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Why More Couples are Sleeping Apart

He’s snoring, she’s checking Facebook at 2am. Here’s how to get better rest whether you’re in one bed—or two.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Who says happily ever after has to take place in one bed?

Not anyone who has slept next to a snorer. Andrea Blake (not her real name) spent years elbowing her husband, Bill, to try to quiet the nightly noise. For a spell, she was snoring too, disrupting his sleep. Finally, the couple—who live in suburban Virginia—found their perfect solution: They start the night together in their king-size bed, then retreat to their own cocoons. (Andrea affectionately calls Bill’s room “The Snoring Chamber.”)

While the Blakes’ solution may seem radical, it’s something of a trend: One survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that almost one in four couples sleep in separate beds. The arrangement has reportedly been tried by celebs (Angelina and Brad, though we know how that turned out...), presidents (including Taft, Harding, Wilson, and Trump), and even royalty: If you’ve streamed The Crown on Netflix you know that Queen Elizabeth gives Prince Philip the nightly kiss-off (of course that might have to do with how awful he is portrayed).

This divide-and-conquer approach to sleep doesn’t surprise Preethi Rajan, MD, a sleep and pulmonary medicine specialist at Northwell Health. “A common complaint I get is, 'Snoring is disrupting my marriage,’” she says. “I hear a lot that one spouse is elbowing the other to get them to stop snoring, then leaving altogether and sleeping somewhere else.”

If you have what sleep experts call “a lower arousal threshold” you’re more likely to be disturbed by the background sights and sounds that come with sharing a bed. Actor Rob Lowe recently told Ellen DeGeneres that he can’t sleep because of his wife’s tech habits (she plays “Family Feud” on her iPad until the wee hours). “I sleep better on the road, because I’m not with my wife,” Lowe said. “It’s the truth. I love her enough to speak the truth.” Dr. Rajan hears similar tales: “Often a couple comes into my practice together. Or sometimes a snorer will come in alone and say, ‘My spouse sent me.’”

Sleep problems tend to be contagious: About one-fourth of Americans say a partner’s tossing and turning keeps them up at least once a week, according to a National Sleep Foundation study. Insomnia can crop up in times of stress; it also tends to worsen during pregnancy and around menopause, upsetting the delicate balance in the bedroom. Forget “in sickness and in health”—our wedding vows should make us promise to stick it out through snoring and duvet hogging, night sweats and midnight tweeting.

It doesn’t have to be a nightmare

While snoring is the most common nightly battle, mismatched bedroom preferences can also disturb the P.M. peace. One likes it warm, the other likes it cool. Or an after-dark device reader has a mate who can’t tolerate any light from screens.

The firmness of the mattress was a sticking point for President Kennedy and Jackie, according to the White House Museum. He preferred firm for his bad back while she liked more give. Not wanting to retreat to separate bedrooms, they pushed two twin beds together in their White House suite, one with a hard mattress and one soft, and voila, peace was preserved.

Today, mattress companies will supply you with a high-tech version of the Kennedys’ hack: Sleep Number hawks a bed with dual firmness. Spaldin lets you customize the two halves with custom inserts you can change as both of your sleep preferences evolve. And many companies, from The Company Store to Brookstone, sell dual-comfort bedding in which each half is a different weight. (This mimics what they do in Scandinavian countries: Dress the master bed with two folded-over twin duvets, for two happy campers.)

“Sleep problems tend to be contagious: About one-fourth of Americans say a partner’s tossing and turning keeps them up at least once a week according to a National Sleep Foundation study.”

All hail sleep!

But when minor adjustments don’t cut it, retreating to private rooms may be well worth it. After all, prioritizing sleep is one of the healthiest moves you can make. “Sleep is important to maintaining overall health, including emotional health,” says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “Chronic sleep deprivation puts you at risk for car accidents, weight gain, poorer immune response, increased blood pressure, diabetes, as well as depression, irritability, anxiety and forgetfulness.”

And if that’s not bad enough, lack of shut-eye can amp up marital tension and even affect your body on a cellular level, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Researchers asked couples to fill out a sleep log and work out a disagreement. The pairs who got less than seven hours of sleep the previous two nights were more likely to have their fights turn hostile, and their blood work was more apt to show biomarkers for inflammation. Higher levels of inflammation are linked to everything from diabetes to cancer.

That’s just one reason why it’s so essential to get to the root of sleep issues. Snoring is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea—a collapse of the upper airways that leads to lower blood oxygen levels and repeated wake-ups, Dr. Rajan says. The condition, which affects more than 25 million Americans, is often treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. The machine makes a little noise, she concedes, but “it’s much quieter than the snoring.” Simple lifestyle moves (losing weight, cutting back on alcohol, not sleeping on your back) may also reduce snoring.

Good sleep hygiene is also key. Avoid caffeine after 3pm (it stays in your system for several hours, says Dr. Rajan). Make sure screens are off at least an hour before bedtime. If you have to read on your smartphone, switch to the night setting. “It’s filtering out the wavelength of light most associated with disrupting sleep,” Dr. Rajan explains. Keeping the room dark and the temperature on the cool side can also help you drift off easier and stay asleep.

So, do separate beds kill intimacy?

You might think that splitting up at night would chip away at a relationship. After all, those moments before drifting off can be among the sweetest a pair shares.

But you can sleep apart and stay close, says Dr. Warner-Cohen.  

It’s all in how you navigate the issue. “If one person leaves the shared bed out of anger, that lends itself to there being frustration around the issue,” she says. A better idea: Broach the subject in a calm way—ideally when you’re both well-rested. “There’s personal preference at play,” she adds. “Some people feel it’s very important to sleep in the same bed as their spouse, and some don’t.”

If you do decide to give two beds a whirl, “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Dr. Warner-Cohen stresses. “What will be the nighttime routine if sleeping apart? When will you find opportunities for intimacy?”

Another way to think of it: “Don’t confuse sleep with sex,” Andrea Blake says. “Sleeping in separate beds doesn’t mean you’re giving up sex.” Having a ritual where you start the night together, as the Blakes do, helps preserve not just the romance, but also the friendship. “Part of what you gain from sharing a bed is actual physicality and part is the shared rituals of everyday life,” Dr. Warner-Cohen notes. If you can maintain those aspects of the relationship while sleeping solo, that can work, too.

Sleep better, feel happier

In June, the Blakes will be married 50 years. Did sleeping apart help them get there? Andrea thinks so: “Ensuring your partner is able to get a good night’s sleep is certainly one of the secrets to a happy marriage.”

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Published May 15th, 2018

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