'Til Death Do Us Part, But Separately We Do Sleep

by Jennifer Palumbo
Originally Published: 

“Is everything OK?” The concerned look on my friend’s face almost made me laugh.

I was giving her a tour of our new home, and I had just showed her my husband Mike’s bedroom. Adorned with Yankees and Star Wars décor, one might even think the inhabitant of this room was a teenage boy.

My bedroom, however, which is down the hall, looks like it came out of 1920’s Hollywood. I have an ornate dressing table, twinkle lights, and enough decorative candles to make you think you’re in church.

My husband and I will be married for thirteen years this year. We have two adorable sons, and we share a similar sense of humor, love of food, movies. We are happily married and compatible in almost every department … except for sleep.

He likes to have the television on as he drifts off. Much to my amazement, he also tends to favor the TV on all night. He also has a fish tank in his room. It’s beautiful but noisy. It’s like sleeping next to a waterfall. I can’t listen to running water without needing to pee. Also, he snores. Loudly. Very loudly. Between the television, fish, and snoring – I feel like I might as well try to take a nap in Times Square.

That’s not to say I’m any easier. Besides being a lifelong insomniac, I like total silence and complete darkness when it’s time to sleep. I have my white noise machine and blackout curtains as I struggle for sleep in my self-induced isolation chamber.

Mike and I spend time together, love each other, and make each other happy. However, when it comes to sleep time, he goes his way, and I go mine. It’s like when you’re at a bar that’s closing: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

And while, of course, we have an occasional sleepover and hook-up session (“Your place or mine?”), we are thrilled with this arrangement.

Is Sleeping Apart OK?

While there isn’t much research on this topic, I found two studies that indicate that sleeping apart may be beneficial to all involved. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation report found that 23% of couples opt for separate beds, although one 2017 survey put that number at 14%. Then, a 2013 study from the University of California, Berkeley, showed that couples tend to have more frequent and more severe fights after getting a bad night’s sleep.

I spoke to Tracy Ross, a licensed clinical social worker in New York specializing in couples and family therapy on this topic. I asked her thoughts on whether sleeping separately signifies anything more than just wanting to sleep well.

“It depends,” she said. “Are there other forms of contact, connection, physical touch, affection, intimacy? Is this something you have come to together? Can you discuss it openly, see if it’s working or not? Or is it part of a larger avoidance pattern? If this comes about because you both know it works and can accept this slightly unusual practice, it can be fine and make other ways of being connected more intentional.”

That seems to be the key: That you are both comfortable and on board with separate rooms. According to Ms. Ross, it’s when it’s not intentional that it can be a problem. “If it’s not something discussed and put in place together, or when both people don’t feel like it’s the right arrangement for whatever circumstances may have brought it about, that can be a concern,” she said. “Another red flag is if it started because of a fight. When sleeping apart is to create distance, and there aren’t other ways of connecting and feeling like a unit, the intimacy can end.”

Everyone Has To Be On Board

As with everything in a relationship, communication is essential. What if one of you is all for your own sleep space, but the other isn’t? Ms. Ross advised that if you’re really able to hear each other out and understand why you each feel the way you do, you will be much more likely to find a solution that works for both of you. She suggested practicing active listening – which means listening through a lens of curiosity, not to convince your partner why their reasoning is incorrect.

“When it’s an avoidance,” Ross said. “When it’s a gateway to divorce, which is unspoken, or when it comes about because parents are sleeping with kids and it goes on indefinitely, that’s something to be mindful of.”

For us, the only slight concern I have is how our sons will interpret it, but then I think of my own parents and their slow progression into separate rooms. When I was a child, I recall them sleeping in a large bed together. Then, they got two separate beds that they pushed together and made up as one huge bed over some time. Then, some more time passed, and my mother started making the beds separately since my father kept pulling the covers off of her at night. Eventually, between snoring, restless sleeps, and cover stealing, they opted for separate rooms altogether and haven’t looked back.

They have been happily married for over fifty years, and when I think of them, I tend not to factor in who sleeps where. I think of how much they clearly love each other and how well they get along (well, mostly), and how affectionate they are in other ways.

Ideally, my children will feel the same. Their parents love each other and love them, so who really cares where we happen to get our REM sleep on? We have our own spaces in the same house, we’re able to sleep in a way we feel comfortable and doesn’t make us resent the other one, and in the morning, life continues as any typical, loving family would — with the help of some coffee.

Bottom line — for us, this works. While we absolutely care about our relationship and want to find ways to continue to help our marriage flourish, we also know how essential sleep is. It enables the body to rest and repair, and prevent excess weight gain, heart disease, etc.

Plus, getting a good night’s sleep also prevents me from being the cranky bitch I know I can be, so win-win for everyone!

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