Maybe it’s because I’m a relationship columnist (plus a true romantic at heart), but when my girlfriend told me that she and her husband recently started sleeping in separate bedrooms, I felt really, really sad for them. In my mind, hearing “separate bedrooms” equated to them being disconnected, distant and living like roommates instead of life partners. And, if there was marital discord, separate bedrooms would only drive them further apart. I was expecting to hear the word “divorce” in the next 60 seconds.
But then my friend talked me off the ledge, telling me the problem with the sleeping arrangements in her home have nothing to do with the marriage and everything to do with “intense snoring.”
Although I felt great relief that the problem lie not in the marriage but rather in her husband’s nasal passages, I had to wonder: Can separate bedrooms turn into a sexless marriage? Can sleeping apart lead to growing apart?
For insight, I reached out to Dr. Sarah Allen, a North Shore-based psychologist who specializes in women’s issues and relationships. Allen said couples choose to sleep in separate bedrooms for a variety of reasons, including the desire to get better sleep.
“A lack of sleep can cause relationship issues, including resentment if you are being woken up by snoring,” said Allen, who has been in practice for 22 years. “Not getting enough sleep can also cause irritability and fatigue, and if you have other medical issues, lack of sleep can make them worse.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, one in four couples sleep in separate bedrooms due to sleep disorders that include snoring and sleep apnea. But does that statistic mean one in four couples aren’t having sex? Allen said no.
“People think sex equates to sleeping in the same bed with someone, but it doesn’t,” she said. “You can spend time with your spouse in bed before you go to sleep. You can cuddle, talk about your day, read together, watch TV, give each other back rubs or have sex. Afterward, you can go into another room to get the sleep you need.”
But what happens when one person moves out of the bedroom for a reason that has nothing to do with getting ZZZ’s, and everything to do with conflict in the relationship? Allen said retreating to another room because of arguments, resentment and feeling distant or disconnected only leads to unresolved problems and a worsening situation.
She said when couples come to see her about this issue, she advises that they make quality time to talk, to communicate and to connect. And, ironically, she tells them to do that in the bedroom.
“The marital bed is the only place you get peace and quiet and privacy, especially if you have children,” Allen said. “That should be the place to work on the issues. It is a place where you are physically close and that can foster closeness and intimacy.”
The thing is, every couple is unique. There are couples who sleep in the same bed who have great marriages, and who are emotionally and physically connected. There are also couples who sleep in the same bed who are unhappy together and who don’t have sex. I feel sorry for those couples.
There are couples who don’t sleep in the same bed who are in sexless marriages, and there are couples who don’t sleep in the same bed (like my friend) who are very satisfied and happy in their relationship.
I guess where in the house you get your sleep isn’t so important, as long as you wake up well rested. What matters more when it comes to a healthy, happy relationship is the time a couple spends together while awake. Laughing together, feeling appreciated and loved, being intellectually challenged, feeling sexy and attractive to each other, genuinely liking each other and enjoying your spouse, even when it’s just the two of you loading the dishwasher; that’s way better than REM sleep. It’s actually a dream come true.