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The night divorce: Why more and more couples are sleeping apart

Many couples have very different ideas of bedtime, some like to check their phones in bed, while others prefer complete darkness.

Amy Miller and her husband, Erik, were incompatible at night. There was her powerful snoring and a nocturnal TV-watching habit not welcomed by Erik, who had to rise at 5:30 every morning. And then there was the light.

"If he rouses in the middle of the night, he likes to check his phone and read the Washington Post. The phone lighting up in my eyes, it was like A Clockwork Orange," Miller, a 47-year-old freelance writer, said from Washington, D.C.

Cemented over years of living alone, the spouses' bedtime quirks weren't going away, and lying side by side for eight hours a night wasn't working. So the Millers gave up the conjugal bed. Today, they start off in the master bedroom, with Erik moving to a guest room overnight. "He'll get up to use the bathroom and then not come back," says Miller, chortling that she isn't about to migrate in the dark.

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Slumber-starved couples such as the Millers are upending traditional bedroom setups – supposedly intimate, romantic places where secrets are shared and all the sex happens – instead sleeping solo in spare rooms full-time or shuffling off to some other bed in the house before especially gruelling days at work.

One Canadian study found that as many as 40 per cent of couples will sleep in different beds at some point, while a U.S. National Association of Home Builders survey predicted that 60 per cent of upscale homes would be planned with two master bedrooms this year.

The reasons partners flee the bed are varied: There is earthshaking snoring, of course, but also wildly different core body temperatures – one spouse a furnace, the other an icicle. Some couples have opposing views on light and noise in the bedroom. Others face clashing work shifts or the arduous "sleep training" of a child. Others still contend with the restless limbs of a partner who flails or spins around like a tornado at night.

Worst of all is the dreaded bed hog – he or she who sleeps diagonally.

What separate sleepers have in common is desperation for optimal sleep. They want it for productivity, mental health and well-being, but another perk is happier mornings with a spouse who snored it up all night, alone.

Even so, the unconventional arrangement (it's been dubbed "sleep divorce" by some) comes with judgment and sidelong glances that contented solo sleepers routinely have to bat away.

"It's not some sort of commentary on our intimate relationship," Miller says. "And it's not that we're not affectionate. At the core we are very pragmatic. We both need sleep. Not everyone that you're in love with and passionate about would be your ideal person to sleep with."

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Jennifer Adams, author of the new book Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart, wants separate sleeping to be a valid and unjudged choice for couples. She herself is a "dedicated separate sleeper" from her husband, Fraser, "a very accomplished snorer" who gets up at 5 a.m. for work (she likes to sleep in).

Adams, 49, says her friends were deeply concerned when they first found out about her and Fraser's dual bedrooms. "It was a tragedy of epic proportions because nobody within my friendship circle knew a couple who slept separately. Immediately everyone assumed that this was never going to work," Adams said from Brisbane, Australia.

Now with her husband for 11 years, Adams says more people sleep apart than we realize. There are two distinct camps: those who value their sleep above all else and don't care what others think, and those who hide the arrangement. The sheepish ones will head to bed together when they have guests over, but later, sneak out to spare rooms. They'll continue the ruse in the morning, making up the spare bed and removing personal artifacts from the nightstand.

Why the ridiculousness? In a culture that treats sleeping together as a cornerstone of our relationships, sleeping apart is still seen as a little off.

"There's a notion that a happy couple sleeps in the same bed," Adams says. "It's what mom and dad do. Adults sleep in the same bed and there's trouble in paradise if you're not."

At the core of the social pressure for marrieds to share a bed is a blurring of lines between sex and sleep. "If you're not 'sleeping together,' then are you having sex?" Adams says. "We mix up the act of sleeping with the act of showing our partner that we trust and love them, because we're going to hop in the bed every night."

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For Stephen Wilson and his wife, the stigma was originally strong. The couple retreated to separate bedrooms because of his sleep apnea, different bedtimes and because they both love to "stretch out and go full jumping jacks mode."

"We had those first few years where we were like, 'Wow, is this weird? Is this not weird?' I remember looking it up and the only thing I could find was Lucy and Ricky sleeping in separate beds in the same room. We thought, 'Oh God, where are we in our relationship?' – this, despite how awesome we felt," recalls Wilson, a 34-year-old high school teacher in Geraldton, Ont.

Today, the couple own it. "Otherwise," Wilson says, "you're just two bodies occupying a bed, neither one of whom is comfortable."

Arianne Cohen Cozi is even more forthright about the "woman cave" where she sleeps half the week apart from her husband of four years. "I don't hide it," the 34-year-old author of The Sex Diaries Project says from Portland, Ore. "It makes us like each other more. All the nights we slept apart, it means nobody disturbed the other person in the middle of the night. We're waking up with a fresh slate, excited to see each other. It's really helped my marriage and my happiness levels."

Like the other separate sleepers, Cozi insists the practice has helped her sex life, not hindered it: "It's a flirty little game, much like when we were dating and it was, 'Your place or mine?' We joke about it: 'What's on offer over at your place?' Our rooms are right next to each other, so it's not a long commute."

Adams points out that sex doesn't have to be reserved for bedtime and alternate arrangements can be made, such as the woman she encountered who'd whistle down the hallway for her husband if she was feeling frisky. "It's a no-brainer," Adams says. "You want to have sex with your partner? You communicate with them. If you wake up with a boner at 2 a.m., go to your partner's room. It happens."

Rachel Kramer Bussel, a 39-year-old who edits erotica anthologies, says the duo-bedroom setup can in fact up intimacy. Bussel and her boyfriend have made separate bedrooms a must-have as they've moved three times over four years; this time, Bussel has the master bedroom and her boyfriend keeps a smaller room.

"We know that we're not just getting in bed next to each other because it's time to sleep. We're getting in his bed together to spend time together. It's not just a default," Bussel says from Atlantic City.

The two began solo sleeping early in their dating life because Bussel stays up late and he rises early for work. She also listens to podcasts in bed and litters her blankets with books and notepads; he likes nothing in the bed but himself. "Our personalities mesh during the day but our sleeping habits and the things we like to do at night just don't fit," Bussel says.

Historically speaking, sleeping alone is still very much an anomaly. For reasons psychological and practical – space was scarce and bedding was expensive – sleeping together was the norm prior to the 18th century, says Roger Ekirch, a Virginia Tech history professor who wrote the 2005 book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

"Sleeping together was a source of warmth and great emotional security. Before the Industrial Revolution, night was plagued by any number of perils, both real and imaginary," Ekirch said.

In the 1700s, titled aristocratic couples – the French especially – began sleeping in separate rooms. "Privacy is part of it," Ekirch says, "but there's also a sense among aristocrats of their dignity, even in relation to their spouses." Middle and upper class men sometimes kept different chambers if their wives were pregnant or ill; it also came in handy for men with mistresses.

Today, separate sleeping is a more egalitarian beast. High-octane, professional women and men now have equally critical work schedules and need to optimize the little sleep they afford themselves. "What sleep we take, we insist that it be of the highest possible quality," says Ekirch, pointing to exorbitantly expensive mattresses, whirring white noise machines and our modern propensity for pharmaceutical sleep aides.

"Why put yourself through the torture of not getting a good night's sleep when you both have to go to work? If you have the extra room, then make use of it."

When I ask the separate sleepers if they ever plan on sleeping together, they're both wistful and realistic.

"Once a year I'll have this notion of, 'Wouldn't it be romantic to curl up and fall asleep next to each other?'" Bussel says. "But every single time I've tried it, which is maybe three times, it's not been a good situation."

Cozi, the part-time co-sleeper, laughs that, "This is forever." She firmly believes that negotiating a solo sleeping arrangement – for your health, not out of spite – is a sign of a healthy relationship. Basically, it's partners communicating their needs and coming up with a joint solution.

"If anything," Cozi says, "it's a relief in a marriage to not have to compromise on what time you're going to sleep, or having the lights on. Save it for the compromises that actually matter."

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Celebrity solo sleepers

Derision persists around the separate sleeping arrangement, especially when celebrities are involved.

  • Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have been rumoured to sleep in different rooms as she gets up often, enduring another difficult pregnancy.
  • Previously, the tabloids ridiculed Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise for reportedly installing a soundproof “snoratorium” for him.
  • And then there was Pete Sampras, a self-proclaimed “world-class sleeper.” A 1994 Sports Illustrated profile of the tennis star described his bedtime ritual as a “princess-and-the-pea ordeal”: Sampras liked his bedroom pitch black and icy cold. The sheets needed to be perfectly wrinkle-free and his girlfriend kept at a safe distance. “No one can touch me,” Sampras snarled.
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