Sleeping in the same bed as your partner can make you feel more secure and connected, but couples who sleep together do not always sleep better. Sharing the bed with a cover hog or a nighttime kickboxer can derail an otherwise good night of sleep, which affects overall health.
One strategy couples can try before opting for a "sleep divorce" is the Scandinavian sleep method, where the couple shares a bed but each person sleeps under a separate blanket.
But does the Scandinavian sleep method have any benefits? And what do we know about the science behind couples sleeping together?
The Scandinavian sleep method
The Scandinavian sleep method is common in Scandinavia (which includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden), Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep,” told TODAY. It involves sharing a bed with a partner but using separate covers.
How it works: When making the bed, start with a fitted sheet and skip the top sheet (or use two twin top sheets), then add two twin duvets on top and as many pillows as you prefer.
There are several benefits to this method, said Troxel, because it allows for more individual sleep preferences.
No more fighting over covers. Most obviously, it prevents partners from playing tug-of-war at night, which can cause a lot of movement. You can wrap yourself in a duvet burrito or kick off the covers without leaving your partner in the cold.
Temperature. This method is great for partners with different temperature preferences, said Troxel. Instead of compromising and feeling too hot or too cold with one set of bedding, each partner can choose the weight or material of their duvet.
Personal space: This method is great for couples who want to share a bed but don’t want to literally sleep on top of one another. “It can satisfy the need for closeness, but also the need to have one’s own sleep space for the actual sleeping part of the night.”
Of course, it’s not a cure-all. “If your partner is snoring like a truck, the Scandinavian method is not going to do much good,” Troxel said. Likewise, it probably won’t help if there’s a sleep disorder at play, which would require treatment. “The solution really is going to depend on the the nature of the problem,” said Troxel.
The science of sleeping together versus apart
Scientists typically observe people sleeping alone in a laboratory under controlled conditions, Troxel said. Obviously, this is not how sleep works in the real world, especially if you add another person into the mix (read: bed). “The majority of adults, about two-thirds, sleep with a partner,” she added.
However, this was not always the case. And there are a lot of misconceptions about couples sleeping apart that can harm relationships. Most beliefs about how couples should sleep are “entirely socially-prescribed,” Troxel said, and have changed throughout Western history.
Less than 200 years ago, it was customary for couples to sleep apart, said Troxel. Sleeping in separate beds or bedrooms was seen as healthier and a symbol of wealth or status. “In the Victorian era, those who could afford it would sleep apart but in earlier times, sleep was more of a communal behavior ... for entire families.” The practice of bed-sharing is also hugely cultural.
“Then we see this real shift, post-1960s sexual revolution (in the U.S.),” Troxel said, where people begin equating the literal meaning of “sleeping together” with the figurative meaning — sex. Couples, especially married couples, sleeping apart became stigmatized because it was associated with a lack of intimacy or sexual activity. “This is simply not the case,” she said.
So what does science say about the benefits and consequences of couples sharing a bed? It depends. “Using objective measurements of sleep … research generally shows that when people share a bed, they sleep a bit worse,” Troxel said. Interestingly, subjective reports often tell a different story. When asked if they prefer to sleep with their partner or alone, “most people from those same studies will say that they sleep better with their partner,” she said.
This is because we derive a sense of safety and comfort from sleeping with a partner, said Troxel. Cuddling can stimulate release of oxytocin, aka the love hormone, which promotes positive feelings and a sense of relaxation — all beneficial for falling asleep.
Sharing a bed also introduces challenges. One partner's tossing and turning, snoring or sleep-talking can disrupt the other's quantity and quality of sleep. “When the objective costs of sharing a bed override those psychological benefits, that’s when I think it can be very beneficial for couples to choose to sleep apart,” Troxel said. But if you’re not ready for a “sleep divorce," the Scandinavian sleep method may be worth trying.
When to consider sleeping apart
If neither partner is sleeping well or one partner’s sleep is disrupted by the other’s sleeping habits consistently, it may be time to explore different beds or bedrooms, said Troxel.
Adequate sleep is not only good for our individual health, but it’s also critical for our relationship's health, Troxel explained. “We have solid scientific evidence that when you’re poorly slept, your communication skills suffer, and you’re more prone to mental health disorders ... which can negatively impact your relationship.”
So Troxel encourages couples to try not to focus on what society thinks about sleeping apart. “Couples need to make the decision, regardless of appearances, about what’s going to work best for them,” said Troxel. And even if you decide to sleep in separate beds or bedrooms, there are plenty of ways to connect before bedtime.
"Getting good sleep, however you do it, does matter for the quality of your relationship," she added.