss with your partner the days of the week and times of the day, evening or night that are generally ideal for a sex session.

Scheduling isn’t always necessary, however. You can still keep the element of spontaneity involved. All it takes is reframing the way you think about sex and taking measures to keep having and enjoying it even if the night doesn’t end with you sleeping next to your partner.

Eric Garrison, a clinical sexologist who also teaches sleep hygiene, has two decades of experience seeing private clients who have had success sleeping in separate beds or rooms, finds that sleeping apart can actually add a little bit of excitement to a couple’s sex life.

“It is very sexy when a partner knocks on your door and asks, ‘May I snuggle with you?’ or something even more intimate,” he says, adding the caveat that once the sex and spooning has reached a conclusion, there should be a discussion for leaving the bed, so that you and your partner are aligned on the reasons why you’ve just had sex but aren’t going to sleep together.

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