When it comes to domestic furnishings, there’s probably no piece more steeped in sentiment than the bed. Georges Perec, the delightfully wacky French writer and member of the experimental literary Oulipo group, likened the bed’s rectilinear shape to a page—as in a book page, where you write your life.
The bed is an intimate space, maybe your most. When faced with a big life change, many of us enact the art of feng shui and move it to the other side of the room, or to another room altogether. It’s a place of rest, comfort, new parenthood, maybe even a little agony, and often, death. It’s where many (but not all) sex acts happen, the place where relationships come to consummate or unravel.
What if we told you that the best way to have good sex was by keeping your bed to yourself—by sleeping alone? It may not be the romantic platitude you’re expecting at Valentine’s Day, but hear us out.
Loving and leaving is generally thought to ring alarm bells when you’re getting to know a new partner, but in a trusting, longterm relationship, separating sex and sleep can make both better, and ultimately bring you and your beloved closer together.
The term “sleep divorce” might make your heart pound in the unsexy sort of way, but many sleep scientists—like renowned expert Matt Walker, who explores the topic on his podcast—swear by it. Simply put (and it is notably simple compared to severing a legal marriage), a sleep divorce is when partners sleep in separate spaces but—best case scenario—otherwise share a connected, loving life together. Usually, Walker surmises, because of it.
“Almost 25 percent of couples would admit to sleeping in separate bedrooms,” he says of a recent study conducted in America. “The problem here is that we think these numbers are conservative. Forty-five percent of couples will say that they’re too ashamed to admit they sleep apart.” When participants were allowed to respond anonymously, the statistic fell at 35–40 percent.
The reason why Walker and others who study the science of somnolence think a sleep divorce is something to consider has a lot to do with the birds and the bees. Poor sleep takes a toll on an individual, and therefore a partnership. If one partner is an erratic sleeper—tossing, turning, snoring, or traipsing to the bathroom, for example—the other is more than likely to become one too, even if it’s not their natural constitution. The annoyance can lead to increased cortisol, which we all know is a sleep sucker. Sleep deprivation makes life a lot harder for one, and is double-trouble for two: with a compromised night of sleep, couples have more conflict and less ease of resolution.
"When both parties are getting a restorative night’s sleep it allows them to feel emotionally, mentally, and physically healthier without one resentful of their partner for keeping them awake, nor the other feeling guilty for disturbing his or her mate,” Jennifer Adams, the author of “Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart,” tells the New York Times.
Those reasons are relational, but there are physiological effects, too, especially when it comes to sexual health. A lack of sleep is directly tied to a decrease in reproductive hormones; Walker shares that lack of sleep diminishes testosterone production, and can shave off up to a decade of virility. For people who menstruate, a third are more likely to have irregular periods if they have poor sleep, and may have lower levels of estrogen, luteinizing hormone, and follicle stimulating hormone—impinging on fertility.
By point of contrast, good sleep and its hormonal bedfellows lead to enhanced sexual arousal, heightened physical sensitivity, and increased desire. Reciprocally, sex that leads to orgasm (including solo sex) right before bed will almost certainly aid in a good night’s sleep.
So, if you want to be more fulfilled in bed, get a separate one?
Not necessarily. “There are many people who adore sleeping in the same bed,” Walker notes. Even if the quality of your sleep might be objectively diminished in physical or neurological terms, sleeping with a partner can go far in regard to establishing and maintaining emotional attachment and feelings of security and pleasure.
That subjective gain—knowing what you personally need or value—holds a lot of weight, even if it means a little bit of disturbed slumber. There’s also the risk with a sleep divorce of missing out on those barely-awake midnight tussles and the fortuity of morning sex. Going your own way at night might also be symptomatic of a deeper divide that has nothing to do with sleep, and therefore can’t be fixed with it.
Like a lot of ways to be in longterm relationships, separate quarters are not for everyone. But maybe it’s one of the more interesting propositions your partner has made in awhile. Why not experiment? Sex is vital, but so is sleep, evidenced by the fact that humans haven’t yet, in 750,000 years, evolved to do without it (another learning from the Matt Walker podcast). You’d think we’d shift our hubris about how few Zs we can get by on and instead consider how much more pleasurable our days and nights could be with a few more.
So what do you think, is sleep the new sex? Which of the two do you need more of to write your best life?