When my twins were pre-teens, they came home from a school field trip one day, completely exhausted. They lay down on the couch, heads at opposite ends, and fell asleep. I watched in fascination over the course of the next couple hours. One of them would roll over or move a limb in some way—and the other one, still sound asleep, would adjust in response. My boy-girl twins, about as different as twins can be, held within their bodies a memory of how to adjust to the other one. Their shared months in utero laid down a pattern of how to be together and adapt. Their movements echoed the life and space they had shared so intimately all those years ago. They were two individuals, operating in concert with each other.
I was reminded of this a few nights ago in bed. My husband has always fallen asleep as soon as he closes his eyes. I, however, toss and turn for a couple hours, trying to get my mind and body to both relax. (My parents didn’t call me the Mixmaster as a young child for no reason, after all.) I rolled over to spoon Big Guy. My weight shifted in the bed—and Big Guy, sound asleep, lifted his arm so I could loop my own arm around his waist like I always do, with my hand resting just where he likes it (no, not where you’re probably thinking). Sound asleep, his body adjusted to mine. We were two individuals, operating in concert with each other.
As a newly married couple, I was often struck by the strangeness of sleeping with my husband. I’d shared beds with my mom, my little sister, friends, and relatives at different times—but this was completely different. When we visited our families together, we went from being given two different beds in different areas of our parents’ houses to being assigned one bed, in “our room.” The sharing of a bed signified something to others as well as ourselves about our married state.
Sharing a bed is an interesting—and intimate—experience, even aside from sexual activity. My husband and I feel each other’s callouses, dry skin, unclipped toenails. We know the other person’s sleep habits as well as our own. We experience the other person’s snoring, sniffling, gas, hiccups, restless legs, morning breath, and snooze alarm habits. These small things, night after night, year after year, are part of the fabric of intimacy in a marriage. The whole time, we feel the weight and warmth of the other’s body—even if we are sleeping in flannel jammies (but even more if we are naked). The physical reality and proximity of sleeping together is part of what binds us as a couple, in our own eyes and the eyes of others.
Recent research indicates that 30-40% of couples sleep separately. Common reasons for sleeping separately include medical conditions (such as sleep apnea, PTSD, menopause, and restless leg syndrome) and different circadian rhythms (the night owl vs. lark thing).
We certainly have had our share of medical challenges in sleeping together. My husband has severe sleep apnea. Before he was diagnosed and began CPAP treatment, my sleep suffered because of his snoring. I have restless legs and occasional night sweats, so my husband has had more than a few nights when he is awakened by my kicking or my tossing the covers off. My occasional insomnia sometimes disrupts him, and his rolling over shakes the bed and sometimes disturbs me.
When one spouse’s sleep habits disturb the other spouse’s sleep, separate beds may seem to make sense. Sometimes, though, those sleep habits are just excuses for avoiding intimacy.
During the worst of my refusing and gate-keeping, this was what I did. Big Guy’s snoring would keep me awake, I said. I was having a bad stretch of insomnia and didn’t want to keep him awake, I said. These legitimate challenges became my excuses for staying physically away from him during the intimate and vulnerable time of sleep.
We don’t have an extra bedroom, so I slept on the couch—for several months. It got to the point where I kept my phone charger by the couch rather than the bed. I had two pillows and some blankets and a sheet that I would fold up and keep next to the couch. My expectation every night was that I would probably sleep there. Sometimes I would start out in bed, but the couch had become the place where I could begin to relax and fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, we had separate bedrooms.
I was relieved to have found a way to avoid night-time intimacy. Bedtime was so tension-filled for both of us, and it was just too much. I was tired of fighting, and when we were tired at the end of the day, neither of us was at our best. Rather than actually try to address our issues, I wanted to escape them.
I hoped that sleeping separately for a while would give us a break and make things a bit easier. Instead, it made things worse.
Why Sleep Together?
What happens when a couple sleeps apart? I’m not talking about an occasional night when there are sick kids to care for or someone is out of town, recovering from an illness or surgery, or simply having a hard time sleeping. I’m talking about sleeping apart more often than not, whether you have a separate bedroom or sleeping area set up or just sometimes end up somewhere other than with your spouse.
Couples who sleep apart lose out on major benefits, both in health and in their relationship.
Recent research suggests that sleeping together has health benefits, even when a spouse’s sleep is disrupted because of the other spouse’s sleep habits:
- The feelings of safety and security from not sleeping alone may reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
- Sharing a bed boosts oxytocin, the hormone that helps us feel bonded to each other. (This is the same hormone that washes through men after orgasm and helps them feel emotionally close to their wives.)
- Endorphins are released.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, “some scientists believe that sleeping with a partner may be a major reason why people with close relationships tend to be in better health and live longer.”
- Snuggling and touch are calming and comforting. (See this post about non-sexual touch therapy.)
The marriage relationship benefits as well:
- The time a couple spends together at bedtime may be, according to an ABC News report, the most important time for connecting, being intimate and just being `alone together’ without all of the other distractions of the day.”
- Going to bed together is correlated with having more sexual intimacy. (Check out The Marriage Bed’s recent survey information on this.)
Wait . . . more intimacy? More sex? Yeah, that’s just what I was trying to avoid by sleeping apart.
Sleeping Alone = Feeling Alone
Instead of getting a break and having things easier between us, our relationship suffered. I felt like I knew my husband even less than I had before. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t know if he’d slept poorly and I needed to make extra coffee. If I woke up from a bad dream, he wasn’t there to wrap his arms around me even while he was sound asleep. He woke up one morning and had no idea that I’d spent much of the night in the bathroom feeling sick. By sleeping separately, I had pushed away the one person I should be able to count on to know things about me.
I felt even more distant from my husband than I ever had before. I began to truly worry about whether our marriage could make it.
I felt alone.
Despite the sexual tension and anxiety of bedtime that we both experienced, the intimacy of being physically present with each other and witness to each other’s bodies and sleep habits had provided a more powerful bond than I had realized. My attempt to escape intimacy worked—we had lost what little intimacy we’d had.
After only a few months of sleeping more apart than together, our marital bond had greatly weakened.
We slept apart for only a few months; some couples sleep apart for years, even decades. If our marriage was weakened by a few months apart, how much worse would years have been? I have to wonder what is happening to the marriages of the estimated 30-40% of couples who sleep apart. Do they know what they are missing out on by not sleeping together?
In some cases, couples sleep apart not to avoid sexual intimacy but as a result of the loss of sexual intimacy. For a man who is sexually starved, lying in such close proximity to his wife, not allowed to touch her, hold her, or make love to her, is physically and emotionally painful. A marriage bed that is used only for sleeping is even lonelier than a separate bed altogether.
Do you sleep with your husband?
Are you part of the 30-40% of couples who sleep apart? Are you honest with yourself about why?
If your separate sleep habits are a way to avoid intimacy or a result of lack of intimacy, then you may be making things worse by not sleeping together. You are not reaping the physical or mental health benefits of sharing sleep, and you are further limiting the opportunities for non-sexual intimacy and bonding as a couple.
What are you going to do about it?
- If medical issues are the reason for sleeping separately, pursue treatment—and know that in many cases, the benefits of a disrupted sleep with your spouse may still be better than an undisturbed sleep alone.
- If your work schedules interfere are dramatically different, or if you truly need to sleep apart for medical reasons, be intentional about spending time in bed together anyway. That time before sleep can build a lot of intimacy, sexual and otherwise. If your schedules are different, then take turns. One month, one spouse will wake the other up in before retiring in the middle of the night for some shared intimacy. The next month, the other spouse will wake the other early in the morning before rising. A couple years ago, my husband had a job that brought him home after midnight, and I needed to get up at 5:30. This wasn’t an easy thing for either of us to do, but agreeing to wake each other up helped us stay connected at a time when we rarely saw each other.
- If the problem is intimacy (either because you’re avoiding it or because the lack of intimacy has made the shared bed far too lonely), then you need to work on that (click here for some help getting started)—for far more reasons than reaping the benefits of sleeping together.
Dragging myself back to our bedroom after a few months of sleeping on the couch was hard. It took courage. I knew I would be facing the tension and fighting again. But somehow, I didn’t mind quite as much. I was tired of feeling so alone in my marriage, and I knew I needed to sleep with my husband.
I woke up this morning, Big Guy’s arm wrapped around my waist and holding me close to him. I had tucked myself within his arms and had placed my hand over his. All of this happened while we were both sound asleep—two individuals, sleeping and moving in concert with each other.
Even with my mind muddled by sleep, I felt protected. I felt comforted. I felt loved.
I felt married.
Do your sleeping arrangements leave you feeling married—or alone?
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