Dr. Kristin Daley on How to Sleep Better as a Couple

Let’s face it, even the most compatible couples don’t always have compatible sleeping styles. For instance, according to Sleep Number’s Sleep IQ data, 52% of men prefer sleeping on the right side of the bed…which poses a problem if their partner wants to sleep on the right side, too! More and more couples are deciding to get “sleep divorces” and opting for separate bedrooms to solve their sleep woes. Read my conversation with Dr. Kristin Daley to learn more…

Katie Couric: I read that 24% of people think that sleeping in separate beds would lead to a better relationship…what’s your take?
Dr. Kristin Daley: People vary greatly by their optimal sleep, and this can be a source of significant conflict within couples. For one, we can be biologically wired to be more of a morning person (usually called a “lark”) or more of an evening person (the classic “night owl”). We also can differ in the total amount of sleep we need; the range of normal amount of sleep needed is between 6 and 10 hours in adulthood. What this looks like in reality is that people may be biologically wired to go to bed early, and their partner could be biologically wired to stay up late. Also, there are some consistent biological differences in sleep across genders, with women being more likely to protect their sleep and have caregiving responsibilities at night, whereas men are more likely to stay up late and sleep less (Burgard & Ailshire, 2012). Mix in the difference in total sleep time, and you can have people passing like ships in the night! Lastly, people can vary greatly in what conditions they prefer for sleep- temperature, bedding, and sound. We tend to see that a cooler sleep environment is optimal for sleep (recommended temperature is between 65-67 degrees), but some people can be incredibly sensitive to temperature. Many people love to have a fan for air movement, but this can be irritating for others. My husband has longed for us to have the bedding that we had when we were in Europe, where each side of the bed has their own duvet, so that I will stop stealing his covers!

Katie: Why do you think there’s such a stigma for couples to sleep separately? Do you see that resistance starting to subside?
Kristin: For many of the couples I see, there is a sense that sleeping apart means that they are having significant challenges in their relationship. I used to have a joke I would make at parties, where I would say that you absolutely cannot sleep next to someone you don’t like. It is true, your brain understands that you are very vulnerable when you are sleeping, and will try to inhibit sleep when it senses that conditions are unsafe. This is why it is so hard for some people to sleep in a hotel room for the first night or two. For people on the verge of a marital collapse, moving to separate beds is often one of the last steps that they take before they move to separate residences. The tide is changing, for many key reasons. For one, houses are bigger, which allows for more opportunity for people to have their own rooms. It is now pretty common for house plans to accommodate two master bedrooms, which means that people can have their own rooms without sacrificing comfort or the convenience of a master bath. For many people, separate bedrooms allows for them to create their desired conditions without creating conflict with their partner. Mix in the positive experience of sleeping better, and stigma quickly falls to the side!

Katie: Bedtime is often the only time that couples (particularly with children!) are able to connect one-on-one and have alone time away from the rest of their families…how would you suggest couples not sacrifice their intimacy for their sleep?
Kristin: Everybody finds their own rhythms, especially when they recognize that they want the marriage to be a priority. Most of my couples who sleep apart have actually moved their physical intimacy to special dates at different times during the week. I have many couples who have discovered that they are happiest when they are intimate in the morning. Honestly, as someone whose career revolves around helping people optimize their sleep, I always want the major connecting in the relationship to be part of a special daytime rhythm, rather than something that happens when we are trying to sleep.

Katie: Sometimes sleeping separately just isn’t an option given space and other factors. What can couples who must sleep in the same bed do to make their lives and their relationships more manageable?
Kristin: I am very glad you asked this question! I often will let the member of the couple whose sleep is the poorest try to dictate some of the conditions in the room (temperature, bedding, sound), as they are likely the most sensitive. We often will try to aim for the biggest bed that the room can accommodate, as it really can be helpful to have your own personal space in the bed. We might even put a body pillow in between the partners so they really have their own space! We set bedtime for each person based on their circadian rhythm or schedule, and collaborate on how the person who goes to bed later will do so without interfering with their sleeping partner. Electronics have to stay out of the room- they are a consistent source of trouble. If snoring is part of the problem, we will have the snorer evaluated to make sure they don’t have sleep apnea, and also add white noise to blunt some of the sounds from snoring.

Katie: How have you seen relationships improve in your own experience when couples do decide to sleep separately? Can you share some success stories with us?
Kristin: As you can imagine, anytime a couple decides that they have made a decision to promote their wellbeing, it often pays off significantly. One recent study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine demonstrated that marital partners are much more likely to argue aggressively when they are sleep-deprived, so there are deeper benefits than just expressing your own preferences (Keller, Haak, DeWall & Renzetti, 2019). One of my favorite couples made the permanent decision to sleep separate, and purchased a house that had two master suites. They each decorated the room to their liking, and collaborated on ways that they were going to prioritize their physical intimacy to keep that connection alive. Another couple discovered that they could connect by sharing a bath in the evening, and make special dates to do so.

Katie: Thanks so much, Kristin!