Throughout her childhood, Leina Hsu never thought it odd that her parents chose to sleep in separate bedrooms. It wasn’t until she started seeing how couples were portrayed on TV that she started to recognize the practice was unusual.
After that, Hsu, a Chinese-American writer and student at Georgetown University, began to feel the stigma of her parent’s sleeping arrangements whenever she confided in her peers.
“Anytime a friend was visiting my house I felt the need to explain and justify my parent’s bedroom situation before they saw the layout of our home,” she says. Though her friends tried to appear supportive, “some of them couldn’t hide their shock or surprise.”
Couples sleeping apart has become increasingly common: A 2012 survey by the Better Sleep Council and a 2017 survey from the National Sleep Foundation both showed one in four couples now sleep in separate beds. But “there’s still shame attached to it for some people because of how taboo the topic is,” says Dr. Meir Kryger, a professor of medicine at Yale’s School of Medicine and author of “The Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.”
Kryger says no couple should feel embarrassed of the practice. “For a lot of couples, sleeping apart can be the best thing for their relationship.” However, experts agree sleeping separately impacts the family as a whole, and it’s important parents address the sleeping arrangements with their kids.
Kryger has met with families where children have experienced embarrassment, insecurities or concerns as a result of their parents’ sleeping arrangements. “Some kids have even wondered if their parents’ decision to sleep apart means they’re not in love anymore,” he says.
Parents can also worry they’re modeling unhealthy behavior or that their children may want to similarly sleep apart from their significant other someday.
“The effects of sleeping in separate rooms can be extremely positive for a relationship, extremely negative for a relationship or anything in between,” says Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona, who explains it all comes down to the couple’s reason for wanting to sleep apart in the first place. “Each couple should examine and discuss clearly and specifically their thoughts, feelings, and needs around this issue to find a mutually satisfying compromise.”
Some common reasons couples sleep apart include problems such as snoring, restlessness, parasomnia, frequent trips to bathroom or incompatible sleep schedules.
Kryger says, “There’s no research that suggests that couples who sleep apart for the purpose of better sleep have any less of a romantic connection than couples who share a bed.”
Another point Kryger stressed was that parents who sleep apart can mitigate their children’s concerns over the strength of their bond by demonstrating their love in other ways.
“Children who observe their parents regularly holding hands, complimenting each another, or snuggling together on the couch will find any insecurities they’ve felt quickly abated,” he says.
Of course, sometimes sleeping separately does represent a disconnection.
“There are some couples for whom the decision to sleep apart is a sign of something awry in the relationship,” says Dr. Wendy Troxel, a Senior Behavioral Scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.”
Kryger adds if a couple’s desire to sleep apart stems from a romantic disconnection or marital problems, “parents shouldn’t mince words or send the children mixed messages.”
He also says there’s hope for couples who sleep apart due to sleep incompatibility who may want to start sleeping in the same bed or bedroom again. “Virtually every sleep problem has a solution,” he says. “Many fixes are quite simple; other times couples should seek professional help.”
Parents who are worried their decision to sleep apart might negatively impact their children should consider the long-term strain of unhappily sharing a bed, Cilona says.
“Incompatible sleep schedules has been associated with relationship difficulties and higher rates of divorce,” he says, adding adults are “not so different than children” when it comes to how a lack of sleep affects our behavior toward others.
While Troxel says there’s very little research on how children are impacted by their parents sleeping arrangements, the “rising trend of couples choosing to sleep apart,” indicates “this will become an issue that more families may need to address.” Troxel says such conversations should be open and honest, age-appropriate, and matter-of-fact.
“Explain to the child that families are different in many different ways,” she says, and that for certain families, “parents sleep better when they sleep apart, and getting healthy sleep is really important.”
In the end, even younger children understand the importance of a good night’s rest – and older children may even see the wisdom in their parents choosing less orthodox sleeping arrangements.
A conclusion Hsu says she came to herself: “My parents sleeping apart demonstrated to me that they had enough confidence in their relationship that they were willing to detour from the normative path.”