Is a sleep divorce the key to a happy relationship? A relationship counsellor's take on the 'living apart together' trend

When building a pillow wall isn’t good enough, sleeping apart may be the best solution


"Huge news," my friend announces dramatically at our girl's catch-up night recently. “I bought a dual temperature duvet and it has changed my life."

And by life, she means her marriage.

For years, she has battled to stay warm in bed while her husband sweatily threw off his duvet throughout the night. This solution, half the duvet warmer, the other cooler, has managed to stave off the constant marital-bed battles.

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But for others, it takes something a little more drastic to get the shut-eye they need.

Frances has sleep apnea and his partner is pregnant. They sleep in separate rooms and the arrangement suits them both. “I just wanted my own space," he confides. ‘The lack of sleep for both of us was taking its toll. I’m sure this is a temporary situation, but for now we are both much less tired and it hasn't affected our day to day intimate relationship... so far.”

'62% of couples said they would like to sleep apart'

It is a familiar scene for those who've had small children invade their slumber. Dad is usually the first casualty of sharing a bed with a wiggly one-year-old or a six-year-old having night terrors.

But as a longer-term solution to sleep deprivation, can you really retain the same closeness within a relationship while shacking up in the spare room every night?

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Getting a so-called sleep divorce is more popular than many think. In fact, a study carried out in the US by the National Sleep Foundation found that 25% of couples sleep in separate bedrooms. Furthermore, a whopping 62% of couples said they would like to sleep apart.

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But relationship therapist, author and Newstalk contributor David Kavanagh, says what you make up for with sleep, you might lack in intimacy.

"In certain relationships, a lack of physical intimacy risks it falling apart. When you cuddle together, usually in bed, a chemical called oxytocin is released, sometimes called the cuddle chemical. This can help build trust, tolerance, feelings of security and feeling loved.

"However, in saying that, we can't understate the importance of sleep. The amount of work that takes place when we are asleep is vital to our health and wellbeing. The book, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, explains the importance of sleep when it comes to our health. If we fully understood the benefits a good night's sleep had on our body we probably wouldn't do anything to compromise that.

"Anyone experiencing sleep loss because of a partner can expect a big impact on the body and the brain," he continues. "They will be irritable, unable to perform well at work and lead to a greater malaise.

"What I'd say is that first, fix the sleep problem, do what you have to do — go to a sleep clinic, take medication, whatever it is that you need to make sure you get a good sleep. Then if you do have to sleep apart, make sure you build cuddle time into your relationship somewhere. Jump into the same bed for a bit to create that bond that comes with snuggling."

What about the lack of physical intimacy that might also come with a sleeping-apart arrangement?

"For millions of people all over the world, the sexual spark may have gone, even temporarily," explains Kavanagh. "But as long as you continue to have affection, love, compassion and respect in your relationship, it will thrive. It isn't all about chemistry, it is also about long-term companionship and facilitating the strengthing of those brilliant qualities that make your relationship strong."

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It's complicated

And then there are the couples who take things one step further.

And while they might be absolutely committed to each other, they also just don’t want to live together. Sociologists name this relationship status 'Living Apart Together' (LAT) and it describes a growing and agreed-upon distance between couples. You won't find this one on Facebook.

Documentary marker, Sharon Hyman from Canada is working on a short film about this particular trend. In an interview with Men’s Health magazine, she explains that couples in this situation call each other "apartners".

“Most of the people I’ve interviewed for my film have previously been married, cohabited, had kids. They’ve been there, done that and don’t want to do it again.”

Together, separately

“We say good night, I turn over and he catches the train home,” laughs Judith Newman. She says she has always been very open about her living arrangments with her husband John.

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They have two children together and yet have never lived under the same roof. “I’ve never understood why living separately is such a big deal. I want the same love and commitment as anyone else, but why do I have to live in the same place to achieve it?”

Imagine, nobody criticising your pineapple-themed furniture or leaving wet towels on the bed? The idea of so much alone-time makes me dizzy.

But as tempting as it might be, isn’t the co-dependence part quite a big aspect to any relationship? Aren't the compromises you have to make over sharing space and lives conducive to a strong marriage?

David Kavanagh says not necessarily. "If people have enough money, they can afford it and it is beneficial to them — why not? One of the things I always point out to couples coming to see me is that living with someone can cause stress. You may not be able to put your finger on the problem but as you get older, tolerance levels increase, those foibles and nuances that annoy you get less and less. If you have the ability to do this and keep the romance alive, and still be a healthy functioning couple, then who is to criticise you for that?"

Balance

Like everyone, trying to find the balance between being close and being independent is a juggle. Many LAT couples have just taken it to the extreme.

The truth is that I like simply being around my handsome house-mate. I like that the children see him ironing my pants. They can observe us disagreeing and then resolving a conflict (usually involving the dishwasher delph configuration). That’s part of what we are trying to teach them. Even when you take children out of the equation, I enjoy having his quiet support on tap 24/7 and within arm’s reach

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We all have different tolerance levels for closeness — probably stemming back to our childhood. I'm a Koala kind of girl. I'm tactile. I like my people wrapped around me as much as possible.

That's not to say I don't love a good weekend away on my own, but it is a balance we are all trying to figure out.

Smothered or abandoned, the trick here is to find someone who matches your ratio of need-you, don't-need-you mentality.

These things tend to take time to eke out, navigating things like illness, crying babies and individual ticks. Smoothing them out into the no-man's land of compromise marks a sense of achievement, a battle-weary white flag of understanding, either way, that will hopefully stand to your relationship.

Good luck in those bedtime trenches, ladies.

Image via Unsplash.com


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Read more: Is it possible to have a healthy relationship and sleep in separate rooms?

Read more: How couples therapy can repair a marriage

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