Sarah Jessica Parker, Victoria Beckham, Catherine Zeta Jones, not to mention the Queen… they all came out with it. The whiff of stigma somehow didn’t cling to them. None of them seemed concerned about how such a revelation would be received. I, who as a writer, have tackled the close-to-the-bone stories of my life for decades, wasn’t ready to come clean.
Love. Cancer. Family. Grief. Friendship. Regrets. I’ve shared the details about personal situations without guilt or shame, growing from the empathy of those who read my words. But revealing the fact that Bob and I, after over 50 years of marriage, now sleep in two different rooms? I wasn’t ready…until now.
The New York Times recently did a story on homebuilders who saw increased demand for homes with two main bedrooms. The Better Sleep Council notes 26% of married couples report sleeping more soundly when they’re alone in a bed. And follow up studies show getting a healthy night’s sleep may be one of the single best things you can do for your relationship.
Yet we believe happy couples sleep in the same bed and unhappy ones don’t. When we hear that a couple sleeps in separate rooms we immediately assume their relationship is in trouble. Committed couples, they say, just work out the windows-open-vs-closed thing…the light-on thing…the sleep apnea thing…the TV-on thing…the going-to-the-bathroom-three-times-a-night thing…the-pulling-the-covers thing…and the insomnia thing. With the wisdom that comes with age, I no longer have to bow to whatever the super judgy ”they” say.
In the 1880s people were warned that “the system of having beds in which two persons can sleep is always, to some extent, unhealthy.” In the 1920s a medical journal taught “Separate beds for every sleeper are as necessary as separate dishes.” Just last year a prominent sleep researcher suggested that “couples who sleep together experience considerably higher rates of sleep disturbances than those who sleep alone.”
I’ve never had ownership of a bedroom. I shared a room with my sister until I got married at 20, then merged my sleep habits forevermore. A few of my friends with similar backgrounds admit that when COVID struck they requested their beloveds sleep in the spare room a day or two more than absolutely necessary. The personal space felt luxurious.
Until about two years ago, I looked forward to bedtime as a quiet opportunity for us to share the details of our busy and different daily schedules. It was catchup time on the tids and bits of our kids and social plans, gossip and problems. Then the pandemic struck. Its effects still linger. We work remotely, under the same roof. We work less hours. We are each other’s constant company. There’s not a lot of breaking news to share. By the end of the day it’s not much more than “I ate some chocolate chip cookies.” “Oh, how many?”
It’s no secret that sleep is more fragile as you get older. Add some chemo and a dash of other health difficulties and that taken-for-granted uninterrupted night’s rest becomes a blessing… one we wished for each other and one, we realized, was more easily achievable if we tried changing our sleeping arrangement.
An adjoining bathroom became part of the deal. With a few feet more distance, I can generously observe when Bob puts the toilet paper in the “wrong” way (tucked underneath… horrors) without having to change it. He can leave his socks on the floor and I don’t care. I can leave the TV remote and the newspaper on the bed all night.
Now Bob can put on his C Pap machine for sleep apnea when he’s ready, not when I remind him five times… a relief to us both. He can eat pretzels and fall asleep to Shark Tank reruns: I can chew bubble gum and FaceTime with my daughter at 11:00. He can burp (really) loudly without saying a halfhearted “sorry.” I can take my mirror to bed and tweeze away without grossing him out. He can sleep with a lighter comforter: I can burrow under a down quilt. After five decades, no negotiations, no compromise necessary.
We both get to unfold our completely private selves. Sleeping apart doesn’t make us a less intimate couple. We still warm each other’s feet before saying good night, although recently mine are the warmer ones. Cuddles and such are available, same as always. We still sleep on the same side of the bed we claimed the first night we spent together. And as a bonus, we get to miss out on each other’s sleep wrinkles, bedhead, and morning drool. Don’t knock it till you try it.