The Pros and Cons of Sleep Divorce
The Pros and Cons of Sleep Divorce
The basic principles of sleep hygiene are simple to understand: Eliminate distractions, optimize comfort, strive for consistency. But where does sleeping next to another human being—someone who may have their own disruptive sleep issues and inconsistencies—factor into that equation? And what do you do if what’s best for your sleep hygiene is at odds with what’s best for your relationship?
It can be a tough nut to crack, and it’s a conflict licensed clinical psychologist Britney Blair has seen often in her career—she’s board-certified in both behavioral sleep medicine and sexual medicine. There are many ways to optimize your relationship and your sleeping habits at once, says Blair. And you start by looking at how both areas of your life are inextricably connected.
A Q&A with Britney Blair, PsyD
If I put on my sleep doctor hat, I’ll tell you straight up that all of us would sleep better if we slept without a partner or animals or anything else in our bedroom. When we are in stage two sleep, which is still light sleep, we’re processing relevant stimuli in the environment. So if we have a partner who’s snoring, who’s tossing and turning, who’s still reading or watching TV or whatever they’re doing while we’re trying to sleep, that impacts our ability to drop into deep sleep, which is that restorative sleep we all want—I call it the anti-aging sleep, the non-REM deep sleep.
There are many different sleep disorders and things that can affect our partner’s sleep or our sleep; we can affect our partner, and our partner can affect us. That may be snoring, insomnia, getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, tossing and turning, or just having unrestful sleep—even in the absence of sleep disorders, we’re still monitoring our partner’s activity in the night.
So from a sleep standpoint, we would all sleep better if we made a dark cold cave of our bedroom and slept alone without risk of being disrupted by our bed partner. Your quality of sleep is better if you’re not sleeping next to another person. However, that has significant consequences for a relationship. For many couples, the time when they’re connecting erotically is that moment right before they’re falling asleep when they’re crawling into bed together. It’s an intimate moment when they’re often talking or maybe making out a bit or just connecting physically. So there’s a very real risk of the intimacy—emotional intimacy, not just erotic intimacy—being impacted by couples choosing to sleep apart.
While it can be good for the sleep, it’s risky for the relationship. There are some important measures to be put in place in order to mitigate some of that risk if the couple decides to sleep separately.
I don’t typically recommend it to my patients because I’m holding all of it at once: the sexual health piece and the erotic connection plus the sleep piece.
For example, it’s common for absolute rage to develop if your bed partner is snoring or constantly disrupting your sleep. I have had many couples come in and one partner just wants to throttle their partner for snoring or disrupting their sleep. Getting poor sleep makes you grumpier. And if the reason you’re getting poor sleep is because your partner’s disrupting your sleep, as you can imagine, relationship conflict can ensue.
But I don’t generally recommend one way or the other, because everyone is different and it’s complicated. So I lay out the risks and benefits for my patients and have them make the choice, hopefully in collaboration and connection with their partner. Then we talk about mitigating the risks in whichever scenario they choose.
If a couple decides to stay and sleep together, we talk about making sure sleep disorders are fully treated. There are lots of devices and technology that can be used to optimize the comfort of both partners sleeping in the same bed. We talk about making your bedroom a sanctuary that is optimal for sleep and for sexual connection.
[Editor’s note: For one, you might try NasalAid—or ask your partner to. Opening the nasal passages may help temporarily reduce snoring from occasional congestion.]
Say one partner has sleep apnea, they’re using a CPAP machine, and the other partner is quite a light sleeper or maybe suffers from insomnia. They decide together that it’s best for their relationship and best for their sleep to sleep separately. The most important measure to put in place is scheduling a time every night that is their time to connect intimately. Whether that’s about emotional intimacy or erotic intimacy or just having some cuddle time and talking. And then having enough physical touch and affection and connection outside of those hours when they’re dedicated to sleeping.
Sometimes what that looks like is sharing a bed for the half hour before your desired sleep time, then moving into separate beds or bedrooms when you’re ready to turn the lights out and go to sleep. So the time reading, or watching a show, connecting, or whatever couples want to do in bed, they’re doing together. Then they move into separate bedrooms when they’re ready to turn the lights out and allow sleep to come.
It’s a bidirectional relationship.
Sex or orgasm can be a fantastic way to calm yourself, and it’s great for sleep. For a lot of people, there is a hormone that’s released after orgasm that can cause somnolence or sleepiness. Experiencing orgasm can also cause a feeling of deep relaxation. It’s a great way to get back to sleep if you’re not able to sleep—and that can be either through masturbation or with a partner.
We also know that insufficient sleep has a significant impact on libido. All sorts of things happen when we’re sleeping, including the rebalancing of hormones that impact our stress levels and appetite. Our memory, mood, and energy levels are all impacted by sufficient or insufficient sleep, and all of those things can affect your desire for sex.
The connection between sleep and sexual health is apparent in some sleep disorders: Oftentimes the very first symptom of untreated sleep apnea, a condition where there’s an obstruction in the airway and you’re not getting sufficient oxygen throughout the night, is erectile dysfunction. That’s just one physiological example of the connection between sleep and sex.
This also can be related to sex if sex is a source of disconnection for a couple. Maybe there’s a desire discrepancy where one partner wants sex more and the other wants it less. Their bed can become a source of sexual frustration, guilt, and shame.
But when you think about when you’re sleeping or when you’re having sex—those are the two most vulnerable positions for the human body. You’re so vulnerable to being harmed in those contexts. Both of these systems are also governed by a very primal part of the brain. Our sleep system and our sex system both evolved when we were sleeping in caves. So the brain needed some alerting mechanism to disrupt sleep and ensure survival: the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or your fight-flight-or-freeze response. That’s a necessary adaptation if you’re sleeping in a cave and a saber-toothed tiger comes in.
The problem is it’s a primitive part of the brain. And that part of the brain can’t differentiate between just having had a fight with a partner and a saber-toothed tiger walking in the bedroom. If the brain perceives that something’s wrong—and certainly something’s wrong because this person sitting next to me is an emotional threat to me—then I’m less likely to fall asleep. Certainly the sleep is more likely to be fragmented.
Create your bedroom to be a sanctuary for sex and for sleep. We have all of these paired associations in our lives. If I were to describe your favorite food right now—let’s say it’s a warm brownie—and I were to talk to you about the smell of the warm brownie, the warm brownie coming out of the oven, what it’s going to feel like when you put the first bite in your mouth…you start salivating. Your body has a reaction to the thought of it. We have thousands of these paired associations that we carry with us throughout the day.
If your bedroom is a place of conflict, clutter, feeling disconnected, feeling vulnerable, sad—if it’s a catchall where you do everything: having a fight with your partner, working, sleeping, sorting laundry—then you don’t have the association of that bedroom being a sanctuary. A sanctuary for sexually connecting with yourself or with your partner or for sleeping soundly.
So to get practical, what I would suggest is avoiding conflict inside the bedroom. If you want to talk to your partner and you feel like it’s a charged conversation, take it out of the bedroom. Both partners need to commit to that fully. Whether that conflict is about sex, sexual disconnection, kids, or money—which are the top things that couples fight about—have those conversations at the kitchen table or anywhere other than the bedroom.
In order to create your sex and sleep sanctuary, think about creating a room that appeals to your five senses. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but try to create something that is beautiful to you and your partner. That may be using certain colors that you like, certain textures of fabric, maybe having plants or soft lighting or anything that’s beautiful to your eye. I think candlelight is a magical way to change the mood. Have sound available, like playlists for sleep or for sex. Have scented candles or incense or something that brings your sense of smell to life. You can activate your sense of touch with texture, whether that be nice sheets or blankets or pillows. I also recommend having massage oil on hand. Lube is a great way to experiment with different kinds of touch in your bedroom and with your partner that can be helpful for both sleep and sex.
Stability and consistency that are facilitated by scheduling can be helpful for both of these super important areas of functioning. Couples often ask me, “How often should we be having sex?” Although that answer is different for every couple, every person, and every stage of life, I generally recommend connecting erotically every seventy-two hours. That could be just kissing. It could be taking a shower together. It could be swinging-from-the-rafters sex. Whatever that looks like. Stability is incredibly important for sleep as well: Waking up at the same time every day and ideally keeping a stable sleep schedule goes a long way.
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Dr. Britney Blair is a licensed clinical psychologist and is board-certified in both sleep and sexual medicine. She is a Stanford sleep consultant and is on the adjunct faculty at The Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. Blair is a cofounder and the chief science officer of Lover, a digital platform designed to resolve sexual problems and optimize sexual wellness. She is also the founder and clinical director at The Clinic, a multidisciplinary practice with locations across the Bay Area offering in-office and video appointments serving over 3,000 patients living in California.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.