Is a Sleep Divorce the Secret?


Is a Sleep Divorce the Secret?

Separate beds has long been derided as the telltale sign of a relationship falling apart. But could breaking up with your beloved bedfellow be the key to a healthier and happier you?

Genevieve Phelan


0 minute read

Published: May 2022

Origin: Australia

Sleep divorce: A method of separating two individuals who typically share a bed, in favour of one (or occasionally both) party’s better night’s sleep.

A proverbial, physical divorce of the twilight kind. Simple, huh? But this seemingly radical sleep segregation is often shied away from due to obvious stigma.

If you’re not sleeping beside your beloved bedfellow, what does that say about your relationship? 

Growing up, I can still recall my Nan and Pop sleeping in different bedrooms: Nan in a queen-sized bed and ensuite up the hall, and Pop in a single bed down the other end of the house.

I crept into Nan’s bed on occasion, and never once questioned why they slept separately as a child. It was the norm.

But as a grown adult getting into a proto-relationship with someone, the thought of committed, long-term couples sleeping in separate beds seems taboo. 

The person I’m currently sharing a bed with (for a couple of nights a week) isn’t disruptive in overt ways — no heinous snoring or spasms or duvet-hogging — but I initially struggled to sleep a full night through with him.

In fact, I was so sleep-deprived and exhausted the next morning, that when I heard his 5am alarm go off, I wanted to grab the phone and piff it out the nearest window at breakneck speed.

I couldn’t function at work (albeit working from home/bed), and I was almost always agitated the following day. “Did you sleep well?”, he’d ask with such innocence that I replied a simple “yeah! Not too bad”. 

It was only after a few teething weeks of the relationship that I realised the culprit: he wouldn’t let go of me during the night.

Have your intimate time, bear hugs, your comforting cocoon moments, but for the love of god - please deter from touching me in my sacred deep-sleeping hours.

I was so used to solo slumbers that this constant skin-to-skin action was stifling.

The stubble on his chin digging into my forehead, my face feeling hot in his shoulder-to-face enclave — it was diabolical.

I’d lie wide-eyed and wired, unsure of why I couldn't drift off as I would in my own bed. The mattress? The change-of-scene? The coffee I had at 3pm the day prior? No, silly, it's glaringly obvious: you cannot be intertwined with another breathing, wriggling human all night long. 

Low and behold, some physical separation in the same bed led to some glorious breakthrough sleeps for me.

But for plenty of other long-term, far more established couples, gargantuan King Sized beds and some space between bodies isn’t the cure.

I caught up with Melbourne sleep expert Frank Cahill to discern just how common the concept of a ‘sleep divorce’ is, why some partners choose to do it, and how important it is to give a lover permission to find what sleeping arrangement works for them. 

Frank is a clinical and counselling psychologist who specialises in treating people suffering from insomnia. He started working in the bewildering and complex world of sleep in 2006, reporting to now see around “30 clients a week”, so, a lot. 

“How it presents to me is basically when a patient contacts me through a GP referral, it’s because they’re not sleeping well. If I see someone in a relationship, the partner often becomes part of the problem.

"It’s one of the most common reasons. One partner is usually a good sleeper — a snorer. And the other partner is a lighter sleeper. If they don’t get in early and fall asleep before their partner joins them, or if they wake up in the middle of the night, they find it difficult to fall asleep,” says Frank.

“The people that look for the ‘divorce’ are light sleepers, and are sensitive to what we call ‘sleep-related threat’. That’s anything that influences a person’s sleep and could be as simple as a TV downstairs, or as annoying as loud breathing from a partner.”

So how does the sleep divorce soft-launch begin? Frank explains that it’s usually a natural progression or escalation of sorts, with the “affected person heading to the couch in the middle of the night, or the spare bedroom”.

A great line he shared with me and copious clients is: “you share everything else in your life with someone you love, but not sleep. You don’t share that.” 

With sleep being so intrinsically subjective and individual, it makes sense that not all couples align in their sleep values, schedules, habits or tendencies. It becomes an evolving issue over time.

So what happens next? “Giving permission”, according to Frank. The permission for one partner to perhaps try sleeping in a spare bedroom is often fraught with criticism or can be taken to heart. 

“When someone is struggling to sleep and wants to leave, they might think they’re leaving the marriage."

"Going back in time, it was actually very common for people to sleep in separate beds. Sleeping together is, historically speaking, more of a recent thing we’ve started doing as humans.

"I had a young couple that came in, recently married. One couldn’t sleep well from the beginning and they just negotiated the separate bedroom arrangement.” 

Frank hears about all ages of sleep-askew pairs, but usually works with the individual.

“They come in because they can’t sleep as an individual, but it’s the partner that’s influencing them with different sleeping hours or so forth. It’s very common and very nuanced.”

It turns out, the sleep divorce isn’t a clean-cut, two-bedrooms or nothing job. Those nuances can translate to how exactly the issue at hand is solved.

Here are just a few of the antidotes Frank has seen to work in clients past:

+ Sleep in a different room, and understand that this does not have to be detrimental to the relationship 

+ If a person is a snorer, see a GP. There are myriad oral devices available now that open the  airways. Some people snore on their back, and are better on their sides.There are even tools that deter notorious snorers from getting into that back position, strapping underneath them to keep them on their side in the night

+ Some people trial top and tailing on the bed

+ If a person is really keen to overcome their sleeping woes without bidding adieu to a shared bedroom, they can go to sleep in a separate room and set an alarm for a couple of hours later. When the alarm goes off, they go back into bed with their partner and are already heavily drowsy, so can theoretically drift back to sleep with ease

+ Another technique is something called SleepPhone — like a headband with speakers built into it, creating white noise or pink noise to eliminate the sleep threat of loud snoring

Whether you’re grappling with the idea of a few nights in the spare room, or need to upgrade your bed size to create some well-intentioned ‘distance’ between you and your paramour in the bed, remember this: the things we do to optimise our sleep are rarely personal.

Be patient, encouraging of new sleep tactics, and open to communication (with sleep experts like Frank). After all, that Ikea flatpack isn’t going to build itself, and neither is your partner on 4 hours of shut-eye.

Genevieve Phelan



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