Why Separate Bedrooms May Help Your Marriage

It’s now officially a trend and, I might add, a substantial one. A new study discovered that a full 25% of married couples in America sleep in separate bedrooms. This probably shouldn’t raise eyebrows — we all need our sleep, and it can be elusive indeed when you bed down with a partner who snores… or who wakes periodically in the night drenched in “hot flash” sweat or to visit the loo… or who tosses, turns, grumbles, groans and steals all the blankets, leaving you cold, annoyed — and staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. Both men and women have demanding jobs and lives today and, I’ll say it again, we need our sleep!

While sleeping in separate bedrooms may solve some issues, it’s not a perfect solution, since it takes a toll on the relationship. How to have it all? I spoke to one of our regular sources on topics related to sexuality and intimacy, Barbara Bartlik, MD, sex therapist and psychiatrist in New York City.

Dr. Bartlik said that research shows that Americans are getting less and less sleep, and she believes that it is important to reverse that trend. Sleeping soundly benefits people on all levels, mind and body, and directly contributes to a longer and happier life. Dr. Bartlik is of the opinion that couples can still remain close and cozy if they are willing to institute strategies and rituals focused on keeping them connected romantically rather than just living together as companionable housemates.

Sweet Sleep

Sleeping in separate bedrooms may mean better rest, but at what cost? It’s quite reasonable to be concerned about how nighttime apartness plays out in marital relationships. In fact, a recent Oprah show on separate bedrooms evoked a wrathful blast from the popular psychologist Dr. Phil, who insists that separate beds rob marriages of their special intimacy… but clearly not everyone agrees.

Three Problems — Three Solutions

Dr. Bartlik identified the three greatest challenges couples face when they decide to sleep apart:

  • Less loving touch. Even when couples aren’t accustomed to holding one another all night long, a lot of touching goes on while falling asleep and during the night. Whether intentional or not, touch enhances intimacy. It also has a measurable biological effect, stimulating oxytocin, the hormone that promotes a sense of bonding.

The solution: Dr. Bartlik urges couples to make a concerted effort to stay touchy-feely during the day. Don’t just walk by each other — stop for a casual kiss or a loving pat. Hold hands on the couch, and cuddle while you watch TV.

  • No opportunity for pillow talk. You may have lots of focused conversations about the children, the car and the dog, but there’s something uniquely intimate in the kind of pillow talk that meanders here and there as you’re relaxing and readying yourself to doze off at night or as you awaken and get set to take on the day. Good marriages thrive on these private, unplanned and uninterrupted conversations.

A hybrid arrangement: Dr. Bartlik suggests trying to fall asleep in the same bed but with the agreement that if one partner’s nighttime habits interrupt the other’s sleep, it’s perfectly okay for him/her to slip off to go sleep in a different room — then toward morning, the one who wakes up first can slip into bed with the other to share those close first few minutes of your day.

  • Fewer sexual interludes. Not surprisingly, diminished sexual intimacy is the greatest concern people have about sleeping apart, but Dr. Bartlik says that she knows many couples whose sex lives are enhanced by separate rooms — it can even lead to greater desire! This makes sense for several reasons: Research shows that being sleep-deprived lowers testosterone in both men and women, which interferes with sexual desire for both genders and also makes it harder for men to have an erection and women to achieve orgasm. In Dr. Bartlik’s view, this is a bigger threat to intimacy than just the fact of sleeping separately. And there’s also the fact that absence can, indeed, make the heart — and other body parts — grow fonder… you know what I mean.

What to do? Getting more rest will almost certainly help boost your libido, but Dr. Bartlik says that having sex once a week (or more) on average is important for keeping a marriage healthy. Therefore, she suggested that couples who sleep apart should make a special point of having sex regularly. If the idea of a scheduled “date night” sounds unromantic to you, why not approach it in a way that adds sizzle to your sex life? Try to establish romantic rituals that bring you close, such as sending sexy notes to each other, lighting candles for dinner or taking a bath together. You also can make a point of engaging in pleasurable but not sexual activities that include touch, such as dancing, sensual massages or simply holding hands on after-dinner walks.

What Will the Neighbors Think?

Dr. Bartlik told me that she often hears about one other problem affecting couples who sleep separately — other folks’ opinions. The mother-in-law who arches her eyebrow and friends who speculate about possible problems in your marriage can be an ongoing irritant. The best thing you can do is make clear that you consider their input unwelcome and irrelevant — people may talk but, said Dr. Bartlik, the best way to handle the problem is to simply let others know that this is what works for you and leave it at that. You, at least, will not be the one yawning at the dinner party.

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