I was delighted to read this article in today’s Irish Independent newspaper this morning. It validates the choice in our house to sleep in separate rooms – our guilty secret. We decided after only three weeks of marriage, the week we returned from honeymoon in fact, that separate beds was the answer for us. I felt we had failed somehow and so early on in our married life, and I didn’t want anyone to know. And if we thought that was embarassing, booking a twin room on holiday really feels shameful. But, just one night of enforced sleeping together, when there are no twin rooms available, reinforces our decision – neither of us gets a good night’s sleep otherwise. For me, it’s the snoring and let’s face it, the wind breaking that does it for me. My husband says it’s my loud breathing that keeps him awake – not quite sure what that’s all about, but the upshot is, sleeping in the same bed is a recipe for crankiness and snapping at each other the next day.
“Sleep is the most selfish thing you can do. You can’t share your sleep with somebody else” said Dr Neil Stanley a sleep expert at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital who believes that sleeping apart from your spouse promotes a happier — and much healthier — marriage.
“We know that people who have poor sleep have higher rates of divorce,” Stanley told the Irish Independent. “They’re more miserable. They’re more depressed.”
A recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that one in four married Americans are now sleeping alone.
Even many celebrities see the benefits of sleeping solo. Even Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who reportedly slept in separate rooms while they were dating, have kept the same arrangement since their 2006 marriage.
“Now that they are married, they don’t feel the need to alter the arrangement,” said a Hollywood source. “Tom has his master bedroom and Katie has hers.
“In fact, they even joke about having separate bedrooms to their friends. Katie says Tom snores and this way she can get her beauty sleep.”
A partner who snores is one of the main reasons why many couples choose to sleep separately, says Stanley, but a huge cultural taboo surrounding the sanctity of the marital bed prevents them from openly discussing their new sleeping arrangements.
“There should be no stigma about separate bedrooms but there is that cultural stigma that people apply to it.”
But the stigma is perpetuated because of the popular assumption that if a couple is not sleeping side by side, then they’re not “sleeping together”, said Stanley. “It’s just one of those bizarre things of the English language that we use the term ‘sleeping together’ to mean both sleeping together and sex,” he said.
“Sex and sleep are entirely separate entities, whereas we have put them into almost the same activity where if you’re not sleeping next to somebody then you’re not having sex with them and that’s just foolish in the extreme. It doesn’t make sense.”
But saturated by television and movie images of blissful couples sleeping peacefully side by side, it’s hard for many sleep-deprived couples to go against the sacred creed of the ‘marital bed’.
“You never fall asleep in each other’s arms. That’s just a Hollywood myth,” said Stanley.
He points out that in the past, the monarchy and the very wealthy never shared beds — they found it much too offensive. Even today, the Queen of England and Prince Phillip reportedly sleep in separate rooms.
Not until the Industrial Revolution, when families were forced out of the countryside and into crowded tiny two-room houses in the new industrial heartland, did the notion of bed sharing for married couples become popular.
And up until the mid 1970s, the vast majority of American married couples chose twin beds over doubles.
Now, married couples in the UK and Ireland who sleep in traditional double beds find themselves with only 27 inches of personal space to manoeuvre during the night.
Yet many people are still reluctant to broach the subject of separate rooms with their partners for fear of hurting their feelings.
“We don’t talk about sleep. We don’t have it as a topic of conversation in a relationship. If most people said, ‘Look, I still love you, I still desire you but at the end of the day do you mind if we had separate bedrooms,’ their partners would probably say, ‘Yes, that sounds like a brilliant idea’,” said Stanley.
But this advice holds only for those couples who still enjoy an intimate relationship: “If you have separate bedrooms and you’re not being intimate then you’ve probably got problems,” he said.
Stanley himself — who has been called an “evangelist for separate bedrooms” — admits that he and his partner sleep in separate bedrooms. He also goes that extra mile to ensure a good night’s slumber by buying the finest bedding and bed he can find.
After all, he says, the average person will end up spending a third of their life asleep. “Twenty-five years of your life is going to be spent in bed. It’s worth spending a bit of money on it,” he said.
But on a purely practical level, those who advocate separate bedrooms for the chronically sleep deprived, admit that sleeping separately from your spouse is not a realistic option for many.
Few cash-strapped couples have a spare bedroom lying around and fewer still have the resources to build an entirely separate master suite.
There are also those who actually enjoy sleeping next to their spouses, despite the occasional elbow in the face or waft of noxious gasses.
For those lucky couples, Stanley has some words of advice: “If it works for you, then don’t change it.”