When Alex Kelly, 23, and his girlfriend of nearly five years moved into their new flat they choose a place with two bedrooms. Not for the comfort of guests. For the comfort of each other.
When they moved in together in Oxford three years ago, the couple intended to share a bed. But it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t going to work: Alex snores, and his girlfriend is a light sleeper who was being kept up all night by his night-time noises. There’s the issue, too, of bedtimes, and the pair not sharing sleep patterns – Alex likes to stay up for a couple of hours after his partner has hit the hay.
And so they quickly fell into the habit of sleeping apart, with Alex spending almost every other night cramped on the sofa. The discomfort was worth it, he says, because he didn’t have to worry about the guilt of snoring.
But now the couple have made their separate sleeping arrangements permanent: each picking out new furnishings – Alex remembers choosing curtains, excited by the prospect of a bed he would actually sleep in – and retiring each night to their own bedrooms. And they’ve done this without sacrificing their sex life in the process.
It’s not something that many couples talk about – especially when they’re younger. But there are a number of reasons why sharing a mattress with your partner might not be ideal, from duvet stealing and snoring, to pets in the bed, a preference for different temperatures or non-stop spooning, and alarms set to all hours. Even the madness of a partner keen to alternate sides of the bed. And while these might be things you can tolerate in the early days of a relationship, they become increasingly wearing as time moves on, your epic tiredness increases, and you keep falling asleep in meetings.
We acknowledge these issues exist – from car manufacturer Ford’s lane-keeping bed, which nudges people back to their own side if they begin to sprawl, to rich, high-profile couples such as the Queen and Prince Phillip, or Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Brad Falchukm, who have the luxury of being to be able to spread out across properties. When Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton purchased adjoining houses, many couples looked on enviously.
11% of couples choose to sleep separately every night.
Culturally, however, the idea of admitting we sleep separately from our partners remains uncomfortable; the opposite of what romance is meant to look like. Choosing different beds has even been dubbed ‘sleep divorce’ by some – adding to that nagging suspicion that choosing to sleep apart is the beginning of the end.
But that isn’t stopping people from doing it.
According to a UK study of 2000 respondents by online pharmacy Chemist4U, 11% of people in couples choose to sleep separately every night, with 26% do some nights – meaning that more than a third of us sometimes sleep separately from our partners. Of those surveyed 32% admitted to preferring the solo arrangement, a figure that rose to 40% of women.
So why are we so worried about spending a night alone?
“It’s the script that we’re used to in a relationship,” argues Peter Saddington, a sex and relationship counsellor at Relate, who works with lots of couples who want to entertain the idea of sleeping separately but are worried about what it will mean for their marriage and their sex life. People get anxious about what it means, he explains: “If we can’t sleep together anymore is it a sign of the end days?”
For these reasons, Alex and his partner were self-conscious about their situation, he explains: “We asked ourselves, is this going to start hurting us and making us drift apart? Those sort of worries”. But the benefits of them (both) getting a decent night’s kip also helped dampen those worries. “Everything is easier when we’re not tired,” he notes. Now the pair are open about their set up with friends and family, making no effort to hide that they don’t share a room when people come over.
Lots of couples who are initially sceptical about sleeping apart, come to accept it, says Saddington, noting that they grow to realise a well-rested relationship is the biggest priority.
“It’s like anything new, give it a try. If you do it for a couple of months and it doesn’t work you go back. If you see some improvement you keep going. Or if it feels a lot better then that’s the proof you needed to change everything. It is not always bad news to sleep separately.”
It is not always bad news to sleep separately...Peter Saddington
Carmela Lopez, 59, and her husband Hank who live in San Diego, have been married for 23 years . They began sleeping separately for health reasons, and have done so on-and-off during periods of ill health throughout their lives. When Carmela was recovering from breast cancer surgery she moved into the spare room; now Hank has to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help with sleep apnea, the noise – “like a jet engine” – means she has moved out again.
Throughout, they have managed to sustain their sex life. “Sleep and sex aren’t intertwined for us any longer,” says Carmela. “We have it at times other than bed time. And we are committed to daily physical contact, which we believe is critical to healing.”
Similarly, sleeping apart hasn’t infringed on Alex and his partner’s sex life. “We are terrible at arranging or planning anything in our sex lives, so it’s pretty spontaneous. Just at weekends or afternoons, and we have a night in bed together every few weeks or at the weekend where it doesn’t matter if we are tired the next day.”
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For some people, sleeping separately can even prove a positive for your sex life. “Sleeping in the same bed can become mundane,” says Saddington. “You see your partner not always necessarily looking their best – sweaty, disheveled – but if you’re just there for sex you can put more effort in and present yourself when you’re feeling at your best. For some people it can even heighten excitement.”
But broaching sleeping separately can still feel impossible. It comes down to communication, advises Saddington. “[The] most important part is both of you are in agreement on this. It’s not one person saying I want this and the other person going along with it. You’ve really got to talk about why you want it, and how it’s going to work. Try to explain your position and don’t use blame.”