Living together is such an important milestone for a long-term relationship — but along with the new levels of intimacy it offers, it also means that you’re managing the trials of roommate-hood with your romantic partner. While cleaning, dishes, and décor differences are all sources of conflict, sleeping together can be a surprisingly challenging situation for many couples — which is maybe why as many as 1 in 4 couples sleep in separate bedrooms.
It may sound unorthodox, but some research shows that couples who have separate sleeping spaces report lower levels of stress than couples who sleep together. And of course, having separate bedrooms doesn’t mean you can’t still choose to sleep together whenever you wish! Why are some couples exploring this option? Here are five reasons why it may benefit you to sleep separately from your live-in partner.
Maintaining novelty and excitement in your relationship
Balancing the security and stability of longterm relationships with the risk of their becoming stale or boring us is one of the biggest relational challenges. Esther Perel talks about this as the juxtaposition of our need for safety vs. our desire for adventure; we want and deserve the security of something long-term, and the intimacy it fosters, but good sex and intense feelings also involve feelings of novelty. “Can we sustain desire once the object is within reach, or must desire always be fueled by absence and longing?” she asks.
One solution can, believe it or not, be separate bedrooms. Think about how it felt when you and your partner first began dating: you’d count down til you were able to see them again or the next time you had plans; if you were going to stay at their apartment for the weekend, you’d look forward to it all week.
Having some space and separate rhythms of life can help provide novelty and excitement when we then re-connect (especially in a post-pandemic world when many of us are working from home, and now spending even our work lives with our partner). There’s a sweet excitement in telling your partner over the breakfast table each morning what happened in your book last night that you read separately. And it makes the evenings you do choose to spend in the same bed that much sweeter — recapturing the magic of the first sleepovers you had as a couple.
Addressing different needs or logistics around space or sleeping
Sleep is an increasingly fraught topic for many of us, especially as we age. Maybe we struggle with insomnia; maybe we need a complex array of pillows or a CPAP machine. Maybe we have radically different sleep schedules and are tired of our partner’s 5 am gym alarm waking us up; maybe one person is just a seismically loud snorer. Sleep quality and consistency is a much larger factor in our overall health than many realize; research shows that poor sleep has significant consequences for immune function, mental health, and even rates of cognitive decline as we age.
Snoring and different sleep schedules are actually the two most common reasons couples cite for sleeping apart, and the same study shows that people who sleep separately fall asleep faster on average. For some, it’s been a life (and maybe a marriage) saver:
“Grossman and her husband sleep in separate bedrooms not only at home, but on vacations, and she believes they may have gotten a divorce if she continued to lay awake in the same room with him. Now instead of waking up irritable and struggling to stay awake throughout the day, Grossman said she feels closer to her husband than ever before.”
Bringing intentionality to sex
“But wouldn’t that mean we’d stop having sex?” some may wonder. It’s understandable to be concerned about this, but think of it this way: do couples who sleep together all have great sex exactly as often as both people wish to? On the contrary, many couples go to bed together every night and go months or years without sex, so we know that sleeping together on its own isn’t the deciding factor.
While having sex if you sleep separately as a default might take more communication, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Actually, experts say that bringing intentionality to your sex life and talking about sex directly, including whether to plan for having it that night, can be healthy: “‘You actually get to carve out time,’ [Jill Lankler, a New York clinical psychologist] said. ‘You get to do it in a way that is intended and not sort of expected.'”
And again, you had these discussions when you were first dating — do we have plans tonight? Are you sleeping over? Are we having sex? — so you already know how to do them, and returning to these conversations can be a powerful antidote against the slow slide of routine and taking each other for granted that long-term couples can fall into.
Maintaining a secure route of safety
For partners with a trauma history, having a separate space they can retreat to (and even close a door to) can be more than just a lifestyle preference; it can be a crucial tenet of mental health. Access to routes of safety can be key in a relationship where one or both partners have experienced trauma or sexual violence, and two important routes of safety are the option to have a private retreat and protective measures.
Even though you aren’t a threat to your partner, if your partner is experiencing activation or a flashback, they may still need to retreat to safety from everyone and everything, including you, to feel secure and calm down. Being able to settle down or even go to sleep in a private room where they can close and lock the door can be a healing and transformative resource.
Taking pressure off resolving conflict
Even for partners without a trauma history, bedrooms can become an incredibly fraught space when there’s any kind of conflict. We know the adage “don’t go to bed angry” — for some of us that’s a motivator to thoughtfully engage in repair with our partner as soon as possible, but in some cases, the fact that we have to go to sleep next to the person we’re fighting with can push us to resolve conflicts prematurely, rushing into a solution we don’t actually feel good about or saying we’re over something when we aren’t just because we don’t want the awkwardness and discomfort of having to live together while in conflict.
Spending time in close quarters and managing intimacy while you’re angry are fundamental challenges of relationships that separate bedrooms alone can’t solve, but they can certainly help. Some conflicts are complex and take time, space and patience to come to a place of resolution on, and having separate bedrooms can at least mean that both of you have a peaceful oasis to retreat to and rest fully while engaging in the intensive work of repair and resolution.