“My partner kept me up all night” is great if you’re talking about sexy times, but not so great if you’re talking about snoring, being kicked by ice-cold toes or having your half of the blanket stolen.
Sure, sleeping with another human is great, but it can also be less than restful. Yet even the thought of wanting to sleep separately is taboo — but it shouldn’t be.
Sleeping separately isn’t a bad thing
Compatibility doesn’t always extend to bedtime. Yet when Violet Robb, a certified family nurse practitioner who works at the Sleep Medicine Center at Harborview, asks patients about their sleep habits, many who sleep separately from their partners initially hesitate to share that information.
“They often feel like they need to explain why they’ve chosen that,” she says. “It’s unfortunate there’s that social pressure because often you hear it’s something they and their partner do to get their best sleep.”
Although you love your partner, there are plenty of reasons why considering separate sleeping arrangements could be beneficial:
- One of you snores (or both of you do)
- You have different work schedules
- One of you is a night owl and the other is a morning lark
- One of you is the designated person to comfort crying children who wake up in the middle of the night
- You have a sleep disorder like insomnia or sleep apnea and your partner doesn’t (or vice versa)
- You have different ways of winding down at night
- One of you is on-call regularly for work
There’s not a lot of research out there about the benefits (or harms) of separate sleeping arrangements, but Robb says there are studies that show that sleeping with a partner can be a significant disruptor for some people.
“Sleep is a shared experience meaning we affect our partner's sleep and our partner affects our sleep. If there is something your partner is doing that disrupts your sleep, sleeping separately may allow you to sleep better,” Robb says.
Don’t ignore underlying sleep health issues
However, in some cases, the desire to sleep separately could indicate an issue that needs to be addressed, not necessarily with the relationship (though that’s possible too) but with you or your partner’s health.
“With a habitual snorer, for example, that’s a red flag for sleep apnea,” Robb explains.
Sleep apnea is a highly treatable condition, and it’s very common. If snoring is the reason you want to sleep away from your partner, it’s important they consult a doctor first to make sure there’s no underlying health cause.
Robb also frequently sees patients who sleep separately from their partners because one of them has frequent insomnia. While the desire not to disturb your partner is admirable, talking with your doctor about how to treat insomnia is worthwhile.
In situations like this, sleeping separately is a Band-Aid; it may fix things in the meantime, but it won’t eliminate the issue. And if your goal is still sharing a bed with your partner, addressing any underlying health issues will make that more achievable.
How to talk with your partner about sleeping separately
It might seem daunting to bring up this subject with your partner — you don’t want them to feel unloved or start an argument.
(And if your motivation to sleep separately is because you and your partner are struggling, it’s probably a good time to discuss trying couples therapy.)
“Look at it this way: If you’re sleep deprived, you’ll be more irritable, which can negatively impact your relationship. It might be counterintuitive to sleep separately, but in some couples, it might bring them closer together,” says Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center.
Here are a few techniques to try so the conversation will go smoothly.
Use “I” statements
“Center your own experience versus blaming the other person or saying they are doing something wrong, which can put them on the defensive,” says Sarah Campbell, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She studies how social and romantic relationships impact physical and mental health.
What to say:
“I've noticed that I feel more rested when I have the chance to sleep in a bed by myself. I'm wondering if you have noticed the same thing about yourself?”
“I want to be sure I'm the best version of myself during the day when I'm spending time with you. Having a great night's sleep would really help that. How do you feel about experimenting with sleeping in separate beds?”
Do a trial before committing
Suggest a trial period rather than a permanent new arrangement. This makes it seem more like an experiment you’re both trying or a problem you’re trying to solve together rather than a critique of your partner.
What to say:
“Could we try out sleeping in different beds for a week or two to see if it improves my mood and energy?”
Don’t make it about being right or wrong
Especially if your partner is unsure of or resistant to sleeping separately, emphasize that wanting to sleep on your own is not a judgment of who is right or wrong but simply a difference in preference. You and your partner already don’t agree on everything, so this is just another area where your needs and wants differ — no one has a better or worse opinion.
What to say:
“I know I tend to be a lighter sleeper and you tend to be a heavier sleeper.”
“I definitely feel more recharged and ready to connect if I've had some time by myself, and I know you like to recharge with me or other people.”
Find other ways to share closeness and intimacy
If you’re concerned that sleeping without your partner will impact your bond, Campbell wants you to consider that it may not — and that there are other ways to bring more intimacy into your relationship.
“Here I'd advocate for a ‘quality over quantity’ approach, meaning that the extra hours ‘together’ in the bed overnight might not be adding much to their closeness,” she says.
To build closeness with your partner, instead try sharing a calming winddown routine, scheduling time for physical intimacy (it’s still hot, we promise!), or finding other ways to incorporate physicality into your relationship, like giving each other a shoulder rub. You can also make sure that your focus is on them (and not, say, your phone) during your one-on-one time so you’re really getting quality time with each other.
Don’t want to sleep separately? Try these tips instead.
If you and your partner aren’t sleep compatible but don’t want to try sleeping separately just yet (or ever), we’ve got you covered.
“First you want to sit down with your partner and have a real, honest conversation about what your sleep needs are, and your ideal sleep and wake times, so you can come up with a sleep plan that works for both of you,” Watson says.
If you don’t have money for one of those expensive smart beds that lets you and your partner set different mattress positioning, temperature and firmness, that’s OK, you can DIY it. Try buying two smaller mattresses and setting them next to each other on a box spring; when one of you thrashes around at night, the other won’t feel it as much. You can also use separate blankets if one of you is a covers-hog.
Sleeping masks, earplugs and white noise machines can help if one of you is a light sleeper or has a disruptive habit like going to the bathroom multiple times a night.
You should also discuss bedtime etiquette with each other. For example, when you come home late from work, you won’t turn a lamp on in the bedroom when you join your partner in bed.
“If they want to have further discussion about this, a primary care doctor, a sleep specialist or even a relationship counselor can be great resources to help weigh this decision and whether it makes sense for them. Who should be driving this is the individual and their partner. Doing whatever is best for you and your partner’s sleep is key,” Robb says.