I always assumed it said bad things about my capacity for intimacy that I’ve often thought, should I one day make the grave error of moving in with a romantic partner, I would want us to have separate bedrooms.
But it turns out I’m not the only one whose romantic ideals center around plenty of space and solitude. Various books and articles about happily cohabitating partners who live together but sleep in separate bedrooms have begun popping up in recent years, and coronavirus lockdown conditions have done little to discourage the idea.
With couples spending virtually every waking hour together amid the pandemic, alone time is becoming an increasingly scarce, valuable commodity in many relationships. And while the idea of sleeping in separate bedrooms once sounded like a death knell reserved for soon-to-be divorcés and sexless marriages, it seems a room of one’s own is becoming a more attractive option for plenty of couples in happy, healthy relationships.
“Traditionally, we assumed that couples who slept apart were either having relationship issues or had lost the desire to be intimate,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “Today, that’s not the case. We now see couples making lifestyle choices that work for them and their disposition.”
As accepted norms about sex and relationships continue to shift in the face of challenges to preconceived notions of monogamy, gender and sexuality, many people are beginning to break with other traditional relationship dynamics as well, including sleeping arrangements.
“We’ve entered a time period where sleeping apart is simply an option no longer tethered to negative meanings,” says Winter. “Nowadays, we can tailor our relationships to suit our needs. We don’t need to follow old rules that don’t serve us.”
Sweet Dreams Are Made of Solitude
There are plenty of reasons some partners may choose to sleep in separate bedrooms, many of which are purely logistical.
“People tend to correlate intimacy with sleeping together,” says Jack*, a 32-year-old whose last relationship involved separate bedrooms. But at the (literal) end of the day, sleep is just sleep — a biological function necessary for human survival. And many people, even people in love, find that it’s simply easier to complete that biological function alone.
“We were both very aware of the fact that when we sleep in a bed with another person, we don’t sleep as well,” says Jack, who adds that even before moving in together, he and his former partner would take separate beds any time the option was available.
“When we decided to live together, we made a point to rent an apartment that had two bedrooms,” he says. “That was a very conscious choice because we both knew that we didn’t want to share a bed and didn’t want to share a room.”
The reality is, you and your partner can be a perfect match during waking hours and still make terrible bedfellows when it comes time to turn out the lights. Maybe one partner snores or one is a blanket hog. Maybe you have radically different sleep schedules or room-temperature preferences, or maybe you just don’t sleep as well knowing there is another unconscious human breathing the same air as you. Whatever the reason, bad sleep is bad for you — and for your relationship.
“Research has shown us the value of a good night’s sleep. If you have a partner who tosses and turns at night, your sleep cycle is interrupted,” says Winter. “Lack of sleep makes us overly emotional, prompting bickering and arguments,” which aren’t particularly well known for being ideal ingredients in a healthy relationship.
A Room (and life) of One’s Own
We tend to think of romantic partners, particularly those in traditional, monogamous relationships as two halves of one entity. But people in relationships — even very loving, intimate ones — are actually still human beings with individual lives and needs. We don’t question anyone’s desire to have their own space when they’re single, so why do we demand individuals give up their right to privacy and alone time as soon as they partner up romantically?
The simple fact of the matter is, “a lot of couples benefit from time apart,” says relationship expert and dating coach Lee Wilson. While there may be plenty of logistical reasons for cohabiting couples to keep separate bedrooms, some partners might simply want their own space — which is, again, a normal thing for an individual to want, regardless of their relationship status.
“When I sleep by myself and I wake up by myself — the act of sleeping alone — it’s like I am bathing in myself,” says Jack. “If somebody else is there, it’s like you are conditioning each other in a way. You don’t get to wake up completely as yourself.”
In some ways, separate bedrooms function as a modern, less sexist version of the dreaded “man cave” — a designated space for individuals in a relationship to get alone time. But unlike the man cave, sleeping in separate rooms isn’t predicated on offensive, gendered ideas that one partner needs a reprieve from the other’s supposed nagging or clinginess or otherwise oppressive displays of womanhood. Rather, separate bedrooms represent a mutual agreement between partners of any gender who simply acknowledge that other people sometimes want space to themselves.
And while putting drywall between you and your partner may seem like an unnecessary barrier to regular sex, just because partners don’t sleep together doesn’t mean they’re not sleeping together. In fact, Wilson suggests that sleeping in separate bedrooms could actually help revitalize a couple’s sex life.
When a couple spends every night together in bed, he explains, that space inevitably loses much of its romantic or sexual charge, instead taking on mundane or even vaguely gross associations.
“We lay here, we snore, we sweat,” says Wilson, adding that a couple’s bed can become downright dirty, “and not in a sexual way.”
Keeping separate bedrooms can help preserve the sexual sanctity of the “marriage bed,” so to speak, maintaining the inherent sexiness and excitement of merely being in bed together.
And for those of you wondering where the fine art of cuddling fits into all this, don’t worry, it does.
“We can cuddle and then I can go to my bed and she can go to her bed,” says Jack, who fielded his share of comments and questions from concerned cuddlers during the course of his relationship. “When you’re sleeping, you’re sleeping.”
Jack is single these days, but his sleeping preferences haven’t changed. “If I have someone over and they’re going to spend the night, I’m almost dreading it because I know I’m going to get a shitty night’s sleep,” he says. And in the event of any future serious relationship, separate bedrooms “would pretty much be non-negotiable.”
The couple that sleeps apart, stays together
None of this is to say that it’s bad or ill-advised or retrograde for partners to enjoy sleeping in the same bed together. That traditional arrangement may still work fine for many couples — not to mention it’s also a much more economical option.
As Wilson notes, there are definitely risks to sleeping in separate bedrooms for some couples, and he admits it’s not something he typically recommends, “simply because the tendency can be there for couples to — I hate to use the cliché — but grow apart, because they do start to spend a lot more time away from each other.”
However, in the age of indefinite lockdowns and work-from-home mandates, the amount of time most cohabiting partners spend apart has diminished dramatically, which may prompt some to seek out sleeping arrangements that allow for more alone time.
“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many couples into small quarters with little to no privacy,” says Winter. “We live in stressful times with continual information overload. Having your own retreat space means you can reboot. Night time is when we unwind, collect our thoughts, and chill. This is an act of self care that benefits both parties in the relationship.”
As Jack notes, we tend to code sleep itself as a form of intimacy. This association is apparent even in one of the many euphemisms we use for sex: “sleeping together.” But for many couples, even loving ones with fulfilling sex lives, sleep is just sleep, and sometimes, we’d just rather sleep alone.