Lucy knows best … having separate beds, or even separate rooms, can actually spice up your sex life. Photo: Headpress
Admit you're sleeping in a separate room to your partner and you may as well have said your relationship is on the rocks, or you're having an affair. That's the response most couples get when they reveal they sleep apart.
It's far from the norm, yet a recent survey of nearly 3000 Australians by medical devices company CPAP found that 20 per cent of respondents spent between three and seven nights a week in separate bedrooms because of their or their partner's sleep problems.
Far from being something that solo sleepers need to be ashamed of, scientific research into sleep paints a convincing picture for separate beds. In her new book, Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart, author Jennifer Adams (herself a solo sleeper) writes that the benefits of snoozing alone are many: "If you've suffered prolonged sleep deprivation, sleeping apart is good for your mental and physical health – and good for the health of your relationship."
Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, memory loss, premature ageing, increased risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also lowers testosterone, which interferes with sexual desire.
Adams, 47, from Brisbane, decided to go it alone after finding that her boyfriend (now husband) was a chronic snorer. It was exacerbated by his being an "early to rise, early to bed" type, while she's a night owl. After one week of sharing, they went their separate ways and haven't looked back. Of the reasons driving couples to separate beds, she explains, snoring tops the list. The partner of the typical snorer is robbed of 49 precious minutes' sleep nightly, according to a 2005 US National Sleep Foundation poll.
Other complaints include one partner being whacked by the other during energetic dreams, noisy toilet trips (men go twice as often as females at night), tossing and turning (we all move about 20 times a night, but men more than women), heavy breathers, different bedtimes and different body-temperature needs (women frequently use partners as human hot-water bottles).
Because of the emphasis on bed-sharing as a barometer of a happy relationship, separate sleepers will often go to great lengths to hide their sleeping arrangements from others, even presenting their nightly sanctuary as a "spare room" where the relatives crash. Yet having separate beds can be a marriage saver if both partners wake up refreshed and rested. Adams found from her interviews that far from cruelling a couple's sex life, separate beds could actually spice it up.
"Our decision to sleep apart has solidified our relationship. If one of us wants sex, we go to the other person's room, and because we know we're not going to see each other in bed at night, we're more purposeful about intimacy," she says. "Couples I interviewed spoke about making sure sex happened, as they knew the importance of it in their relationship. Separate beds have, for many, brought back creativity and excitement to their sex lives."
One solo sleeper Adams interviewed put it this way: "Separate rooms has made our sex lives more exciting because we visit each other's rooms and I feel less 'on tap'."
Dr David Cunnington, a sleep physician at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, recommends separate beds to many of his patients who have sleep-related issues such as insomnia, snoring and different body clocks. "For light sleepers and couples who have different sleep behaviours and needs, separate beds are a lifesaver. It's also more considerate and compassionate to their partner if they sleep in another room."
John, a 58-year-old builder married for 30 years, is a solo sleeper because his wife works shifts as a night-time supermarket manager. "Margaret was getting home at 2am and coming to bed at 4.30am. She complained that I thrashed around and snored. We agreed that she moved to the downstairs bedroom and we're both happy."
Mary, 74, had to consider separate beds from day one of her marriage. "In those days, you didn't 'try before you buy' and on our first night together on honeymoon, I had one quarter of the bed and he had the rest, taking the blanket with him," she says. "He also snored loudly, while I was a light sleeper."
Adams admits sleeping separately isn't for everyone. "But done well, with both partners agreeing to the terms, it helps the relationship flourish ... and they get great sleep to keep them functioning."
Jennifer Adams' book Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart is published by Finch.
• If you're not ready for twin beds, consider small changes: the late reader could read in the lounge room or buy an e-reader (it's quieter than turning pages); or try sleeping on a mattress with two different firmness levels.
• Make verbal contracts with your partner: for example, after the second time their snoring wakes you, you're allowed to wake them.
• Solo sleepers need to work hard to maintain intimacy: invite your partner to your room for a date night – with benefits!