Sleep is the quintessential “me-time,” and most people know exactly what they need in order to get the best rest. Some people like nightlights, some people crank up the thermostat, and some people enjoy white noise. Personally, I need the room to be dark, quiet, and cool before I can fall asleep, with the bed linens carefully and neatly tucked around me. Therefore, it seems particularly cruel that fate has paired me with a bedmate that snores incessantly and tears off the covers.
My partner and I have radically different sleep styles. I wake up every time he tosses and turns. We fight over space, usually shoving and elbowing each other all night. As much as I hate to admit it, I secretly look forward to the nights when he’s out of town, because only then can I get a peaceful night’s sleep. Sleep is far too precious and our nightly quarrels over who’s hogging the covers have become really stressful. It seems like some final, terrible relationship frontier, but I think we might be ready for separate bedrooms.
Like to Be Alone? Join the Club
It’s hard to admit, because some part of me feels like if we can’t sleep together peacefully, then we’ve failed as a couple. At least I know that we’re not alone in our nocturnal incompatibility. A study by the National Sleep Foundation found that about 24 percent of couples sleep in separate rooms and many couples who choose to sleep separately are reluctant to discuss it, fearing that people will assume the worst about their relationship.
For most couples who sleep apart, it’s a practical decision. They know they’ll never get sleep with their partners in the bed, so many retreat to guest rooms or couches. The National Sleep Foundation found that more than a third of respondents admit that their partner’s disruptive sleep habits have affected the quality of their relationship. Due to snoring, restless legs, or opposing schedules, many couples have found that rather than suffer through the effects of sleep deprivation, separate bedrooms allow them to be more well rested, which then helps them enjoy their relationship more fully.
Until recent generations, many couples maintained separate bedrooms as a sign of affluence and status. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that bed sharing became popular. In the twentieth century, sleeping together has become the standard for married people, even when it wreaks havoc on bodies and minds.
Even for people whose sleep styles are more compatible, some choose to sleep separately in order to maintain their space and independence. Having a private bedroom ensures that a person will always have her own space to retreat to, and frees her from the constraints of constant togetherness. The National Association of Home Builders has found that the need for privacy has even begun to influence home design. They report that since 1990, the number of requests for homes with two master bedrooms has increased, and that by 2015, up to 60 percent of all upscale homes will have dual master bedrooms and bathrooms.
Some couples aren’t satisfied with separate bedrooms—they need separate houses. The number of married couples choosing what sociologists call “living apart together,” are on the rise. These couples choose to live in separate houses in order to preserve their privacy and independence. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow famously lived apart, in apartments on opposite sides of Central Park. In England, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter have separate houses connected by a hallway. Proponents of LAT relationships claim that they enjoy all the regular benefits of a relationship, without the hassle of sharing someone else’s space.
Separation or Distance?
While some marriage therapists and counselors have a “whatever works” attitude about couples sleeping apart, some are not convinced that it’s the best thing for any relationship. Dr. Willard Harley, author of Love Busters: Overcoming the Habits That Destroy Romantic Love, says “Whenever I see a couple wanting private time—they want to be alone, they want their own friends, they don’t want to feel like they’re joined at the hip—my immediate question is, ‘What is it about being together that bothers you?’” Dr. Harley and some other psychologists feel that sleeping together is an integral part of any couple’s relationship, and it’s a necessary negotiation. Furthermore, demanding separate sleep space can be just a sign of people being self-absorbed and afraid of commitment. Marriage requires sacrifice and togetherness, and they see sleeping separately as the ultimate selfish indulgence. Some therapists look for underlying reasons that a couple might choose to sleep separately, such as if one party has a problem with sharing or compromise. Sleeping apart can be a sign of emotional distance.
In hectic lives, sleep is sometimes the only quality time that couples get to spend with each other, and what starts out as a simple logistical solution can chip away at intimacy if people aren’t diligent about maintaining romance in other ways. Many couples who sleep apart report that their relationships have not suffered; in fact, their renewed energy allows them to devote more of their waking hours to go on dates and spend time together. They say that the constant exhaustion and tension that used to plague their relationships has disappeared, and that separate rooms helps them reclaim some of the spark and excitement of dating. Sleeping separately requires that couples commit to togetherness in other ways.
Obsessing about sleeping together reflects how we tend to have a very limited view of what a healthy marriage should look like. In reality, people should do whatever works for them, whether it’s sleeping in separate beds or even taking separate vacations. I know couples who share a bed, but maintain separate sheets and duvets to forestall fights over the blanket. If sleeping apart at night makes you a better partner during the day, then it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff. As for my partner and I, we’re going to stick it out for a while, but we’re at least on the hunt for a bigger bed.