Getting a Sleep Divorce Is the Best Thing I've Ever Done for My Marriage—and My Health
After more than 20 years of being married, my husband and I got a divorce. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Well, not exactly, as we’re still married. Our divorce happens at night, when my husband saunters off to get his recommended sleep in our guest bedroom. I have maintained my spot in the master bedroom with my golden retriever (whose bed is on the floor next to mine).
This sleeping arrangement might sound crazy at first, but if you’ve ever had a sleepless night because of your partner, it makes sense—and other couples are latching onto it. According to a survey from Slumber Cloud, 12 percent of American couples have filed for a sleep divorce, and 30 percent have discussed it.
Confession: Besides hiring somebody to clean my house, getting a sleep divorce is perhaps the best thing I’ve done for my marriage and my health.
The makings of a sleep divorce
Although I was raised by parents who always slept together, my dad’s parents were different. For as long as I had known them, Mummu and Vaari slept in separate bedrooms, each decorated to their individual preferences. I never thought it strange that they didn’t sleep together because that’s just how it was.
When I suggested to my husband, Chris, that we sleep apart, it didn’t seem odd, especially given what I had learned about the importance of sleep in my career as a journalist. Everybody knows sleep is vital to health, but it wasn’t until I began seeing studies linking a lack to sleep to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s that I started paying more attention.
My dad’s parents had Alzheimer’s, which meant my dad was in direct line of it. Sure enough, just a few years ago, my father—a chronic insomniac who’s refused to seek treatment to this day—was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I hadn’t succumbed to my dad’s insomnia, but as I crept closer to 40 and then crossed that bridge, I became a lighter sleeper. At the same time, my husband and I began maintaining different sleep schedules. We both read before bed, but while I would flip off my light a little after 10 p.m., my husband would often read for another 30 to 45 minutes. The problem? When I’d sense that his light had gone off, I would wake up, and my monkey mind would start spinning, so much so that the night would wind up being relatively sleepless.
If the light didn’t get me, Chris’s snoring would. There were nights where I’d be so angry that he was sleeping—he logs eight to nine hours a night while I’m lucky to get six, much less the popular seven hours of sleep—that I would be brought to tears. When I would wake up in the morning—I wake naturally a little after 5 a.m., while Chris is up about 2 and a half hours later—I’d be tired, irritable and mad at him. Worse? Because I didn’t want to disrupt him, I’d fumble around in the dark, often tripping over my dog.
Six hours of sleep is far below what we need (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend seven to eight hours a night). On the nights I’d get even less, I knew that my marriage—and my brain—was in big trouble. Fortunately, Chris didn’t argue when I suggested we sleep in different rooms. He knows I’ve taken every preventive step I can to safeguard my brain, and this was the last straw to fall.
But was a sleep divorce a reasonable solution to my sleep woes? I asked Nate Watson, M.D., professor of neurology and co-director of the US Medicine Sleep Center at the University of Washington in Seattle and SleepScore Labs board member, how the experts approach sleep divorces.
“It’s important to consider the reasons for a sleep divorce, as many of the issues may signal a sleep disorder that can be addressed with proper diagnosis and treatment,” he says. For instance, a snoring bed partner may have obstructive sleep apnea, a disease that can be treated with a CPAP to resolve the snoring, or restless legs syndrome, which medications can treat.
His advice? “I recommend couples explore the reasons for co-sleeping challenges, because there are solutions that can prevent the sleep divorce from happening.” Of course, bed partners can have different sleep schedules, as Chris and I do, so you can always try to change behaviors. Still, “if the sleep continues to be a problem, a sleep divorce should be considered,” Watson says.
It’s been about two years since Chris and I settled into our own respective sleep sanctuaries, and I’m in sleep heaven. I’m still my own enemy at times, as this hasn’t erased stray work-related thoughts and other worries, but it does give me greater control of my sleep and eliminates the anger I used to feel toward my spouse. Plus, I get to turn the lights on in the morning, which is a bigger deal than it seems.
Of course, having two rooms means taking care of an additional bed, but because we already do our own laundry, we now handle our own sheets, too. The sleep divorce works for us because of the extra space—and the extra bedroom—in our house; it would be tough if you live in a small space without a spare sleepspace.
The biggest concern might be intimacy, and that may be the one area of our life together that’s taken a hit, something Chris has confessed he misses. It’s not necessarily the sex, which hasn’t changed, but the small moments of affection couples exchange when sleeping with one another. When I invite him back to my bed over the weekends (I figure I can deal with sleep loss better then), though, he almost always refuses, which tells me he either doesn’t want to keep me up or has grown to like our separate schedules as much as I have.
Worried how a sleep divorce might affect your relationship? Obviously, you need to chat with your partner to see if this would fit your needs, but know that wanting one doesn’t mean your relationship is in trouble.
“Couples should understand that the goal of a sleep divorce is the pursuit of sleep health and not a commentary on their overall relationship,” Watson says. “Couples can have long, happy, healthy relationships, even if they don’t turn out the lights together at the end of the day.”
While I’ll never know why my grandparents got a sleep divorce or exactly how happy they were, I can tell you this: They were married for almost 50 years before passing away.