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

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.