Rachelle and Preston Elliot have been happily married for 20 years — and they’ve spent the last 19 sleeping in separate bedrooms.
“We had just given birth to our oldest, Parker, and we were in the same room,” recalled Rachelle, 47, of the decision to relocate. “I’m trying to nurse several times a night and he has to get a good night sleep for work, and every time I got up with the baby I was waking him up.”
The couple, who live in Harleysville, realized they were completely incompatible as bedmates: He’s often in bed by 8 p.m. and gets up at 4 a.m. to get to his WMMR radio host job. She’s more of a night owl. He needs total darkness and a noise machine to drown out the household noise with three kids. She prefers to keep the door open and likes to fall asleep to the TV. He likes it freezing. She prefers hot.
“The bottom line is, I don’t sleep well with someone else in the bed,” said Preston, 51. “If you’re getting a better night sleep, it leads to a better disposition and might be better for your relationship that you are well-rested.”
The Elliots are not alone. While couples sleeping apart is nothing new, the stigma that those couples are having problems seems to be slowly going away, said Philip Gehrman, clinical psychologist at the Penn Center for Sleep. Though he said the effect of sleep loss on relationships is an understudied area, anecdotally, he finds that sleeping separately can be positive overall.
“People with very healthy relationships can sleep apart,” he said.
People confuse physical proximity with intimacy, added Ann Rosen Spector, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Rittenhouse Square. “The real issue is to be emotionally close to your partner and have the kind of physical intimacy that you want and need. That has nothing to do with sleeping in the same bed.”
It’s critical to get a good night’s sleep for both physical and mental health, said Gehrman, who pointed out that eight hours of sleep a night is ideal. “After a bad night of sleep, people are irritable, grumpy, and more reactive,” he added. “Oftentimes, it’s people’s closest relationships that suffer the most when they don’t sleep well.”
“If an owl and a lark get together, their internal clocks are out of sync with each other, but they’ll often force themselves on the same schedule, which means one or both of them are not following their body’s natural rhythm,” he said. “That tends to cause insomnia.”
Married for 24 years, Andrea Striepen was sent down the hall by her husband’s snoring soon after they wed. “When we travel or when we have guests in our home we sleep in the same bed, but more often than not, we sleep in separate rooms,” said Striepen, 54, who lives in Queen Village.
With a low tolerance for noise, she thinks it’s important to have a healthy night’s sleep rather than trying to sleep in the same room and being miserable the next morning. “I don’t think it has an effect on intimacy at all,” she said. “We keep intimacy alive when we’re awake.”
Cuddling, pillow talk, and sex may be a bit more challenging when not sleeping in the same bed, so Gehrman urges couples to communicate about keeping intimacy in their relationship.
That’s never been a problem for Nancy Blood and her husband, who have been married for more than 20 years. They began sleeping in different rooms about a year ago, due to “normal aging issues,” said Blood, 75, who lives in Old City.
“I’m an extremely light sleeper and he has difficulty sleeping well," she said. "We go to bed together at night and that’s our intimate time. Sometime or other, my husband leaves the room and goes to sleep in the other room.”
While some people call the phenomenon “sleep divorce,” divorce implies a permanent split, said Gehrman. Blood is especially bothered by the term.
“The stereotypical place we go when we hear the word divorce is acrimony, difficulty, disagreement, or not getting along,” she said. “This is anything but that. This is caring for each other and doing what makes things harmonious.”
Sleeping separately isn’t always an option, especially if there isn’t an extra bedroom available. In that case, Gehrman counsels couples to have a conversation about a reasonable compromise.
“For example, how can the night owl come to bed without waking up the other person who is already asleep,” he said. “It takes some experimentation to settle on a good pattern.”