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Ask Dr. Helen: Is Sleeping Apart Healthy for Marriage?

Whether a relationship suffers from separate beds depends on why the couple uses them.

by
Helen Smith

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September 23, 2008 - 12:00 am

Is sleeping alone a recipe for marriage success, disaster, or somewhere in between? I wondered about this after reading a recent article on the growing trend of married couples sleeping alone (Hat tip: Newsalert):

How many couples sleep solo in a double bed?

A 2001 random telephone survey of 1,004 adults conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 12 percent of married Americans slept alone; a similar 2005 survey of 1,506 people found that number had jumped to 23 percent.

In addition, a March online survey of 1,408 couples conducted by the Sleep Council of England found that 1 in 4 people regularly retreats to a spare room or sofa to get a good night’s sleep.

The preference for separate spaces has even begun to affect home design. According to the National Association of Home Builders, there’s been a steady increase in the number of requests for “two-master bedroom” homes since 1990, prompting the organization to predict that by 2015, 60 percent of all custom upscale homes will be built with two “owner suites.”

I would think that whether one’s marriage suffers from sleeping apart would have to do more with why people want to sleep apart than the fact that they do. Is there a good reason for it or is it because one wants to get away from his or her spouse? A good reason for sleeping apart might be to avoid a sleepless night due to a partner snoring or other sleep-disturbing behavior.

And, in fact, these seem to be the main reasons people sleep apart: because of snoring or other physical difficulties — such as restless leg syndrome — that make sleeping difficult for the partner without the problem. But perhaps some of the reasons also have to do with an increase in economic wealth and changing expectations of how we view relationships. Perhaps more couples sleep alone now than in the past because they can.

Houses are bigger and families are smaller, meaning that there is more room to spread out. In the past, if you had five kids and two or three bedrooms, it never occurred to anyone that there was a choice. Now there is. People also expect their lives to be less problematic than anytime in the past and they have little tolerance of personal foibles, thinking that their “soulmate” must not be a burden in any way or cause them a moment’s discomfort. There is, of course, the possibility that some people just get a better night’s sleep when they sleep alone and they do it because they need to. Others just need alone time and space. I wonder if job stress, which keeps some people awake and makes others more determined to get their rest, may play a role in two-career couples.

These reasons are reflective in some of the responses I got on my blog when I asked readers what they thought of sleeping alone:

  • “I read an article today that said that men (although they claim otherwise the day after) sleep better alone rather than with another person.”
  • “Personally I don’t think sleeping together is all that important; seeing eye to eye in a relationship and not being bored with each other is probably a lot more important.”
  • “Snoring is remediable. The sense of rejection and isolation that comes from sleeping alone (if you’re married) isn’t. Take it from one who’s learned the hard way. The statistics noted largely reflect the aging of the population.”
  • “As ‘Boomers’ my wife and I slept together for 30 years. Last year age began to have its effects and we now sleep in separate bedrooms, except when on trips or the ‘kids’ and grandkids are visiting. The statistics are evidence of an aging population.”
  • “I have problems sleeping with somebody in bed with me. It’s not intimacy or sexuality or any problem like that. I just get woken up really easily by physical contact. Also, I produce a lot of body heat, and when someone is sleeping up against me I start sweating, which (again) wakes me up.”
  • “My wife and I sleep in separate beds, in separate rooms. We just couldn’t get comfortable. After we move to a new, larger apartment instead of this badly converted upstairs of a house, we’ll try to put two twin beds in one room. But the marriage itself is lacking, more of a business arrangement, really, so I don’t mind being separate.”

So, I will turn the question over to PJM readers. If married or in a couple, do you sleep alone? If so, why? Do you think this is healthy for couples or do you think it leads to a lack of intimacy? For the rest of you, how would you feel if your partner wanted to sleep alone?

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If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen@hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question — if you want me to use your name, tell me; otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader,” etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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