Is it time for a SLEEP DIVORCE?
If you’ve ever ordered your other half to the spare room because he’s keeping you awake at night, you’re definitely not alone, says exhausted Tash Bell
My husband Mat and I have been together for 15 years, and in that time I’d guesstimate that he’s accrued one full year’s more sleep than me, minimum. Every day he looks younger, while I come downstairs almost tripping over the bags under my eyes. How did this happen?
Getting together in our late 20s, we slept in sync. Pre-ipads, pre-smartphones, pre-kids, our night-time routine was simple: spoon, snore, repeat. Then we had three children in quick succession, and the shock’s yet to subside. After years of springing awake to feed babies, quell toddlers and calm down five-year-olds I have the night-hearing of a bat and the reflexes of a ninja – no one is going to murder me in my sleep! On the downside, I might just kill my husband.
Because no matter how hard my head hits the pillow each night, I snap awake the second Mat snuffles or snores. Preventative measures fail – my earplugs pop out, my sleep mask slips – and, bingo, I’m awake and resenting him. And I’m not alone. The 2018 Sleep Wellness Survey found a third of us never get the sleep we need, with a quarter of us blaming our partner for the problem. Meanwhile, the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association reckons 20 million people are sleep deprived because their other half snores.
No surprise, then, that more and more modern couples are filing for a ‘sleep divorce’, a term coined to mean retiring to twin beds or separate rooms at
night. A new GH survey* reveals one in four couples admits to sleeping apart sometimes, with snoring cited as the biggest reason for driving them to separate beds. Factor in other intrusions – kids, work, tech – and it seems romance is out; we’re getting ruthless about rest. Bed is for sleep – and sleeping alone. As my exhaustion (and resentment) levels rise, I find myself tempted. To keep our relationship going, should Mat and I separate at night?
He’s horrified when I initially suggest it – largely because my words come out wrong, and I ask for a sex divorce. ‘What?’ he cries, like a drowning man banned from waving. When he understands what I am suggesting, he remains unconvinced. ‘Life’s busy, Tash, there are children everywhere – the only time I get a clear view of you is in bed.’
A neighbour says she knows a couple who tried it. ‘Great,’ I cry. ‘How did they get on?’ She admits they’re divorcing. Grilling partnered-up pals, I find only one who says she sleeps apart from her husband.
There’s definitely a twin-bed ‘taboo’; a social pressure for couples to share the same duvet. But I’m at the end of my tether. ‘For one month,’ I announce, ‘we’re trying a sleep divorce.’ Mat sighs, ‘Let’s not make it a real one.’ Here’s how we got on...
Bliss. Who needs a husband when you have Agatha Christie and a sleep mask? For three nights in a row, I read until late then sleep for seven hours straight – unheard of for me. I’m looking better, feeling springier, and bouncing back to bed at night. It’s a shock to realise how much I’d previously braced myself for a bad night’s sleep. Sure, my sleep still gets disturbed (nature calls) but who cares? In our spare room, I can flick on the light, watch catch-up TV – nights are finally pleasant! Mornings less so. Mat’s feeling hurt – and knackered. Without me to urge ‘lights out’, he admits he’s gorging on box sets. ‘There’s a reason men live longer when they’re married,’ he sighs, and the implication is clear: no one sends a man to sleep like his wife.
Our stand-off worsens. Every night signals a new separation, and when we do reconvene? We’re up – and so are our defences. We miss the vulnerability fostered by the fond, fuggy marital bed; the nightly nuzzle – and any hope of a morning embrace. Luckily, being in separate rooms doesn’t alarm our kids (aged 12, 10 and eight). They nod sagely when we explain Mummy’s trying to get ‘extra-special sleep in the spare room’, then take it take it in turns to climb in with me at 3am, claiming nightmares, night sweats and night coughs respectively. (Mat finds this much funnier than I do.)
Sex has gone out of the window, followed by any kind of fun, as relations start to ape our bedroom arrangements: ‘1930s formal’, I’d call it. Think Margot and Jerry Leadbetter from The Good Life. We ask politely after one another’s day; quiver at perceived slights. ‘We’re off on our separate trajectories,’ shrugs Mat, ‘and can’t manage to realign.’ When you’re in a relationship, does the night perform a dual function: rest and reset? I’ve talked to husbands who claim to love co-sleeping, but then they’re the ones snoring. Their wives prove more pragmatic. Many point out they have no choice (their ‘spare rooms’ long since filled with children) and almost all saw their disturbed conjugal nights as a trade: cold, hard sleep for intimacy.
When both of you are busy by day, knackered by night, proximity is as good as it gets, or as one friend puts it, ‘Just about our last vestige of intimacy is my husband brushing against me when we’re asleep.’ Mat is increasingly put out. One evening, I catch him unpacking a gym fitness ball from Amazon. ‘I’m turning our bedroom into a gym,’ he declares, ‘there’s nothing else going on in here.’
A fraught working week ensues, without nights to offer comfort. When the weekend does come, Mat spends most of Saturday in the garden, Sunday out in a canoe. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see he’s ‘removing himself’. Sparked by nothing, fanned by four weeks of missing each other, I force a row before I storm off to bed. Normally, we’re calmed by the physical act of sharing a bed. But now we’re free to retreat to our separate corners. It takes 24 hours before we’re reconciled enough to brush our teeth together the next morning. ‘Love,’ says Mat, ‘happens in the margins. It’s the moments of giddiness in each other’s company – a look over your shoulder, a shared joke – that creates intimacy.’ And that (he’s intimating) is being lost.
Tash with her husband Mat
Their sleep separation taught Tash and Mat valuable lessons