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Married, But Sleeping in Separate Beds

Can sleeping apart do anything but ruin a marriage?

By Kathryn Robinson October 17, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Adam Hancher

This is a story about a good marriage and a good night’s sleep.

Two endeavors that can be made to look easy but in fact require daily vigilance—even, it appears, occasional protection from each other. But first, it is a story about snoring.

This snoring was epic, Wagnerian—loud but also sort of disturbing, in a how-are-you-not-dislodging-a-lung sort of way. Not a gentle, rhythmic lull like waves on a beach, I was informed when I suggested he man up and regard the soundscape as, you know, a gentle rhythmic lull like waves on a goddamn beach.

In my defense, I had a terrible cold.

He schlepped his pillow into the guest room. The next morning when he came in to see how I was feeling, it was impossible to avoid noticing how refreshed he seemed. “I hope you managed to sleep some,” he said kindly. “I finally got a really good night’s sleep.”

Apparently I love the guy, because somewhere in that moment’s toxic gush of irritation and jealousy and petulance and rejection, my psyche also sent up a spurt of relief for him.

In truth, we had never enjoyed an idyllic sleep partnership. We’d both had long independent adulthoods before joining beds, where we’d each refined our own choreography. Mine: early to bed, long lamp-lit reading sessions including crinkly New York Times pages, up before dawn, throwing on and off outfits in a lit room. His: late to bed, ambient music and laptop light, tall-guy diagonal bed positioning, sleeping late. A person designing ill-suited sleep partners couldn’t have achieved a more precise result. The only two sleep behaviors we had in common were exquisite in their irony: both light sleepers, both given to snoring.

It’s amazing it took us so long to discover the guest room. 

And so, from time to time, one or the other of us began retreating there if one of our incompatibilities precluded sleep altogether. Reasonable, right? Only invariably we’d return to the marriage bed with the vague sense of having betrayed it.

No, I’m not talking literal betrayal. (Nor, prurient readers, am I talking celibacy, sheesh.) But married couples sleeping separately…it felt almost taboo. On TV it was forever being used as shorthand for trouble in paradise. In real life I could tell it was a stigma by our reluctance to own it publicly. We’d been sleeping apart maybe two nights out of five when I trepidatiously came out to a friend, who knitted her eyebrows with concern and told me that she and her husband enjoyed such an intensely profound connection she didn’t think they could sleep apart.

Um, okay. Barf.

Honestly, I wanted to ask her: How much are you two actually getting from each other at 3am? I can’t speak for everyone, but my husband and I tend to be unconscious when we sleep.

The marriage bed evolved from days when huddling for warmth meant survival and when real threats—tigers, Vikings—necessitated nighttime security. Now, in an era of white noise apps and antisnore tongue retainers and Sleep Number beds, it’s almost like we’re sleeping together in spite of the annoying together part. I don’t know anyone—man or woman, single or married—who doesn’t fall into bed at the end of the day bone exhausted from overwork, physical exertion, children, or a witch’s brew of all three. Our sleep cycles are disrupted by light exposure from our devices and insomnia from our stress. We need our sleep.

And yet.

It was probably three months into our guest room experiment that I began to miss my husband in an unexpectedly elemental way. (No, prurient readers, not that way: We knew how to schedule. If you think a calendar kills the mood, you should try an antisnore tongue retainer.) Sure, we were sleeping better not crashing into each other’s presence all night. Then again—there was each other’s presence all night. Who knew how much comfort can derive from a weight in the bed, from the warmth off of skin. From grazing limbs that might annoy you awake, or might feel like love.

Like many working couples with outside commitments, some days we barely occupied the same room at once. Ships passing in the night, only in the day. We found we simply hadn’t accounted for a truth that I hate admitting surprised us: Togetherness, apparently even of the unconscious variety, recharges the marital battery. My profoundly married friend, alas, was right; like devices need power, couples need one another’s presence.

Which is why, in its absence at night, we began carving out time together by day. Regular dinners. Morning coffee. We even scheduled talks. If it all sounds tiresomely intentional, intention turns out to be not such a bad third partner in a marriage. Immediately we restored closeness: a direct result, oh irony, of our nighttime separations.

Or maybe we were just finally well rested, who knows. But it’s working. Besides, I don’t know about you, Ms. Profound Connection—but we’re a lot more interesting awake than when we are asleep.

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