This article is syndicated from Adulted, an online wellness magazine for actual grown-ups, covering sex, mental health, sleep and everything midlife, brought to you by Stripes. You can join them at our all-things meno community The Hot Spot.
There are two things you learn about me immediately upon setting foot inside my home:
- I have a pathological fondness for leopard print.
- My husband and I sleep in separate beds. They’re the centerpiece of our small New York City apartment: two twin beds pushed together, as if we are teenagers trying to comfortably have sex in an empty summer camp cabin.
Ironically, when I was a horny teen humping around at summer camp, all I wanted was to sleep in a queen-sized bed with my boyfriend. Back then, sleeping in a bed with a partner felt mature, romantic. I stayed attached to that idea — that shared beds meant adult love and sex, and anything else meant something less — long after I grew up, even though it often led to poor sleep for me. I even clung to it after chronic insomnia hit me in 2013. As I lay awake all night, resentful of my sleeping husband’s every toss and turn, I kept wondering: Didn’t people who were in love figure this kind of stuff out? If you needed to be separate from your partner in order to sleep through the night, were you really even a couple?
Why Do All TV Couples Share a Bed?
Can you blame me for being scared? Yes, talking about sleeping in separate beds has become more common, to the point where one in five couples currently report sleeping in separate bedrooms and Architecture Digest recently proclaimed that “The Stigma of Sleeping in Separate Bedrooms Is Over.”
But is it? If you want media images of happy couples in separate beds, you’ll have to go back to the twin beds Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in on “I Love Lucy” — which existed not so Lucy could get some decent shut-eye, but so viewers would never have to contemplate the forbidden lustful acts that brought Baby Ricky into the world. I can’t think of one recent movie or TV show where a cool, relatable couple who still have sex head off to sleep in different beds or rooms; separate beds always signify a relationship that’s in decline. There’s even a myth that sleeping in a shared king-sized bed is a sign of trouble, a belief propped up by a 2014 study that claimed the happiest couples sleep the entire night in physical contact, while unhappy ones tended to sleep 30 inches apart (one is tempted to ask exactly how long these happy, touching couples have been sleeping together, and how many of their partner’s sleep-farts they have suffered through…but I digress).
Even approving coverage of sleeping apart typically uses the deeply discouraging term “sleep divorce.” A mostly positive February 2023 New York Times article on the practice exclusively quoted psychologists who viewed it as an excuse to ignore relationship problems and have less sex. Never mind that couples sleeping in separate beds was considered the norm from about the 1860s through the 1930s — today, the phrase “separate beds” is so loaded with negativity that when I put the words into an image search engine just now, I got a lot of pictures of couples fighting…but no actual photos of two separate beds. Despite our personal behavior, in the cultural imagination, twin beds remain a sign of marital doom.
“Sleep Divorces” and Real Divorces
I, on the other hand, finally embraced separate beds, because it was the only way to keep my marriage together.
My insomnia story begins like anyone else’s: One summer night, I couldn’t sleep. The next night, it happened again. And again. On nights when I did manage to fall asleep, I’d almost always be woken up by my husband’s late-night trips to the bathroom. While he’d be snoring within minutes of getting back in bed, I’d be up the rest of the night, stewing over how he had ruined my sleep.
I spent the next five years in a whirl of extra-large coffees and sleeping on the couch. I tried Ambien, trazodone, hypnotherapy, pretty much everything short of a lobotomy. My husband got so nervous about waking me up that he surrounded his body with pillows to try to stop moving in his sleep. But nothing worked — I was still up every night, more often than not raging at his sleeping form for waking me up with a single movement. If sleeping 30 inches apart is bad for your marriage, I invite you to imagine how bad being awake at 3 a.m., making a mental list of everything your spouse has ever done wrong, is for your marriage. I was never closer to divorce than when I was sharing a bed with my husband.
But when he suggested we try two beds, I cried (OK, I was on three hours of sleep most nights by that point, and crying about a LOT of stuff, but still). Our marriage was suffering because I resented his every snore. And yet I was scared that getting separate beds meant giving up. I broke down. “Does this mean we hate each other?” I asked.
What I didn’t realize was how much I was already giving up by continuing to sleep in the same bed — I was not just surrendering my sanity, but chipping away at my profound adoration for my husband, a feeling which had been one of the central foundations of my life up until that point. I didn’t understand that by clinging to whatever sleeping in the same beds symbolized, I was making our actual, lived lives a mess.
As you may have guessed based on the article title, sleeping in separate beds did not break us up. Quite the opposite. For starters, it stopped me from waking up every time my husband moved. But more importantly, when I did wake up in the night, I realized that my sleep problems weren’t all his fault. I had to admit that the culprit was my own body and brain — and it was my responsibility to figure out how to fix it.
Between the two beds, blackout curtains, talk therapy, and an industrial-grade white noise machine, I am now sleeping better than I have in years. And more importantly, I rarely find myself awake all night raging about how my husband sleeps — and I believe that refraining from silently cursing your spouse at 3 a.m. is truly the backbone of a lasting marriage.
The funniest part is, when I talk to women my age and older, nearly all of them tell me that they have separate beds or sleep in the guest bedroom sometimes. It reminds me of other common secrets, like nipple hair or embarrassing bodily sounds during sex: A lot of us have lived it, but no one wants to be the first to talk about it.
But things only stay taboo when we don’t talk about them. So let’s talk about it. And let’s end the myth that we have to choose between romance and getting eight hours of sleep a night.