Choosing to sleep in separate beds is the last relationship taboo

Going it alone shouldn’t make you an outcast.
Going it alone shouldn’t make you an outcast.
Image: Reuters/Jean Blondin
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Our conception of what is and isn’t acceptable in long-term relationships has expanded tremendously in recent years. From consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, to blended families and conscious uncoupling, many people have grown more accepting of the idea that “til death do us part” and “happily ever after” look different for different people.

So why then do long-term partners who choose to sleep in different beds still elicit sad, worried, or judgmental responses? Bed-splitting, it seems, is the ultimate relationship taboo, evoking a distant stoicism suited for the likes of aging British royals, but not dynamic, healthy couples.

Take Hannah Jane Parkinson, who wrote in The Guardian last week: “…the idea of couples actually sleeping in separate beds is rather saddening. It seems just a step away from the set-up of former couple Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, who lived in adjoining houses.” Parkinson was writing in reference to new bed-splitting technology offered by the carmaker Ford, which, rather inexplicably, has used technology normally reserved for vehicles to create a “lane-keeping bed.”

Somehow, we have internalized the idea that to be in love is to put up with your partner’s snoring, insomnia, or thrashing midnight movements until the day one of you dies—or you break up because you’re so sleep-deprived.

There are plenty of reasons why bed sharing is the norm. Some people, I presume, really do love prolonged spooning despite its obvious pitfalls. Others face rising rents in expensive cities and have conveniently found that falling in love very often leads to the money-saving step of cohabitation in a single bedroom. Many take the idea of separate beds as a sure sign that physical intimacy has faded—perhaps because of kids, or stress, or incessant snoring—or suspect one can’t admit to sleeping better when their better half is out of town.

In reality, co-sleeping has never been a consistent domestic norm. It likely varied across the ages, based on space constraints, and the need to stay warm. In addition, the very concept of marriage as being synonymous with love and an undying desire to be together is fairly new. These days, the practice varies across cultures. In 2013, the most recent year The National Sleep Foundation conducted its International Bedroom Pool, survey results found that 82% of American couples slept in a bed with their partner, while just 63% of Japanese couples did.

For most people I know in late millennial-hood, the prospect of ditching housemates and saving money on a one-bedroom apartment is a compelling enough reason to give up having your own bed. But when you consider that capitalist and practical pressures are very often at the root of bed-sharing, the whole thing becomes decidedly less romantic, doesn’t it?  Never mind the fact that studies have shown co-sleeping can have a deleterious impact on sleep quality.

As one 2007 study which examined the “tensions inherent in the sleeping relationship” found, there is a “a strong cultural association between being a couple and sharing a bed. Despite the possibility of better sleep elsewhere, couples in general show a willingness to go along with the possible disruption associated with sharing a bed.”

This social pressure means we generally only hear of couples sleeping separately when it’s a harbinger of problems. Indeed we almost never hear that not sharing a bed could lead to a better relationship in the long run.

Humans are generally reluctant to acknowledge a universally present reality of monogamy: long-term stability and roiling passion simply don’t go hand in hand. In her book, Mating in Captivity, renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel explains how couples can confront this truth, by developing a “personal intimacy with oneself as a counterbalance to the couple.” This comes from the creation of “space—physical, emotional, and intellectual—that belongs only to me.” Whether it’s sleep, or hobbies, or one’s inner emotional world, “not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a secret garden.”

For me, that “secret garden” requires I regularly have the option of my own bed, one where I can wake up in the morning and enjoy my first few moments of consciousness with the companion of solitude. In that way, separate sleeping—whether it’s opting for a two bedroom or investing in a comfortable sofa bed in the living room—is not just about wanting distance from your partner. It’s about wholeheartedly choosing when to feel close to them (much like you did in those early, heady days of dating) rather than submitting to a full-scale physical and emotional merger as the only way to show your love. Plus, it’s fun to hop into their bed after you wake up.

If we can accept that lovers can stray sexually outside of their relationship and still stay happily committed as partners, then surely we can be open-minded enough to accept that separate beds might also be a sign of security in a relationship, not of cold distance. And not to mention a much more well-rested couple at that.