It sounds drastic, but 'sleep divorce' could save your sleep

Sleeping in separate bedrooms has long been seen as a sign of a relationship on the rocks. However, I spoke to medical experts who recommend it for surer sleep.

An example of sleep divorce in one bedroom - twin single beds, black and grey headboard
(Image credit: Future)

It's certainly a dramatic name, but 'sleep divorce' could save your sleep, ensuring you get a good night's rest. 

A recent survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has shown that more than a third of Americans are occasionally or consistently sleeping in another room from their partner, something known as a ‘sleep divorce.’  

'Sleep divorce' sounds drastic, but if you've got the space, a sleep divorce can mean you get much better sleep. Sleeping next to someone can be terrible for your sleep hygiene. Whether it's snoring, sleep talking, or just someone else's body heat, sleeping next to a partner can cause you to miss out on hours of crucial sleep. and create resentments that spill into the rest of your relationship. 

Sometimes even the best mattress won't get you you any rest. If your partner's snoring, fidgeting, tossing and turning, sleep divorce can ensure you get all the sleep you need. 

What is 'sleep divorce'?

A bedroom with black four poster bed, black and ochre floral wallpaper, and lots of patterned textures

(Image credit: Future)

Although sleeping in a shared bed is the norm for many couples, it doesn’t always lead to a great night’s sleep. In fact, sleeping in separate bedrooms might be good for your sleep. This has been termed a ‘sleep divorce’, according to Dr Lindsay Browning, neurologist, psychologist and sleep expert.

'Many people worry that their relationship will suffer if they don’t share a bed with their romantic partner. However, as long as you make time for intimacy at times other than sleep time, then this can help to mitigate any issues,' added Dr Browning. 'Although snuggling someone during the night can help release oxytocin (the love hormone), if you are being kept awake and frustrated by the lack of sleep due to your partner, then any potential benefit will be overridden'.

A headshot of sleep expert Lindsay Browning
Dr Lindsay Browning

With a doctorate from the University of Oxford, Dr Lindsay Browning is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She is also a member of the British Sleep Society and has published several publications about sleep and game theory. Dr Browning is passionate in helping people of all ages to sleep well.  

The AASM reported that 45% of men said they ‘occasionally or consistently sleep in another room’, but only 25% of women said they did the same. Dr. Seema Khosla, pulmonologist and spokesperson for the AASM, said that 'We know that poor sleep can worsen your mood, and those who are sleep deprived are more likely to argue with their partners. There may be some resentment toward the person causing the sleep disruption which can negatively impact relationships.'

Dr Khosla added that 'getting a good night’s sleep is important for both health and happiness, so it’s no surprise that some couples choose to sleep apart for their overall well-being.'

A headshot of Dr Seema Khosla, M.D., F.C.C.P., F.A.A.S.M
Dr Seema Khosla, M.D., F.C.C.P., F.A.A.S.M

Dr Khosla is the medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep. She is also a fellow of the College of Chest Physicians, and she is also a feloow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).  Dr Khosla was the inaugural chair of the Clinical and Consumer Sleep Technology Committee, and she is the current chair of the AASM Public Awareness Advisory Committee.

When should you try a sleep divorce?

When a partner snores, sometimes sharing a bed with them can cause problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Not only can this be frustrating for the person being kept awake, but the lack of sleep can lead to irritability as well as impact physical and mental health if you are not getting the recommended amount of sleep. If your partner snores very loudly, especially with noticeable pauses in their breathing during the night, or wakes up to take a gasp of breath, this is indicative of sleep apnea. 'Sleep apnea is a serious condition that should be treated because it can cause sleep deprivation to the sufferer as well as put a strain on the heart. If you think that you or your partner may have sleep apnoea, you should speak to your doctor about getting treatment,' advises Dr Browning.

Grey room, bed with contrasting cushions, padded headboard, abstract art

(Image credit: Future)

However, snoring isn’t the only potential problem when sharing a bed with somebody else. When you share a bed with someone, your sleep may be disturbed by their natural movements during the night. If you’re struggling with being too hot or too cold in the bed, than sharing a bed with somebody else can make matters even worse. Sharing a bed with another body can mean you get too hot in the bed and it can be difficult to take off or put on the bed covers if you have a shared comforter.  

Is there any scientific evidence to support 'sleep divorce'?

There aren’t many scientific studies specifically looking at the advantages and disadvantages of sleeping together in terms of objective sleep quality, and those that have studied it come up with conflicting results. However, while there's no objective measures inconsistent sleep, anecdotally most people who choose to sleep separately say that their sleep improves. 

According to Dr Browing, 'almost 53% of adults who started a sleep divorce say that it improved their sleep quality. On average, [they had] 37 minutes more sleep each night when they slept separately compared to when they shared a bed'. 

Can a sleep divorce improve your relationship?

Nutrition coach Liberty Mills also told me that she recently tried a sleep divorce, and it has worked extremely well for her and her partner.

'As a nutrition and fertility coach you may be surprised to know that for the last 18 months my partner and I have had a ‘sleep divorce’ and it’s also something I often recommend to my fertility clients. The reason we started sleeping in separate rooms is because I’m an early bird and my partner is a night owl,  and we wanted to be able to keep to our own rhythm. Each night my partner will come to ‘my room’, we will read, play cards, catch up and connect without screens, then I will sleep, and he will go watch a movie, read and then retire an hour or so later to another bedroom. 

'In the morning I can then get up and leave the house to go the gym without disturbing him and return bright as a button and bring him coffee in bed with a smile,' she added.

A headshot of Liberty Mills, an Integrative Health and Nutrition Coach
Liberty Mills

Liberty is a Nutrition Coach specialising in hormones, fertility and autoimmune conditions. 

What are the benefits of a sleep divorce?

bedroom with bed, pillows and nightstand

(Image credit: Future PLC)

'Sleep divorce can drastically improve relationships. Sleep is an essential part of our overall well-being, especially with mental health', says Jennine Estes, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and owner of Estes Therapy. 'When people struggle with their sleep, they are unable to regulate emotionally, they have difficulty having patience with one another, resentment builds, and arguments increase, all of which cause a wedge in the relationship,' Jennine, who is also the author of Help for High Conflict Couples, told me. The more rested the body, the better people can regulate their emotions, have empathy toward others, and communicate more effectively.  

The first benefit is obvious. A sleep divorce will improve the quality of your sleep.  When sleeping separately, each partner can create their own tranquillity and bedtime routine without disruption. They can have quiet, create their own rituals, and get sound sleep when they eventually get to bed. 

The second is that a ironically, a sleep divorce can improve your relationship. It's straightforward - your quality of life and relationship improve with enough sleep. Being well-rested helps increase the ability to emotionally regulate, decrease irritability, improve mood, have patience with others, and problem-solve better. 

Finally, it can directly improve your intimacy. It's not just that you're well-rested and less irritable with your partner, but also that you have to be intentionally intimate. Paradoxically, being apart brings you together, because you have to make yourself make time for your partner rather than being around them by default. Sleep divorce forces couples to make intimacy a clear, well-defined priority. 

A headshot of Jennine Estes, marriage counselor
Jennine Estes

Jennine is a marriage and family therapist, and CEO of Estes Therapy, a practice which specialises in relationship counselling. Jennine has a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in and is am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

What are the drawbacks of a sleep divorce?

A bedroom with black walls, white and grey bedding, and a black and white graphic rug

(Image credit: Future/Jonathan Gooch)

However, there are of course some drawbacks to consider. The first is shame. There's a stigma around sleep divorce and often couples hide the fact that they sleep separately. Shame will continue to grow so it is important to talk about it and acknowledge the sleeping dynamic as a normal part of your life. 

That shame is due to judgement. There is still a cultural expectation in the U.S. that if people sleep separately, there must be a problem in the relationship. If you think a sleep divorce would work for you, be confident in your decision to sleep separately.

Finally, if you don't take the time to create intimate moments, you can lose some of your connection with your partner. Starting and ending the day with your partner is extremely bonding. Sleeping in the same bed allows room for closeness, intimacy, spontaneous conversations, and connection.  If you don't make time your your partner, sleep divorce removes this element. 

One of my favorite tips with sleep divorce is to try using two single comforters instead of one in a shared double bed. It's not only a good option if you're tight on space and don't have another bedroom, but it can be a helpful compromise if you don’t want to sleep in separate beds.

Margarita Mitchel Pollock

Margarita is an NCTJ Freelance Broadcast and Multi-Media Journalist with over ten years’ experience writing about health, wellbeing, beauty and travel. She is passionate about writing content that informs and engages and believes in the power of the pen to create lasting change. A born storyteller, she has interviewed everyone from CEOs and tsunami survivors to exclusive interviews with celebrities such as Dan Aykroyd, Paul McKenna and Gloria Estefan. She is also a new mom and covers all things mom, baby and pregnancy.