My husband and I been happily married for 19 years and we’ve never slept together.
Allow me to answer your questions upfront: no, we are not celibate, and yes, I suspect you don’t fully believe me.
I understand your suspicion. The marital bed is deeply embedded in the culture and a symbol of a healthy relationship. Sleeping separately and going even further by having separate rooms if you have the space, is clearly a sign that the relationship is on rocky ground or at the very least you’ve had an explosive argument, and one of you chooses ― or is ordered ― to sleep on the sofa, right?
But there was a time that sleeping in separate beds was all the rage. In the early 1900s through the 1950s, twin beds were seen as healthier and more modern. You’d avoid your bed partner’s germ-filled breath while also retaining some of your own independence. By the 1960s, that notion was completely deep-sixed. Sleeping together became the norm and a sign of marital stability ― for the middle class, anyway.
The upper classes have largely ignored these cultural dictates. “The Crown” showed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sleeping in separate, adjoining bedrooms, and King Charles and Queen Camilla are carrying on the royal tradition. The reasons they give are no-fuss ― it’s practical when one wants a good night’s sleep, and when one needs intimacy, that’s easily rectified with a rendezvous.
For middle-class me, however, sleeping separately was a matter of survival. Before we were married, I tried sleeping through the night in the same bed we’d had sex in ― generally mine. I got through most of those nights without needing to decamp to the sofa, but even then, I found the whole undertaking stressful.
It wasn’t just the snoring ― full-throated and cavernous, which startled me out of my blissful slumber ― but the actual presence of someone sleeping beside me. I had the experience of something being taken, something I didn’t want to lose.
We met when we were in our early 40s, both out of difficult marriages. In the wreckage of those unfortunate couplings, we wondered whether we would have enough trust to open our hearts again, and we were grateful and surprised to be falling so deeply in love. Our times together were relaxed, our conversations open. I met him emotionally bruised, and when he held me close, I felt accepted and safe.
Except when I wanted to sleep.
The noise, the thrashing and moving around, the cover-stealing, the mismatched bathroom schedules (that only worsened with time).
I couldn’t relax enough to fall asleep, and if I did, it was short-lived.
It was all bearable until he moved in. I was thrilled when he agreed that packing up every Sunday night to leave for home about 30 minutes south ― actually his parents’ home, where he was living post-divorce and pre-affordable apartment ― made little sense. We didn’t want to say goodbye, and my house had plenty of room for the two of us and my 5-year-old. But I was nervous. Not about whether we’d make a good team, but if I would ever enjoy the benefits of a good night’s sleep again.
We did ― and I did not. I tried timing my bedtime ahead of his, so that I would be solidly asleep before he crept in next to me. I took sleep aids. I meditated. None of it was a match for the snoring, and the drugs only succeeded in leaving me groggy. The day I nearly fell asleep behind the wheel and narrowly missed barreling into a tree, I knew it was time for a talk.
I was weary and desperate, so I was blunt. I told him he snored, loudly and every single night. My work was suffering, and I was fast becoming a menace behind the wheel. I could feel myself getting more annoyed by the day. I told him I’d done research on dental devices, breathing strips and over-the-counter throat sprays ― I wasn’t sleeping anyway ― so could we try to solve this problem together?
At first, he was defensive.
“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad,” he said.
“I’ll tape you, if you need proof,” I snapped, but my stone face and the black bags under my eyes made it clear that wouldn’t be necessary.
He agreed to the strips and the sprays but held off on the dental device. They occasionally lessened the depth and duration of the snoring, but most nights I endured full-on window rattling.
And something else was also off: I missed my space. A room with my personal stamp, my personality. A place where I could be completely alone. Something I’d gotten used to, and treasured, during the period between marriages.
I soon realised it wasn’t a future trip to the dentist that we needed to discuss. It was a conversation around needs and idiosyncrasies and different temperaments (he’s an extrovert, I’m the introvert). A discussion of what was important to me, and how sleeping apart was essential for both my physical and mental well-being.
He needed a few days to process, but ultimately he admitted that the change might do him some good as well. It turns out that my nightly shushes and my countless demands for him to turn on his side (which helped minimise the snoring), had taken a toll on his energy level too. I insisted that he stay in the master bedroom. I would buy a full bed and use the small room I had been using as a home office for sleeping.
A lot has changed since those early talks. We married, moved a few times (making sure there was a bedroom for each of us), saw our children enter adulthood and leave the nest, and weathered the ups and downs of life in the 21st century.
We spent years keeping our sleeping arrangements a secret, convinced that our family and friends would find the idea alarming, or at the very least, odd. Lately, I find myself sharing our truth, selectively. Sleeping separately may be more common today ― a recent poll says nearly 1 in 4 married couples sleep in separate beds ― but it’s still only mentioned in whispers.
I think it’s time for the sleep-divorced to lose our shame and let the coupled, sleep-deprived masses know what they’re missing. The royals and the upper classes should not have a lock on a good night’s sleep while those of us who need one are hamstrung by societal rules that may work for some, but not for all.
Have I occasionally wished for a night when I turn and he is beside me? Of course. In that gauzy state between being awake and not, I realise that my sleep divorce has been a trade-off. I have not had the warmth and the closeness of cuddling and spooning, and I do often miss him in those quiet hours. But sleeping apart gives me the energy I need to do everything else, as a full, and fully conscious, partner. And when we do connect in one of those beds, I’m wide awake for all of it.
Patricia Garrison is a former communications professional who is now a semiretired empty-nester and freelance writer. She lives with her husband in Lewes, Delaware.