Sleeping separately won't kill your marriage -- in fact, it can help it. A lot. Societal conventions say that moving into separate bedrooms is the beginning of the end of a marriage, but that is simply not true. According to one recent study done in Toronto, 30-40% of couples are already sleeping separately. Many couples just don’t want to talk about it publicly, because people assume that if you are sleeping separately from your spouse, your marriage is in trouble.
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But in reality, the stresses of people with different sleep cycles and styles trying to sleep together night after night after night can create the kind of stress and tension that can cause a marriage to break down. This is especially true in military marriages, where the spouse who is not in the military constantly has to adjust the other spouse being gone, coming back, and getting up at all hours.
Spouses of combat veterans may find their spouses have significant sleep problems because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI) -- which can result in the other spouse not really sleeping, as well. That was the case for us. I am not a great sleeper under any circumstances, so trying to sleep with a spouse who can’t sleep without heavy medication caused a lot of stress.
Without knowing it and while he was sleeping, usually under the influence of heavy prescription medication, my spouse has hit me, choked me, and thrown me out of bed. I could move closer to him in my sleep and wake up suddenly with his hands around my throat -- because, in his sleep, he perceived my moving closer to him as a threat.
Sleep is important for everyone. Sleep is when the brain declutters itself and processes events. It’s been proven that you need restful sleep in order to stay healthy. Lack of sleep causes irritability, cognitive problems, and weight gain.
For people who are struggling with PTSD or healing from TBI, sleep is essential for healing. My husband’s neurologist recommended that people with TBI get at least 9 hours of restful sleep at night. Lack of restful sleep is one of the biggest health problems that plague our society -- and, ironically, it’s one that is very easy for some people to fix without any kind of medical help or intervention.
When one spouse can’t sleep, or snores, or paces, or wants the room super hot or cold, and the other spouse has similar issues or is a light sleeper, no one is getting the healing sleep they need. Over time that can seriously damage your health, make you gain weight, and keep the spouse with PTSD/TBI from healing.
"What about sex?" That’s the most frequently asked question about sleeping separately. How many couples only have sex immediately before they go to sleep? Not many. But you can always slip into your spouse’s bed before falling asleep or in the morning to have sex. Sleeping separately can radically improve your sex life. Both people are much more likely to be in the mood for sex when they are well rested. It also makes sex more fun choosing whose bed to have sex in. There are a lot of more ways to spice up romantic time together and it will be more fun when you have to make an effort.
In the study I quoted above, many couples who sleep separately reported to researchers that moving into separate bedrooms dramatically improved their sex lives. Physical closeness and intimacy apart from sex is important too, but couples can still get that. Taking naps together are a fantastic way to cuddle and be close without the hassles of sleeping with someone else. My husband and I take naps on weekends that help us reconnect. Another option would be to sleep separately during the week and sleep together on weekend nights. That way you can get restful sleep during the week but the intimacy that you crave on the weekends.
"We don’t have enough space for separate bedrooms." That’s the other big objection that most people raise. I know that space is a legitimate issue. My husband and I chose not to have kids so we generally always have an extra bedroom or two that we can use but people who have kids often don’t have that extra room. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a separate sleeping space.
If you can’t have an entire bedroom for yourself or your spouse what about carving out a corner of another room? A futon set up behind a curtained off area in the den, playroom, or finished basement will work just fine. Or convert the spare room into a spouse bedroom. Set your guests up on an air mattress in the living room at the holidays. Get creative with the space you have. It really is worth it.
Another benefit to sleeping separately is a sense of privacy that many people give up when they get married. Some people are more independent than others and need a sense of having their own space. Personally, I am an extremely independent person, and I need to have a space of my own with all my stuff. My husband likes to have a room of his own where he can display all his coins, photos from deployment, memorials to the friends he has lost, and other very personal items.
Sometimes living with someone who has PTSD and TBI can be really intense, and it helps that we both have a space to go and breathe when things get stressful or intense. We both enjoy having our own space to meditate, do yoga, and read. We have slept apart for the last several years, and would never go back to trying to force ourselves to sleep together every night again.
Of course this doesn’t work for everyone, but for a lot of military couples or couples dealing with combat-related PTSD and TBI, it can be a marriage-saver. Don’t be afraid to try sleeping separately. If sleeping together was the only thing that kept a marriage strong then no military marriages would ever survive.
By their very nature, military marriages involve long separations. Deployments, temporary duty assignment, trainings, and all the other facets of military life mean that one spouse ends up alone a lot of the time. One of the hardest parts about deployment for me, before we started sleeping apart, was learning to sleep without him when he left and then learning to sleep with him again when he came home. On his second deployment, we were sleeping separately, and the transition was much easier when he came home, because we could both get restful and healing sleep. Even a few nights a week apart can make a huge positive difference.