Why ‘Sleep Divorce’ Could Be The Key To A Happy Relationship

8 min read
Photographed by Niklas Marklund for MOJEH 109

MOJEH investigates why more and more couples are choosing to brave the stigma and sleep separately at night

I have a confession. At the tail end of last year, my husband went on a 10-day business trip, and during that time I had the most glorious sleep that I’ve had in years.

Duvet weighed down with the large decorative pillows that are ordinarily removed and complained about on account of their number and size, white noise podcast in place of the evening news, lights out at a time of my choosing, no twisting and turning to my right, no snooze after snooze after snooze alarm blasts.

Come morning, refreshed, I slipped out of a small corner of the bed and folded the duvet back, blankets intact rather than crumpled and strewn. And it was at that moment that I understood why some people choose to sleep separately.

“We should normalise separate bedrooms,” Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz insisted in an interview on the Lipstick on the Rim podcast. Married to Good Charlotte musician Benji Madden with whom she shares two children — one just a few months old — she continued: “I have my house, you have yours. We have the family house in the middle. I will go and sleep in my room. You go sleep in your room. I’m fine.”

Photographed by Andrew Yee for MOJEH 110

Indeed, the pair are not the only well-known couple to embrace solo sleeping. Famously, actress Helena Bonham Carter and director Tim Burton resided in separate adjoining houses in London during their 13-year relationship. And former supermodel Linda Evangelista revealed she no longer dates, nor does she miss sharing a bed: “I don’t want to sleep with anybody anymore,” she told The Sunday Times newspaper. “I don’t want to hear somebody breathing.” And evidently happy in their 74-year marriage, the late Queen Elizabeth II and husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh chose to sleep in different bedrooms in line with aristocratic tradition.

Sleeping apart is not as uncommon as some may think. A study released last year by the International Housewares Association indicated that one in five couples sleep in separate bedrooms. Earlier research has suggested as many as one in four. There does, however, remain a stigma associated with sleeping solo within a relationship. Sharing a bed with a spouse is expected and very much a societal ‘norm’. But is this perspective becoming increasingly outdated?

“‘Sleep divorce’ is gaining recognition as a viable solution for couples facing sleep difficulties,” explains Devika Mankani, a holistic psychologist at Fortes Education and The Hundred Wellness Centre, and co-founder of Chearful, an online mental health platform that connects mental health practitioners with patients. “Psychological studies suggest that disrupted sleep can significantly strain a relationship, affecting not just the health of the individuals but also their mutual interactions. By choosing to prioritise quality sleep through separate sleeping arrangements, couples are not distancing themselves emotionally; rather, they are taking proactive steps to maintain their health and relationship.”

Photographed by Tom O’Neill for MOJEH Men 18

Yet some would consider sleeping apart indicative of emotional distance and a relationship in crisis. According to Devika, who also specialises in marriage and family therapy, this is simply not the case.

“Far from signalling a troubled relationship, this arrangement can prevent the strain that chronic sleep deprivation places on emotional and physical intimacy,” she says. “Opting for ‘sleep divorce’ can actually enhance relationship satisfaction by allowing both partners to feel well-rested and more emotionally available during their waking hours.” Sometimes, having separate bedrooms can improve sleep quality by limiting disruptions from conflicting sleep schedules, a partner’s snoring, or bathroom visits. Temperature, noise and light are also personal preferences. On the flip side, sleeping beside a partner can foster connection, comfort and security. In 2022, a study by the University of Arizona found that adults who slept with a partner or spouse had reduced sleep apnoea risk, less severe insomnia and improved sleep quality.

Regardless of how you get it, a good night’s sleep can improve physical and mental health, while sleep deprivation can lead to metabolic dysregulation. Multiple studies show those who get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night are more likely to gain weight, have a higher BMI and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Immunity can be affected, too, carrying the risks of cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Poor sleep can fuel depression and anxiety and impair cognitive function and memory, too. “Sleep is indispensable to our health, comparable in necessity to breathing and eating,” agrees Devika. “It rejuvenates the body, sharpens the mind, and stabilises emotions.”

Photographed by Federica Putelli for MOJEH 99

Women tend to sleep earlier than men, and there is a physiological reason for this. On average, a woman’s circadian cycle (the physical, mental and behavioural changes experienced over a 24-hour period) is six minutes shorter than a man’s, meaning women are predisposed to going to bed earlier and, in turn, rising earlier than their male counterparts. Women also need, on average, 11 minutes more sleep than men and receive a more significant influx of the sleep hormone melatonin. Hormonal changes can also impact circadian rhythms. Menstruation, pregnancy and menopause can all affect sleep, with menopausal women more likely to develop sleep apnoea. Women are 40 per cent more likely to experience insomnia, twice as likely to have restless leg syndrome, and have an increased likelihood of poor sleep quality due to chronic pain.

Having happily slept separately from her husband for almost 20 years, Australian Jennifer Adams wanted to help others navigate the journey, so penned the book (co-authored by Neil Stanley Phd) A Sleep Divorce: How to Sleep Apart, Not Fall Apart. The second edition was released earlier this year. After a week of living together, Jennifer and her husband realised that sleeping in the same bedroom wouldn’t work for them. Of course, others may toil for many years, wondering how to address the situation with a partner, fearful of the implications for their marriage — and Jennifer admits this aspect of sleep separation can be the most challenging: “My advice is mainly about choosing the right time and words to express to your partner that you love them, but (in nearly every case) your health is suffering because you can’t get a good night’s sleep,” she tells MOJEH. “At the heart of all of this is to have good communication with your partner and assure them it’s not that you don’t love them anymore; it’s about sleep. And in most cases, when a person is well rested, they can be the best version of themselves, which makes for a much happier and healthier relationship — so everyone wins.”

Psychologist Devika agrees. For her, communication and connection are key. “Effective communication is essential in navigating the emotional intricacies of sleep divorce,” she says. “It’s important for couples to discuss their needs openly and ensure that the decision to sleep separately is mutual and clearly understood as a strategy to improve overall wellbeing, not as an indication of emotional distance.” In terms of connection, she encourages maintaining regular ‘connection points’, like spending quality time together before bed or sharing a morning routine, to “help preserve and even deepen intimacy.”

She also recommends synchronising sleep routines. “Even if you don’t sleep in the same bed, aligning your night-time routines can minimise disruptions and foster a sense of partnership.” And if you share the same bed (and have trouble sleeping), to consider investing in individualised bedding preferences and creating a sleep- friendly environment that considers both partners’ needs regarding temperature, light, and noise.

But what if one partner is set on sleeping alone and the other is reluctant to change the status quo? “Coming to an agreement about possibly spending some nights apart and some together is probably the best solution,” says Jennifer. “Maybe there is also the opportunity for a shared understanding about the health risks of sleep deprivation so that the partner who wants to share a bed can understand the implications for their partner.” She continues, “I always advocate open communication, exploring the reasons why one partner wants to sleep separately, and finding ways to show it’s not the end of the relationship, it’s a different way to one small part of it — where you both sleep at night. The rest of the relationship does not have to change.”

Photographed by Federica Putelli for MOJEH 108

Jennifer dedicates a chapter of the book to worries about how others outside the partnership, like children and extended family, may react to the change. “Social conditioning has taught us that if a couple is in separate bedrooms, then there is something wrong with the relationship,” she says. “This is one of the main reasons families and children become concerned if parents head to separate rooms.”

Again, the author says communication is crucial to help everyone understand that the decision is about prioritising sleep, therefore prioritising the health of ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ and not because of relationship issues. “Time will always help when children see that their parents are still loving and happy, and maybe there is the chance to show them that everything is okay with cuddles and being loving towards each other in their presence.”

The Brisbane-located writer had her own, real-world experience with this very issue: “When my husband and I decided to move to separate rooms, our parents thought it was the end of our relationship,” she shares. “But we are now close to 20 years together and couldn’t be happier — or more well-rested.”

Every week, people email Jennifer for advice or to thank her for her book, which has helped them and their home dynamic when pursuing a ‘sleep divorce.’ As for my husband and me? We still share the same, vastly spacious bed. But when those business trips come around, I have my white noise podcast at the ready.

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  • Words by Vhairi Jane Moir