The pullout sofa was pricey. Crafted with no-sag springs, “ultra-cell” foam cushions and a wooden frame, the stone gray couch in the upscale furniture store looked like it belonged in a yuppie’s apartment next to a stack of New Yorkers. While I was impressed by the sleek style (the price tag not so much), I only had one question: how comfortable is it to sleep on?
For about six months, my partner and I had been taking turns sleeping in our bed or crashing on our increasingly deformed IKEA couch in our living room every other night. We weren’t having problems within our relationship, but we were having trouble sleeping together. He snores and often tosses and turns, while I starfish across the mattress or aggressively latch onto his back like a jetpack. When we moved in together months earlier, we realized sleeping in the same bed meant neither of us got a good night’s rest.
Since we live in a one-bedroom apartment, there’s no option for us to have our own rooms (my dream, one day). Our cheap IKEA three-seater was a band-aid solution to our bedroom problems, but once its cushions started sinking even further into its softening springs—leaving us with bad backaches and growing resentment—I had had enough.
Cue sleep-changing sofa shopping trip.
The memory-foam pullout that now sits in our living room has seriously helped our sleep woes; I love it so much I spend every night on it. It’s large, comfortable, and most of all: it’s my own. I sleep soundly throughout the night and wake whenever I please. And although the topic of sleeping apart while living together feels so taboo among my social circle (You never sleep together?! friends ask), I recently found out that my situation isn’t that unique.
Sleep stigma may be keeping you up at night
According to a study from Ryerson University’s Sleep and Depression Laboratory, 30 to 40 percent of Canadian couples sleep in separate beds. In the U.S., the stats are similar: nearly one in four American couples sleep in different rooms or beds, says a recent National Sleep Foundation survey. Which begs the question: if close to a third of the coupled-up population is sleeping on their own, why are people so afraid to talk about it?
“We have a big stigma around the meaning of the marital bed,” says Wendy Troxel, a behavioural and social scientist at the global policy think tank RAND Corporation, who studies sleep and the impact it has on relationships. “Society tends to think that couples should [sleep together], but that’s really culturally determined.”
It’s this societal pressure that often keeps many couples from getting an otherwise solid night’s rest, especially when issues like snoring and sleep disorders arise. When I ask my friends how they put up with bed-hoggers or sleep kickers, they just shrug and say they do. But even outside these types of disruptive sleep behaviour, Troxel says that when people snooze in the same bed as someone else, their quality of sleep tends to go down.
Troxel points to a number of studies that show when people sleep together, they experience fragmented sleep and wake up more frequently. “However, if you ask the same people, ‘Do you sleep better with a partner or alone?’ They’ll often say they prefer to sleep with a partner,” she says. “There’s this disjunct between that need for closeness at night versus objective disturbances.”
Sleeping apart can actually be good for a relationship
Thirty-year-old Nicole* knows how sleeping with a partner can affect quality sleep—especially over time. She’s been happily married to her husband for nearly three years, but the couple doesn’t always share a bed. He has asthma and allergies, which cause him to sometimes wheeze at night. When his breathing gets really bad, the couple will decide who sleeps in their master bedroom and who gets the guest room.
“The first few years we were together we just sort of struggled though it, and we just wouldn’t sleep because he’d be wheezing, and I’d be waking him up to stop,” she says. “Now, it’s become a thing when he knows he’s not feeling well, he will sleep in our other bedroom.”
Not only do Nicole and her husband both get their eight hours of sleep this way, she says their arrangement has actually improved their relationship since they are kinder to one another after waking up feeling refreshed. “You fight when you’re both sleep-deprived and blame each other,” she says. “Sleeping apart says nothing about your sex life, your intimacy, or your relationship, because I would say all those things are better for us when we’re not at each others’ throats because we haven’t slept all week.”
Troxel isn’t surprised by Nicole’s revelation. She explains that sleep loss can cause the areas of your brain that control the release of certain stress hormones to be thrown out of whack—making you more prone to irritability and mood swings. “There’s an amplification of the amygdala responses,” she says. “This makes couples less able to read each other’s emotions, and that’s really not serving anyone.”
Don’t leave your partner in the dark
While Troxel is an advocate for quality sleep, she stresses that couples should talk openly and honestly before jumping into separate beds. Of course, she says there are cases where sleeping apart may signal a lack of intimacy in a relationship, but if partners are upfront about their sleep needs, different rooms can be a good thing. “Healthy couples are able to negotiate what works for them in lots of different ways,” she explains. “We can’t say that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Much to my friends’ bewilderment, I firmly believe in the positive effects of sleeping apart. Like Nicole, I am kinder towards my partner and feel closer to him when I don’t spend every night next to his snoring body fighting the urge to suffocate him with a pillow. It’s a win-win situation for both of us, really. Plus, it’s not like we don’t spend time together before bed: we always make an effort to watch a TV show together or drink a cup of tea and chat. It’s a nice way to still have a bedtime ritual before I politely ask him to get off my expensive pullout bed and retreat to his room.
But the best part of it all? I sleep like a freakin’ baby.
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