Couple heading for a sleep divorce?

Dear Toni--

I am a married woman with a problem that I don't know how to address, and that is getting worse and is creating increasing marital discord. I can't get a good night's sleep unless my spouse is away and I have the bed to myself. I'm thinking this can't be that unusual as many people complain about getting enough sleep, especially when raising a family and in some cases having a second job outside the home. However, I wonder how many tired adults see the problem as due to sleeping with their spouse.

Dan has never been a good sleeper. He stays up late, sleeps lightly, and jumps on his iPad if he wakes up during the night. In the past, I didn't wake up as easily, but as I have gotten older and my responsibilities have grown, I am a lighter sleeper as well--even though I sleep mostly through the night when the room is quiet and dark, and always when Dan is away on business. I really look forward to his trips!

Being sleep deprived has led to a change in my temperament, my ability to get my work done, my concentration, and a lack of patience with everyone, especially my family. It's awful to even admit, but I am annoyed by requests and even questions sometimes, which I never was in the past. I am aware that I am tired and when I get a chance to catch-up on sleep, I feel so much better.

I have talked with Dan about the night time use of his iPad, making a lot of noise, etc.--and he agrees he will try to be more aware and quiet, but essentially his behavior remains the same. I have asked him to quietly leave the room if he wants to get plugged in, but he says he will never get back to sleep if he does this. We are at an impasse and I am more resentful every day and happy when he is not around. This can't be good. Please help!

--In a Sleep-Deprived Marriage

Dear In a Sleep-Deprived Marriage,

No you are not alone. This topic has been coming up periodically over a number of years as new studies continue to be released and more people are being found to suffer from sleep disorders or are married to someone who does. According to the Better Sleep Council and National Sleep Foundation, one in four couples are currently sleeping apart. It's called "sleep divorce" and it's on the rise.

I imagine your reaction to this information will be mixed as sleeping apart is not what anyone imagines when they think about what a happy marriage looks like. However, you are living with this problem and can't find a way to actually sleep when you go to bed together. Therefore you know firsthand how marital discord can result when you can't come to a workable solution. Therefore, the first step would be to explore options with your spouse that you have already tried to raise and perhaps ones you might not have thought of yet. To do this, you may need to help of a skilled counselor.

From your description, Dan doesn't appear willing to alter or change his night time behavior. If this is accurate, it needs to be addressed. You will be much angrier at a partner who refuses to work with you on this problem then one who is making an effort and considering the negative impact his behavior is having on you and your relationship. I am not convinced he is really seeing this and hearing what you are trying to communicate and this is why I'm recommending someone who can help you communicate it to him and ensure he is getting the message. If you were able to accomplish this, the next step would be to explore your options, all of which would involve behavior changes and compromise. Dan's willingness to work with you on this will be a big part of any potential solution that results in both of you getting a better night's sleep.

Options like seeing a sleep specialist to rule out medical issues, looking at how you can comfortably combine your different bedtimes, and addressing how you will handle the times when either of you are awake and having difficulty getting back to sleep will need to be explored. The solution may involve staying in the same room but having separate beds, changing the lighting so that Dan has his own light source which doesn't wake you, adjusting the temperature in the room, putting up room darkening shades, and/or for Dan, exploring the behaviors that may lead to sleeplessness, which can include late eating and drinking and using electronic devices too close to bedtime.

The key is to explore all possibilities together, in a non-defensive and cooperative manner--and seek win-win solutions. There cannot be a happy ending here if the result is a win-lose solution. Only a win-win will leave you feeling closer to and more desirous of intimacy with your husband--even if the eventual answer is that you will be sleeping apart.

(from August 2015)


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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