(They’re sleeping separately—and odds are their relationships may be better for it.)
Some years back after my husband suffered a near-fatal heart attack and found he could no longer sleep in a bed, I wrote a little piece about his search for a comfortable sleep chair (which turned out to be The Perfect Sleep Chair discussed on this website). I return to that time now to confess that even as I wrote about my husband’s sleep problem, I was a bit concerned and embarrassed to be admitting in print that he and I would no longer be sharing a bed—concerned because I wondered if separate sleeping arrangements would take a toll on our marriage, and embarrassed to consider what conclusions family and friends might draw from our “sleep divorce”?
Over the years in talking with friends as we all continued to age, I have come across this separate beds-separate bedrooms conundrum many times from many couples. Fact is, up to 40% of elderly couples sleep apart, according to a study conducted at the University of Toronto and reported in Science Times. And sleeping separately is indeed increasingly common, especially in senior marriages, as is confirmed by a 2017 survey by the National Sleep Foundation that shows one in four couples sleep in separate bedrooms. We all know that seems to work for queens, presidents and millionaires, but what about the rest of us?
Depending on personalities and circumstances, separate sleeping arrangements can be the best of times or the worst of times for a relationship. Which it turns out to be may depend upon your motivations for the decision. Here are some possible influencing factors:
DON’T TAKE THESE LYING DOWN! Medical considerations such as advanced heart disease, gastric problems like GERD, breathing problems like COPD and sleep apnea, painful ailments like arthritis, nervous conditions, stress and other equally serious physical issues in many cases make the decision for you. If you can’t sleep lying down or if pain is brought on by prone sleeping positions, then a sleep chair or some sort of hospital or adjustable bed becomes essential.
NOW HEAR THIS! Snoring is the most common reason cited by bed partners who move not just over to a twin bed but out of the bedroom altogether. Other noise disturbances come when one bedmate can’t go to sleep without the TV on or music or white noise as background—or when one sleeper requires absolute darkness and the other requires a nightlight. The quietest sleep apnea machines still make at best a slight noise that can be disturbing in a quiet house in the same manner as a drippy faucet. And which of you talks in your sleep?
DO NOT DISTURB! If you have regular insomnia and need to get up and pad around half the night, disturbing your fellow sleeper, or if your bed partner needs to make a number of trips to the bathroom, disturbing you, then it may be time to talk about revised sleeping arrangements. Tossing and turning or constant interruptions can disturb one’s sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. And insomnia is more common, anyway, as we get older. It’s hard enough to get to sleep and stay asleep without noise and activity.
THE THREE BEARS’ PROBLEMS! Is your mattress too hard for you and too soft for the person across the bed? Is one sleeper much heavier than the other sleeper? If you meet in the middle, does body heat become a major issue? Does one of you want the window open, year round, and the fan on as well? Are you in bed with a blanket bandit or a bed hog?
The list of reasons you might want to consider a twin bed, a sleep chair, an adjustable bed like Journey’s UPbed, or a separate bedroom is much longer, to include night owls vs. early birds, PTSD and other trauma conditions, restless leg sufferers and those who just crave more personal space and solitude. In any of these cases, insufficient sleep is a growing health problem and a good reason couples should look for resolutions—but after much communication and conversation.
If you’re contemplating such a change or seeing that one will be necessary, don’t panic that it will hurt your relationship or that such a move will kill intimacy—and don’t worry about negative reactions from friends. My husband and I are both getting the sleep—and the attention—we need, are able to greet each morning as a kind of happy reunion, and see no loss of love or of closeness in our marriage. In fact, we know that we’re showing special consideration for each other in making and adjusting to necessary changes. And as for what people think, well, that brings up one of the great joys of being a senior: WHO THE HECK CARES!