Couples who sleep apart, stay together: In praise of separate beds
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED 6 HOURS AGO
Haley McGee is a Canadian actor, playwright and podcast host currently living in Britain. She is the author of The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale: Finding a Formula for the Cost of Love.
It was 3:30 in the morning when resignation descended upon me: This was going to be one of my sleepless nights. After a handful of dates, the guy I had a massive crush on had invited me to stay over. Though I knew I’d sleep better if I walked the few blocks back to my apartment to sleep alone in my own bed, I feared leaving would end the relationship before it began.
I’ve always been a terrible sleeper. My parents gave up on putting me down for naps before I turned two. I spent many a childhood sleepover staring at the inside of my sleeping bag, willing myself to join my friends in the land of nod, without success. In my adult years, insomnia has plagued me. And though I’ve developed a few techniques to curb it when I’m on my own, sharing a bed with a love interest destroys my chances of quality shut eye.
My crush had drifted off quickly while I, on the other hand, tossed and turned, searching for a comfortable position that would ease me into slumber. I was too hot, too cold. The fan in his room made a clicking noise, but when I turned it off it was too quiet. I was thirsty. I had to pee. When I finally did start to nod off, I awoke with a jolt, terrified of a fart slipping out. At one point, he groggily offered to sleep on the sofa, though I sensed irritation in his voice.
I lay stone-still, staring at his water-stained ceiling, counting my breaths till dawn. Over cereal, he asked a puffy-eyed me how I slept. I was ashamed to tell the truth. I didn’t. (I never heard from him again.)
This was the umpteenth night I’d spent like this. On the occasion that I shared a bed with the same person repeatedly, my sleep would improve marginally, but I seemed incapable of achieving “a good night’s sleep” unless I slept alone.
I’m doomed, I thought. How can I ever have a healthy, happy, fulfilling relationship if I’m incapable of sharing a bed? Dejected, and embarrassed of my failing, I feared my trouble with sleep meant I was destined to be alone forever.
After all, couples who sleep in separate beds subsist in miserable, sexless relationships on the brink of collapse. Or, that was the impression I’d picked up as a kid and unquestioningly carried into my adult life. As children, we all knew that separate beds were the nice version of Dad sleeping on the sofa. And Dad on the sofa meant divorce was inevitable. Our young minds, which ached for our families to stay the same, understood that happy parents slept together.
This childhood belief was compounded later by whispers from my colleagues, like the one who furtively giggled that her partner slept on a camping bed in his home office most nights, but always made sure to hide it away when the babysitter was due.
Sleeping in separate beds, or separate rooms, struck me as chaste, unromantic and uptight. I longed to wake up wrapped in the arms of a lover, morning after morning, deeply rested and madly in love.
Alas, despite my dogged determination, I failed to be anything but harried and sleep deprived. That is, until a series of events changed my mind forever. I backed into the glory of sleeping in separate beds and I’m here, as a bona fide convert, to tell the tale.
Several years after that ill-fated date, I moved to London, England. The realities of my work prospects as an actor (and the exchange rate) dealt blows to my ego and my bank account. While I’d lived alone in an apartment in Toronto for the better part of my 20s, there I was in my early 30s, renting a room I can only describe as “a nun’s cell.”
When my long-distance boyfriend visited, I was mortified by the sleeping arrangement. But we pulled the trundle bed out from under my single bed, erasing any floor space and slept side by side, though I was raised up on the bed while his mattress was on the carpet.
That night, I comfortably shifted around without fretting about bumping into him or bouncing the mattress. I kicked my feet outside the duvet and pulled them back in at whim. And once I nodded off, I slept through the night. We both woke up rested, refreshed and happy to see each other, instead of annoyed about being kept awake. Until then, our visits consisted of increasing agitation as our collective sleep deprivation compounded. Our love seemed to blossom as we brought kinder, happier versions of ourselves to each other.
This was a revelation. Sleep researchers have noted that improved sleep quality can have the same positive impact on our well being as winning the lottery does. And oh my god, were we cashing in.
It occurred to me that sometimes what appears to be a sign of failure is a healthy choice that works for a particular couple.
When my long-distance love and I booked an impromptu holiday, we opted for a cabin with two twin beds, over a cabin with a queen. Unlike my trundle bed set-up, these beds were separated by a nightstand. And actually, as detailed in Hilary Hinds’ book A Cultural History of Twin Beds, by the 1920s in the U.K., it was deemed modern, fashionable and more hygienic for married couples to sleep in twin beds. And many young metropolitans were making the switch.
I noticed that the wealthy couples in shows such as The Crown and Downton Abbey kept their own bedrooms. I presumed this was owed to the political nature of aristocratic marriages, but upon further internet sleuthing I learned it was not entirely so. Sleeping in separate rooms was a customary sign of wealth and status. Sharing a room, and indeed a bed, in Victorian England was deemed a money saving measure. In fact, the more rooms a home had the more prestigious.
A couple years passed, and my own economic situation improved. A book deal and a couple of high-paying voiceover jobs allowed me to rent a spacious flat with an office, in a far-flung southeast corner of London. And when my long-distance boyfriend came to visit me there, we were able to sleep in separate rooms. At last, I could toss, turn, use my white noise machine, fart with impunity and awake at my leisure. For the first time in my life, I’d had a man stay over and slept as well as I would have had I been alone.Enjoying our coffees the next morning, we marvelled at how good we both felt and how our previous assumptions about bedsharing had led us astray.
In a world where time is our most precious commodity and sleep is the key to enjoying it, shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to ensure we’re as well rested as possible? If we really want to love well – that is, to be kind, patient and generous with those we love and receive those things in return – I believe it’s our responsibility to protect our own, and each other’s, shut-eye.
Indeed, a movement seems to be growing as couples “come out” as separate sleepers. TikTok influencer Terri-Anne Michelle recently made waves with a viral post about how sleeping separately from her husband has improved their sex life, with members of the public and experts weighing in. The consensus seems to be that more breathing room and better moods, as a result of better rest, can be a winning recipe for spicier, more satisfying romps.
So, to those who can co-sleep like logs, all the power to you. And for my fellow fickle sleepers, I say, dare to be unconventional. Work within your budget to redesign your sleeping arrangements in the name of nurturing your health, happiness and love.
In other words, make your own bed, just how you like it, and lie in it, exactly how it suits you.