How Separate Bedrooms Saved My Sleep. And My Relationship.

Written by Elaine Atwell on November 20, 2017
separate beds

For most couples, sharing a bed is one of the great joys of a long-term relationship. Those moments of falling asleep and waking up together are a major source of intimacy. But for me and my partner, sharing a bed was almost the kiss of death. We tried it all — until we tried the one thing that couples rarely resort to.

The problem

My partner, to put it in the gentlest and most loving terms possible, is terrible at sleeping. I keep a long running list of the various reasons she has given for being unable to nod off, and it includes: “I ate too many candies at 3 pm,” “The beers were fizzy and they kept me awake,” and “My foot was sticking out of the blanket.”

It doesn’t take much to throw her off. But as our relationship progressed, it became increasingly clear that the primary obstacle to her getting a good night’s sleep was sharing a bed with me. We developed a ritual: I would wake up, roll over, and ask her “How did you sleep?” to which she would often reply “I didn’t.” Good morning.

The sandman offensive

I had never experienced this kind of insomnia in any of my other relationships, and I was determined to conquer it and achieve the peaceful bed-sharing to which I felt entitled. So once we moved in together, we tried everything to make my dream a reality.

I duct taped a curtain over the window which turned our bedroom into a kind of lightless vampire sanctuary. I invested in multiple sleep masks — which is how I discovered I cannot stand sleep masks. And my partner tried several brands of ear plugs, which ranged in texture from “marshmallows” to “basically clay.”

We even bought a king-size mattress and separate blankets, only to discover that apparently no bed is large enough to keep me from colonizing her half. We had a brief period of success with a fancy white noise machine, but my partner began accusing it of “making a weird raspy noise every 15 seconds.” Alas, we were sadly forced to retire it.

While I struggled to help my partner sleep, I started noticing that her problems were rubbing off on me. The stress of wondering if she would be able to sleep, and the guilt of knowing it was my fault if she couldn’t, started to keep me up all night, rigid with worry. That period marked a low point in our relationship.

As it turns out, starting every day exhausted and irritable isn’t conducive to a tranquil, loving romance. I began to wonder: Had any couple in history actually been driven apart because of their inability to sleep together? It seemed silly to even think about. And yet, here we were. On the days after sleepless nights, our work suffered, our coffee intake skyrocketed, and we both began feeling a little bitter toward each other.

A bedroom of one’s own

After several fights in which my partner accused me of snoring — to which I replied that the activity I was engaged in was more properly known as breathing, and I had no plans to stop — it became clear we needed a radical solution. So I finally packed up my pillows and started sleeping in the guest room.

I was sad to go, but immediately, both my sleeping and waking life improved immeasurably. It’s been about a year since I decamped across the hall, and guess what? The sleepless nights are now mostly a thing of the past, and our bedroom times are full of ease. Rather than worrying about the moment we turn off the light, we actually sleep.

There’s a bit of a stigma around couples who don’t share a bed, since it seems to evoke loveless (or at least sexless) relationships, and can be embarrassing to admit to. I’ve felt that embarrassment, and sometimes when I’m giving guests a tour of the house, I refer to the second bedroom as the “guest room,” because it’s easier than calling it “the room where I sleep because I breathe too loudly for my girlfriend and if I hadn’t left she probably would have smothered me with a pillow.”

But for the most part, I’ve stopped thinking of our sleeping arrangement as a defeat, and started accepting it as a solution. For us, sharing a bed and sharing a life are mutually exclusive propositions, and in an otherwise idyllic relationship, that’s an easy tradeoff to make.

Having separate bedrooms also comes with a few nice perks. Now I can stay up reading or watching indefensibly bad television as late as I want without disturbing my partner. Late night fridge raids are very easy — perhaps too easy. And best of all, my partner and I get to start every day by jumping on each other’s beds and actually meaning it when we say good morning! What’s not to love about that?


Elaine Atwell is an author, critic, and founder of TheDart.co. Her work has been featured on Vice, The Toast, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter.

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