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Sleep Divorce… a fast catching up phenomenon post covid-19 pandemic!!

Dr Neelam Batra Verma

Sleep Divorce: A survey conducted in the US in 2021 said that at least one-third of American couples prefer to sleep alone. According to a study published in a journal titled Psychoneuroendocrinology, poor sleep can affect your relationship, as insufficient sleep certainly is a growing health problem.

Sleep Divorce!! Ever heard of it? Not a new phenomenon though, it has been catching-up post the covid19 pandemic. Two years of pandemic changed much in almost everyone’s life, the work culture, the school and college patterns, the business protocols and also the relationships.

Without us realising, this change in the way we socialise, interact, shop and behave has defined new ways of life even remarkably altering our sleep etiquette and patterns, especially the couples, young or old. And therefore, the term “sleep divorce” once again has become popular. So what is sleep divorce?

What is Sleep Divorce

Sleep divorce is not a new phrase but has been prevalent for centuries before double beds came into existence or gained prominence. Sleep divorce is nothing but a phenomenon where couples sleep in separate beds or separate rooms and may also have separate sleeping schedules. In South Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent, it is not considered normal for couples to sleep in separate beds. Even if people have to, for whatever reason, the couple becomes a topic of gossip for neighbours and relatives. However, with health consciousness due to covid 19 pandemic and altered work protocols things are changing everywhere and in many Western households, couples, married or not, sleeping separately, is considered normal.

For more than a century, couples sleeping on twin beds, in the same room or different rooms, was a common phenomenon. In an article published in Yorkshire Herald in 1892 said, “The twin bed seems to have come to stay and will no doubt in time succeed the double bed in all rooms occupied by two persons.”

At the time, twin beds were not only considered modern and fashionable; it was also considered healthier than sleeping together. Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, a British physician and a prolific medical writer and recipient of the Fothergill gold medal awarded by the Medical Society of London in 1854 (Wikipedia) said sleeping separately entails not inhaling each other’s germs. According to an article published in The Guardian, he had written once, “I cannot do better than commence what I have to say concerning beds and bedding by protesting against the double bed. The system of having beds in which two persons can sleep is always, to some extent unhealthy.”

Health reasons for sleeping on separate beds

Back in the fifties and earlier, many doctors had propagated sleeping separately meant not transferring each other’s negative vibes. Dr Edwin Bowers wrote in 1919, in a journal Sleep for Health, “Separate beds for sleepers is as necessary as separate dishes. They promote cleanliness, comfort and natural delicacy in human beings.”

Author Hilary Hinds in her book A Cultural History of Twin Beds traced the rise and fall of twin beds between 1870 and 1970. She writes that for the best part of the century, it was acceptable, modern and forward-thinking for couples to sleep separately. In her book, Hinds presented a fascinating insight into the combination of beliefs and practices that made twin beds an ideal sleeping solution. Quoting from her book, she concluded, “During their century of cultural prominence, twin beds were much more than just somewhere to sleep. They were symptomatic of the reconfiguration of domestic, familial and marital notions of the modern home: its reach and influence, but also its responsibilities and dangers. At different moments, twin beds signalled a commitment to health and hygiene, to be modern or to a particular understanding of marriage. But in each instance, it was twin beds’ ability simultaneously to keep the couple in close proximity while also putting a boundary or space between them that was at the core of their acceptance or rejection. The capacity of twin beds to render fellow sleepers simultaneously together and apart is their most distinctive feature. Both terms are, of course, culturally loaded and contextually inflected.”

And then came the fifties and sixties when double beds were born and advertised as the best option for couples to bring them closer. That means, just like every year or every season, fashion for clothes, hair or shoes change, and bed furniture too started changing to double. So, double beds became fashionable and modern again and so every household wanted to appear so resulting in couples throwing out their twin beds and sleeping together. It was said, just like a family which eats together stays together; so a couple who sleeps together too, stays together.”

For the couples, is it feasible and workable too?

We may question, is it possible for the couples? In post-pandemic times when people are connected technologically 24×7 and most still working from home, it is indeed. Can the two members of the family keep the same sleeping times when they work different jobs, which may also be shift work? With the work phone of one person regularly pinging at every message that comes in and having to keep his or her computer on at all times, can the second person ever get a good night’s sleep? While one person may be a light sleeper and another may snore in as high decibels as shaking your house. Is that healthy?

Ruth Bowen, who has been married for 18 years claims that she and her husband started sleeping on separate beds within the first year of their marriage. “I am a teacher and I have to be at school by 8 am, which means I have to be up by 6 am to get out of the house by 7 in the morning. My husband is a tech person with a London-based company and therefore, he has to take calls and be available at different times, which definitely does not match with my sleeping hours. He has meetings late in the night and sometimes has deadlines, which means he may be up till morning. We realised early in our marriage that this would be the only way to go if we wanted to be together. It was not considered normal and many of my friends and relatives told me that this is not healthy at all and we should separate. We are still together and healthy.”

Canada-based Samra Sharma, who has been married to a marine engineer, echoes the same sentiments. “My husband works shifts, which can be a day or graveyard shift. His shifts keep changing and so does his sleeping schedules. But I cannot keep up with his schedule while he has no problem in shifting his. Guess, he is just used to it. We have been married for 30 years and the system has been working enormously well for us. Had I been in India and living with my in-laws, we would have become a joke of the town and people would be suggesting that we should be consulting a marriage counsellor.”

Researchers suggest that one should create their own sleep sanctuary, which will be different for each person. Older women experiencing menopause, may get hot flashes in the middle of the night and like to keep their room cool and airy, even in winter while their partner may be diabetic and is always cold. But both need their zzzzs and therefore can develop their own sanctum Santorum. This definitely doesn’t mean that they are ready to separate but it’s the opposite – they care for each other and have no qualms in giving each other space.

Why do a good number of US couples prefer to sleep alone?

A survey conducted in the US in 2021 said that at least one-third of American couples prefer to sleep alone. According to a study published in a journal titled Psychoneuroendocrinology, poor sleep can affect your relationship, as insufficient sleep certainly is a growing health problem. A National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2020, put 8.4% of adults took a sleep medication in the last 30 days of the survey with women taking 10.2% of women being more likely to rely on sleep meds than 6.6% of men. The medication increases with age.

There is no denying the fact that couples do fight and if they sleep in one room, the bickering may continue till late in the night, increasing adrenaline, thus keeping them awake longer. Though it is a known fact that couples should resolve issues before they sleep, yet they also need their own space to vent as venting in front of each other, might further aggravate the situation.

Even today you may find some Victorian-style hotels offering twin beds or two queen beds in a room, to a couple. Therefore, sleeping separately not only affects your physical health but also your mental health and mood. If your partner snores or shifts too much, waking you up every time he has to use the washroom, the sleep of the other partner is bound to be disturbed, thus spoiling your day at work and home, leading to more arguments and snappiness. Don’t feel guilty if your honey wants to sleep separately. This doesn’t mean your relationship is breaking up. Quiet the opposite. It’s a healthy one as you are ready to give each other space as you care for them. Sleep divorce is not legal divorce.

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