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The case for sleeping in separate beds

Honey, hear me out.

A furniture showroom circa 1930 showing an “ideal bedroom.” Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

About four years ago, my wife and I moved into a house just outside DC. It was our first house and it happened to have an extra bedroom, which was a plus since we were thinking about having a kid.

We had lived together for several years before we bought the house, and one of the recurring frustrations was our nightly pre-sleep routine. I’ve battled light insomnia for most of my adult life, so sleep has always been a struggle. But I also like a little mindless TV before bed. She prefers music. We could never compromise and it created ... tension.

But the house with the extra room meant that we could occasionally sleep in separate beds. At first, we did it when someone was sick or especially tired. Over time, we realized what should’ve been obvious: We slept way better apart.

So we started sleeping in separate beds more often and eventually it became normal. I’m not going to say it was the best thing we’ve ever done, but it’s definitely one of the best things we’ve done. Everyone sleeps better now, there’s no more resentment over who won the showdown the night before, and we probably fight less because more sleep means less crankiness and, hopefully, more patience.

All of this makes me wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. Why do we assume sleeping in separate beds signals trouble in a relationship?

Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation and the author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep. She studies the blurry relationship between sleep and relationship health. I asked her if it’s true that most of us sleep better alone and, if so, why is there still a weird taboo around sleeping in separate beds? We also talk about how to broach the topic with your partner if you’re interested in giving this a try.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Do people sleep better when they sleep alone?

Wendy Troxel

We have a limited amount of research on this topic but it does show pretty clearly that people sleep worse while sharing a bed as compared to sleeping alone. But if you ask those people, “Do you prefer to share a bed with your partner or sleep alone?” most will say they prefer to share a bed. So there’s this discrepancy between what our objective measures show and the subjective experience of sleep quality.

Sean Illing

Even if most people aren’t aware of this research, they should know from experience that they sleep better alone, so why don’t they? Why do we insist on sleeping together?

Wendy Troxel

It speaks to our social nature. Sleep is a very vulnerable state and we derive a sense of safety and security when someone’s next to us, and that feeling can actually facilitate good, healthy sleep. So in some cases there may be real psychological benefits from sleeping together that for many overwhelm the objective costs of sharing a bed.

Sean Illing

So we’re not completely deluding ourselves about the value of sleeping in the same bed? There are real benefits?

Wendy Troxel

Well, it’s a spectrum. If you’re sharing a bed with someone who is tossing and turning or snoring like a freight train and you simply can’t sleep, that probably reaches a threshold where the psychological benefits no longer override the minor objective costs. But for many people, the objective costs of sharing a bed — more noise, more movement, maybe getting awakened a few times — are minor enough that it’s still worth it.

I always say it depends on the couple. If you’re at a point where neither partner is sleeping well, then it might be worth stepping back and rethinking things. If you’re not getting the sleep you need, then you’re probably paying too high a price for the psychological benefits of sharing a bed.

But it’s complicated, right? The experience of cuddling and closeness is a big deal for a lot of people, that feeling of warmth and protection is real, and for some it may really help them sleep. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Sean Illing

Let me be clear: I’m pro-cuddling. I cuddle all the time. I encourage everyone to cuddle as much as possible. But you can always cuddle and then fall back to separate beds.

Wendy Troxel

Absolutely! I tell couples all the time that you can disentangle the experience of cuddling and closeness and sexual activity from the actual experience of sleeping together. You can maintain all of those things even if your choice as a couple is to part ways when it’s time for sleep.

But here’s the other thing: Getting better sleep is likely to be a good path to getting you better sex, because when we’re well-rested, we enjoy sex more, our sexual frequency goes up, the sex drive goes up. So there are lots of relationship benefits to be had from prioritizing sleep.

Sean Illing

Where does the taboo against sleeping in separate beds come from?

Wendy Troxel

The taboo shifts a lot across time periods. In medieval times, the norm was a communal bed, not just shared with partners, but with family members, maybe even other people in the household. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era that sleeping apart became a status thing because it meant that you could afford separate bedrooms, and sleeping apart was a kind of luxury. And there were also some half-baked ideas about diseases being transmitted by the fouls smells of other people. People thought that your partner’s morning breath could transmit diseases.

But then if you fast-forward to the 1960s sexual revolution, there was this reaction to the I Love Lucy stereotype of a married couple that was sleeping apart on TV. It was seen as a sign of prudishness. So then we saw another shift toward this stigma attached to sleeping apart, which is still with us today. And it leaves many couples feeling shameful about questioning their decision to sleep in the same bed.

Sean Illing

Is that partly why you want us to think of sleep less as an individual act and more as a social behavior?

Wendy Troxel

Yeah, it’s important to think of sleep as a social behavior because sleep affects our relationships and our relationships affect our sleep. There’s now quite a bit of research showing a bi-directional influence: When we sleep poorly, we’re not good partners and we have more conflicts, and when we fight more, that negatively impacts our sleep quality. So these things are very connected.

Sean Illing

What other effects does poor sleep have on relationships?

Wendy Troxel

When you’re sleep-deprived, your frustration tolerance is lower. And who are we most likely to project our frustrations on? Not our bosses or our coworkers but our closest partners. This is why we can see links between sleep disturbances and poor relationship satisfaction.

We’ve also seen that insufficient sleep makes us less empathic, less able to read our partner’s emotions. That’s an incredibly important thing in a relationship. You need to be able to notice when you overstep, or when your partner is feeling raw or vulnerable, and not sleeping enough makes this very difficult.

Sean Illing

Because there is a stigma associated with separate beds, do you have any advice for how to broach the topic with a partner without making it ... weird?

Wendy Troxel

Just start a conversation about how each of you is sleeping. What are your expectations for sleep? Just because you’re married to someone or you’re partnered with someone doesn’t mean your sleeping habits should be perfectly aligned. One of you might be a night owl; the other one may be a morning person. That’s all fine. But have a conversation about it and explore options.

What happens too often is that couples end up sleeping apart without ever making a conscious decision to do it — it’s more an act of desperation. I encourage couples to start talking about all of this before that happens. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so it matters not just for our individual health but for our relationships. It deserves a conversation.