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How sleeping apart can make for a happier relationship

The stereotypes around separate beds have changed and it seems sleeping apart isn’t so bad at all.

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Happy Woman Sleeping in bed alone

Can separate beds help your relationship? (Photo by Getty Images)

I spent most of the weekend in tears – but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. I was, after a week of fitful sleep, an exhausted zombie. Between an irregular bedtime and demanding work schedule, a restless dog who hogs the foot of the bed, and a well-meaning night owl of a boyfriend, I had reached my absolute limit. And I don’t remember ever being pushed quite so far before I started to permanently cohabitate.

There’s something terribly romantic about snuggling up underneath the covers – at least at first. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes about couples who first move in together and eschew the king-size mattress because they can’t imagine being so far from their beloved. Fast forward six months, and they’re booking two queen-size beds on a supposedly romantic vacation. But while research has shown that most of us sleep better when we sleep alone – British sleep expert Neil Stanley says couples who share a bed have 50 percent more disrupted sleep than those who sleep apart – we’re reluctant to give up our bedmates.

There are any number of common sleep issues that can affect a couple: snoring, sheet hogging, tossing and turning, chattiness, frequent urination, different sleep schedules, and the dreaded night screaming. But, says Paul Rosenblatt, author of Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing, regardless of our acknowledgement of the troubles co-sleeping can bring, we still have a litany of reasons to keep doing it. “A lot of people have sleep issues and still want to share a bed,” says Rosenblatt.” There’s a symbol of intimacy related to sharing a bed that’s important to people; your partner is the only person you’re doing that with.” There are other reasons, too: sexual access, privacy from children, the ability to talk in the dark without distraction. “Physical intimacy is important, too,” says Rosenblatt. “People need to touch and be touched, and if you’re sharing a bed it’s a lot easier.”

While the ability to spoon and trade secrets in the dark is appealing, there’s another pragmatic concern to consider. David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, says that women don’t just sleep differently from men, but that they also have to deal with things that men don’t have to deal with. “A male partner, for example, is far more likely to snore,” says Randall. “Women are much more likely to be light sleepers, so the environment they sleep in makes a big difference.”

For sex columnist Josey Vogels, married for eight years, sharing a bed isn’t always so peachy and so she and her partner have created an occasional workaround. “We both, like most people, love and need our sleep,” says Vogels. “I’m a light sleeper and an over-thinker, so when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, when he is lightly snoring and the room is too hot, rather than lay there building resentment and getting more stressed about not sleeping, I get up, climb between the usually cooler sheets in the comfy bed in our spare room and get a good solid sleep.”

Vogels says that she and her partner don’t sleep apart every night – simply when she’s feeling particularly stressed and in need of some solid REM. And what do they gain from this arrangement? “A less cranky, less resentful and more rested me and a less annoyed him kept awake with my nudging and tossing. I wake up rested and not resentful. Two happier people equal a better relationship.”

But Randall says that sleeping together or apart is a heart versus head issue. Randall spoke to several couples who sleep apart, often due to different sleep schedules. They reported sleeping better, but they also reported missing the feeling of being close to someone. “If you look at brain scans, people have better qualitative sleep when they’re alone,” says Randall. “But people tend to like sleep more when they’re with their partner.”

If you’re thinking of trying either separate beds or separate bedrooms, here are some tips on how to make it work:

1. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, says Rosenblatt. Some couples spend most nights together and some nights apart. Feel it out and see what works for you.

2. Expect a transition period. Sleeping in separate beds or rooms might be scarier than you think. But Rosenblatt says that most couples who tried sleeping apart were able to get over the initial hump.

3. Carve out time for physical intimacy in bed. Crawl back in bed and snuggle for a few minutes in the morning, says Vogels. (You can’t do any of that when you’re asleep anyway.)

4. Vogels also recommends carving out time for emotional intimacy in bed, such as watching an old movie, eating breakfast and talking together. And you’ll finally get a chance to break out that classic line: Your place or mine?

Do you and your partner ever sleep apart? Tell us your reasons in the comment section below.