Should You Consider a Sleep Divorce?

Does your partner’s tossing and turning wake you up at night? How about their loud snoring? According to a survey undertaken by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), more than a third of American couples have opted for a sleep divorce—the decision to sleep in separate rooms.  

That can be a boon to the quality of your sleep, says Dr. Daniel Barone, Associate Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine and Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine—especially for the one who is being kept awake by their partner’s issues.  

In what follows, Dr. Barone reviews the sleep disorders that can vex even the best of relationships, as well as how to balance a couple’s need for high-quality sleep and for intimacy and trust.  

What are the most common sleep disorders that prompt a couple to opt for a sleep divorce? 

Snoring occurs when you inhale and the flow of air makes the back of your throat vibrate. Light snoring may not disrupt the overall quality of sleep, but heavy snoring might be associated with sleep apnea, a serious disorder and a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other diseases and conditions. To deal with routine snoring, try avoiding alcohol before bedtime and sleeping on your side. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious but treatable condition that causes you to stop breathing during sleep. Left untreated, sleep apnea increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and depression. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring and gasping for air during sleep. 

Restless legs syndrome is characterized by a strong sensation of discomfort in your legs. That sensation is different from leg cramps or numbness from circulation problems. Patients have described it as itchy, throbbing or creepy, combined with the strong urge to move their legs. If you’re a light sleeper with restless legs syndrome, you probably toss and turn throughout the night. 

Sleepwalking occurs when you get up and walk around, even though you are still asleep. A sleep doctor will try to determine if there is something else that is causing your sleepwalking or making the symptoms worse, such as another sleep disorder or medical condition, medication, substance abuse or a mental health disorder. 

If you have REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), you may act out vivid dreams as you sleep. These dreams are often filled with action, and they may even be violent. Often confused with sleepwalking, RBD presents differently. It also occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when dreams typically occur. 

Should a couple discuss their issues with a specialist before making the decision to sleep in separate rooms? 

Absolutely, says Dr. Barone. “Often, sleep disorders can be treated successfully, so it may be premature to start sleeping separately,” he says. “Getting enough sleep is critically important, so couples should consult with a sleep medicine specialist before opting for a sleep divorce.” 

Why is regular, high-quality sleep so important to a person’s health? 

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep plays a vital role in your health and well-being at every age and stage. How you feel when youre awake depends in large measure on what happens when you’re asleep.  

By contrast, getting inadequate, poor-quality sleep can raise your risk for chronic health problems that affect your heart, circulatory system, metabolism, respiratory system and immune system.  

How much sleep is considered enough? 

“We actually sleep one hour less than people did 100 years ago,says Dr. Barone. “The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night and even more for children and adolescents. But most of us average about 6 hours and change. That’s not enough. We’d all do well to make sleep a priority.” 

What are the benefits of sleeping apart? 

Says a spokesperson from the AASM, getting a good night’s sleep is important for both health and happiness. If the couple in question has discussed their issues with a specialist, and if they’ve opted to sleep separately, a sleep divorce is probably a sound decision. 

What’s the downside? 

Sharing a bed can foster intimacy, romance and connection. Another AASM spokesperson says there’s no evidence that sleeping apart damages that connection, but doing so can negatively affect a couple’s sex life. Again, Dr. Barone stresses the importance of communication, encouraging any couple considering a sleep divorce to see a specialist first. 

Resources to improve your sleep 

Dr. Barone’s books on the art and science of sleep are well worth a look-see. The first is Let's Talk about Sleep: A Guide to Understanding and Improving Your Slumber, which discusses what’s known about sleep, what can go wrong with it and what can be done to fix it. And the second, titled The Story of Sleep: From A to Zzzz, is a lively dictionary of topics related to sleep. The book is designed to help people help themselves by improving their sleep. 

Make an appointment with a specialist by visiting the Center for Sleep Medicine’s website.

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