There are many reasons why 17% of Australian couples sleep alone. But there’s still a reluctance for many to admit it is a preference
Denise Cullen – The Guardian
Lucille Ball and Franchot Tone in Her Husband’s Affairs. In 1947 it was a strict rule of British film censors to have one foot between twin beds in scenes of married couples in bed. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
It was the usual culprit – snoring – that led to Sam Johnson and his partner, Sophie, sleeping in separate beds. “I make a racket, I sound like a foghorn really,” he says.
Johnson, 35, of Yarraville, was so concerned about keeping his partner awake that he slept badly too.
“She doesn’t believe me that she takes up more of the bed and I’m stuck on the edge, trying to force myself to only face away … I just basically never relaxed,” he says.
Johnson’s partner balked when he suggested sleeping in different rooms, thinking it was the beginning of the end. But it happened, and with both of them getting a better night’s sleep, he says their relationship is stronger than ever.
According to researchers, different sleeping quarters are actually pretty common for couples and do not necessarily signal a relationship on the rocks.
Robert Adams, a professor in respiratory and sleep medicine at Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health, says previously unpublished data from research undertaken on behalf of the Sleep Health Foundation in 2019 found that 17% of 2,040 Australian adults who were married or living with their partner slept alone.
This can happen for a range of reasons – such as snoring, incompatible body clocks, restless children, sleep disorders like insomnia, or physical illness. For example, at the height of the pandemic, couples in China and Britain were advised to sleep in separate beds to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Adams also found that 22% of cohabiting individuals would prefer to sleep alone, but didn’t. Preferences varied by age, with people aged over 55 years (27%) more likely to prefer sleeping alone than those aged 18-34 years (16%).
In order to deal with a partner’s undesirable bedtime behaviours, 11% had resorted to using ear plugs or eye masks, and 13% had changed their sleep schedule – going to bed earlier or later, or staggering their sleep times.
In his clinical work, Adams has observed that the impact of Covid-19 on co-sleepers comes down to the baseline quality of the relationship.
“It’s really affected the population differentially,” he says. “Some people are really enjoying having people at home, they’ve got more time, they don’t have to travel to work so can sleep later, they’re less stressed, so their sleep and their mental state has improved.”
Meanwhile, those living in cramped quarters, with ongoing conflict, or with worries about losing work, or getting sick, were not doing so well.
“It’s having a negative impact on their sleep as well as their relationship,” Adams says.
Dr Alix Mellor, a postdoctoral research fellow in the sleep and circadian medicine laboratory in Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, says it’s time we broke down the stigma associated with separate beds.
She is currently studying the efficacy of a seven-week behavioural intervention program delivered to couples where one individual has been diagnosed with insomnia.
Project Rest, headed by Prof Sean Drummond, is the world’s first treatment for insomnia which also includes the partner.
Some of the 117 participating couples, ranging in age from 18 to 82 years, said they preferred to share a bed and claimed to sleep better when they did so.
“However, previous research using objective measurements of sleep such as actigraphy, a research-grade Fitbit device, suggests that there are negative consequences associated with sharing a bed,” Mellor says.
For example, bed sharers regularly engage in “wake transmission” – the clinical term for when a non-slumbering partner wakes the other with their tossing and turning or nocturnal trips to the toilet.
Mellor notes that previous studies have identified that poor sleep predicts a range of negative outcomes, including reduced physical and mental health, increased likelihood of accidents and greater marital unhappiness.
“Resentment can build up when couples aren’t sleeping well together,” Mellor says.
Mellor recommends that those who are incompatible bedfellows simply separate at night.
“There’s a social expectation that if you’re in a romantic relationship that you should sleep in the same bed, but, for many couples, this just isn’t right for them,” she says.
Mellor’s study attempted to study the proportion of couples who were sleeping separately pre- and post-intervention.
However, partly because of participants’ reluctance to admit to separate beds, Mellor considers the obtained data on this point to be unreliable.
“There’s a real need to normalise the fact that sometimes it’s just better to sleep apart and that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a really fulfilling relationship,” she says.
Mellor points out that couples can “bond” outside the bedroom – by going for a walk, sharing a warm drink, or simply chatting on the couch. Johnson and his partner, for instance, bookend their day with a cup of coffee in bed in the morning, and a cup of tea at night.
Introducing “visitors’ rights” – prearranged times in which excursions to each other’s bedrooms were welcome – could also keep couples close.
“It’s also important to remember that sexual intimacy doesn’t always have to occur in bed,” Mellor says.