My parents have been sleeping in separate beds for the last two decades. While they’re still married, they’re rarely affectionate with each other (during their 40th anniversary dinner, my dad kissed my mom on the mouth and everyone at the table audibly gasped), and prefer their own space. My mom snores, and my dad likes to watch the History Channel until midnight. While this is their “normal,” I always saw this arrangement as a cautionary tale of what happens when you “fall out of sync” with your partner.
I assumed this separation led to an even bigger, looming one. No matter what, I thought, you’re supposed to sleep in the same bed with your significant other. But what if that’s not the case? What if it’s actually better for your relationship if you take a bed-break from each other every once in a while, especially if you’re fighting?
My husband and I have been living together for the last six years, but only in the last year have we been able to afford a two-bedroom home and a second mattress (beds are expensive, y’all). So, the idea of sleeping in separate beds was just not logistically possible for a long time. If someone was angry, they slept on the couch, but that was avoided at all costs, because sleeping on couches is the worst. But the week we bought a bed for the guest bedroom was the same week I decided to sleep in it, away from him. We had a big fight and we both needed the space.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt clarity and calmness. I was less angry and more willing to hear his side of things. He told me that he felt better, too. This became our go-to solution whenever we got into a huge fight and needed to go to bed angry. While sleeping apart has never been our long-term solution (we’ve always worked out our issues the next day), it’s been an arrangement that’s helped diffuse heated fights.
We’re definitely not alone. According to a recent annual survey conducted by alarm clock app Sleep Cycle, 41 percent of Americans would rather sleep alone than with their partner. While the survey is based on quality of sleep versus conflict, it’s interesting that so many couples admit to doing something that’s long been considered a big relationship no-no. Susan Heitler, PhD, author of The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong and Loving Marriage and founder of poweroftwomarriage.com, says that she sees “lots of clients who sleep in separate bedrooms and have better marriages as a result.”
However, the downside to sleeping apart during a fight is that it could be an indicator that you and your partner aren’t communicating well, or dealing with conflict in a healthy way. Dr. Sarah Schewitz, a love and relationship psychologist in Los Angeles, says she wouldn’t “encourage sleeping apart when fighting, especially long-term.” She continues, “Sleeping apart does not foster staying connected even through conflict and only reinforces the attitude that one cannot or should not be loving to the partner when angry.”
Not that it means you should never sleep apart if you’re fighting, or that it’ll be the death of your relationship if you do. “The only time I think it’s appropriate to sleep apart when fighting is for one, maybe two nights if a fight is really fresh and being in the same bed with your partner triggers you to the point where you can’t sleep.” If you find yourself sleeping in the guest bedroom more often than not, Dr. Schewitz suggests seeking help from a couples therapist.
While my husband and I try not to lean on the guest bedroom as an alternative route while we’re arguing, we’re also really open about it with our couples therapist (yes, we do couples therapy, and yes it’s been really good for us). Any time we’ve fought to the point where we’ve needed to take a break from each other for a night, we tell our therapist, and we also work out how we eventually resolved the issue. Plus, the second bedroom isn’t just about sleep — it’s about using the extra space to air out tension and diffuse negative feelings. Whenever either of us are in the guest bedroom, we spend a couple hours before bed reading, streaming shows — anything that helps us calm down and get back to center.
So, when is it OK to sleep apart, and when should you work to stay together in bed? Every couple is different, but I knew that for me, if I went to bed with my partner after having a huge fight, neither of us would sleep well or feel refreshed enough in the morning to go into patch-up mode with a clear head. Feeling well-rested is instrumental for me to think more positively and be more open to communicating in a way that’s less defensive and more collaborative. If we slept together, I knew that that I would have ended up snapping again the next day.
And the research shows that not getting enough sleep could lead to more arguing. In a 2017 study from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, 43 couples did two study visits. Each visit, the couples gave researches blood samples and the numbers of hours they’d slept the last two nights. Researchers then instructed the couples to try to resolve a hot button issue. Afterward, blood samples were taken again. “We found that people who slept less in the past few nights didn’t wake up with higher inflammation, but they have a greater inflammatory response to conflict. So that tells us less sleep increased vulnerability to a stressor,” Stephanie Wilson, lead researcher in the study, concluded. Couples who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to bicker or be mean to each other. In fact, for every hour of sleep the couple didn’t get, inflammatory markers rose 6 percent.
Ultimately, my husband I survived (and thrived!) years without a second bedroom, and I’m confident we would now if we had to downsize. A lot of couples don’t even have the opportunity to rely on a second bed, and I realize we’re lucky enough to have that option. However, I stand by our decision to create space when we need it. There’s something very restorative in a bed that you get all to yourself. It calms you, and in the morning, it makes you appreciate all the things you have, even if they’re not perfect and need work and call for endless patience. Every relationship is different, and if a different setting at night is what yours needs to hit that reset button? Then you do you.
A version of this story was published May 2019.