I used to sleep 8 hours a night, every night. And then, I fell in love.
OK, that’s not exactly true. In the years before I met my husband, I had the occasional sleepless night, for all the usual reasons: job interview anxiety, excitement about hooking up with an attractive stranger, watching 30 Rock for 19 hours straight to numb my brain after things didn’t work out with an attractive stranger, etc. But no matter where I was or what was on my mind, I usually slept well — so well that I took it for granted. I didn’t properly appreciate the fact that I could sleep through a thunderstorm, or that I was the only person in my social circle without a prescription for Ambien. When friends expressed shock at all this, I’d just shrug and say, “Well, I really like sleeping.” I’m touched that they didn’t pelt me with rotting deli meats then and there.
On my 28th birthday, I got my comeuppance: I met someone who I almost immediately realized was the man I’d marry. Jesse had awful, noisy neighbors, so we started spending nearly every night together at my place, and something weird started happening: I could no longer get a good night’s sleep. If he tossed and turned even slightly, I was up. If he snored, I was up. If he woke up in the middle of the night and got up to use the bathroom — even when he extricated himself from the bed so slowly and carefully that it looked like he was part of a modern dance piece — I snapped wide awake, and struggled to fall back asleep.
I thought suffering for your sleep was part of being in love.
I thought the problem had to be my old, worn-out queen size mattress, so we got a brand-new one. When that didn’t work, I decided I must have bought the wrong mattress, so we poured money into high-end mattress toppers that promised to cushion all movement. They didn’t. I then thought the problem was an unstable bed frame, so I tried to fix it by shoving various household items under the bed legs. And when, night after night, I still woke up when my then-boyfriend so much as quietly farted in his sleep, I had to admit that the problem was us.
We continued on with our sleepless yet loving relationship, and three years in, Jesse moved into my apartment. When I went through a period of great personal stress soon afterwards, I found that I could barely get an hour of sleep in the same bed as him. I began feeling like a cat: permanently cranky, awake at mysterious hours, prone to falling asleep on any soft surface I found. I exiled myself from our bed, spending almost every my night on our tiny couch, a mattress pad designed for camping, or an air mattress that could only be inflated to full size in the middle of our kitchen. On occasion, I’d give our shared bed a try, but by 3 or 4 a.m., I’d usually I’d wake up and head to the waiting, hateful arms of our couch.
Jesse was in constant emotional agony about my sleeping problems, and went to great lengths to try to keep from waking me up — waiting way past the point of discomfort to get up and use the bathroom at night, or staying up hours past his bedtime to check on whether I was sleeping soundly. When anything woke me up, he told me later, he’d blame himself and be kept awake by his guilt. Soon, both of us felt completely helpless, and, of course, completely exhausted.
When I woke up night after night in our shared bed, I didn’t feel intimate, or sexual, or filled with whatever positive feelings we think sharing a bed fosters. I felt like a victim.
Through the years, I saw doctors, was prescribed various pills, took up vigorous exercise and listened to calming podcasts, but nothing seemed to crack the code. Jesse frequently offered to sleep on the couch, but when he did, that kept me up, too — I stayed awake to check if he could fall asleep on the couch, and if he had a bad night’s sleep on there, I felt guilty, like my sleep problems were hurting the entire family. I chose to take the couch because I could deal with my own feelings of bed-related martyrdom far more easily than I could the idea that I was hurting him.
That isn’t to say that I handled my decision to be couch-bound maturely; I still spent too many mornings watching the sun rise through our curtained windows, groggy on Lunesta, stewing in my own rage at my body and the cultural tenets of monogamy and sleep-farts and the unfairness of the universe.
For the past few years, we’d spoken about getting separate beds, bringing it up in the same way I imagine people who want to feel out whether their spouse is interested in becoming swingers bring it up: first by making jokes (“it would be soooooo funny if we just had two little beds, like an old-time sitcom couple”), then by presenting it as a good idea “for the future,” and then, finally, committing to it, dedicating a weekend day or two to figuring out how we’d make it work in our small New York City apartment. We booked separate beds whenever we stayed at hotels, and always looked forward to the refreshing, uncomplicated sleep we knew they offered.
I thought that loving couples shared a bed, end of story (even though I loved my husband and yet had not regularly slept in the same bed with him since long before we’d married).
But still, I never thought we’d actually get separate beds. I couldn’t imagine a morning that didn’t start with me crabby, underslept, and on a flimsy couch obviously not designed to hold an adult’s entire body weight for 8 hours straight. Because, secretly, I thought this was the better option. I thought suffering for your sleep was part of being in love. And people who were unwilling to suffer for that...., well, what was the next part of their relationship that they’d give up for convenience’s sake?
At Bustle HQ, we often discuss how many women suffer from sleep problems, how many of us are staggering through our days like zombies and then staying awake all night. But when I thought up this article a few months ago, honestly, I didn’t think my bosses would say yes. I thought they’d laugh, say it was a weird idea, and move on. When they enthusiastically embraced it, that meant that I actually had to get the separate beds. Now.
To me, separate beds at best signified some kind of 1950s-style sexual frigidity, but more likely meant you and your partner hated each other.
And I was terrified. I thought that loving couples shared a bed, end of story (even though I loved my husband and yet had not regularly slept in the same bed with him since long before we’d married). To me, separate beds at best signified some kind of 1950s-style sexual frigidity, but more likely meant you and your partner hated each other; those separate beds were a stop on the road to separate apartments and separate lives. And how could you even have sex in a bed that small??
Yes, it sounds a little dramatic. But when’s the last time you saw a sitcom where a young, happy couple slept apart because one of them was a light sleeper or someone snored or was bothered by the other’s CPAP machine? Sleeping together, and apart is a loaded activity. When I put “sleeping apart” into Google just now, two of the five autofills were “after a fight” and “bad for marriage.” Some have even given the practice of couples sleeping apart the the totally-reassuring name of “sleep divorce.”
And despite the fact that, according to a 2004 Sleep Foundation survey, one-fourth of couples sleep in separate beds or rooms, a lot of articles about sleeping apart are written by people who don’t do it; the articles often frame sharing a bed as a goal worth working on and maybe even suffering for, because, gosh, all the sleeplessness is worth it in the end for the intimacy.
But when I woke up night after night in our shared bed, I didn’t feel intimate, or sexual, or filled with whatever positive feelings we think sharing a bed fosters. I felt like a victim — like I was being punished, though I couldn’t say by whom. My husband? American culture? God? Whoever it was, I certainly wanted to pelt them with rotten deli meats.
I bought into this every night, even as I marinated in rage and sleep-envy : good couples can figure this out.
And yet, despite all that, after we decided to replace our queen with two full-sized Casper mattresses, I was still scared about what sleeping in separate beds said about us (or what it would make our friends think about the state of our relationship). I really believed, deep down, that there had to be a way to make it work: we’d get a better bed, or I’d find a way to be less anxious, or I’d find the right sleep medication that allowed me to sleep through construction and sleep-farts alike. I bought into this every night, even as I marinated in rage and sleep-envy from an air mattress in my own house: good couples can figure this out.
My husband had none of these fears. He hated our old queen-size mattress and the trouble it caused us both; he told me more than once he wished he could set fire to it and watch it burn. So he was a little confused by the way that, the second the new mattresses arrived, I began treating them as cursed objects. I made up excuses about why we couldn’t buy new bed frames that day — too busy, too hot out, too...oh hey look over there.... The afternoon our old mattress was taken away and we had no choice but to set up our new beds, I very quietly had a nervous breakdown. I alternated between refusing to help assemble the frames and yelling that only I had enough technical know-how to assemble the frames. I panicked about our tiny bedroom, which was almost entirely occupied now by two full beds, like some Holiday Inn Express that had taken bad psychedelic drugs. When we finished putting together the bed frames and found that four screws from the assembly kit still remained, I almost burst into tears. “The bed frame is going to collapse!” I screamed, not actually talking about the bed frame at all.
Our first week with the beds went like this: I’d get into bed and watch Netflix with my husband at the end of the day, just like we always had. Only this time, I would panic about the literal physical distance between our bodies — about three feet of our various beds, plus a small gap between — and ask him, repeatedly and with utter seriousness, if he “still liked me” even though I was “far away now.” Then, we would go to sleep, and I would find that the sleep problems that I thought were ours as a unit — him causing and me suffering — were actually my own. While sleeping alone on the comfiest mattress I have ever owned, head balanced atop of pile of foam Tomorrow Sleep pillows, I still jolted awake at all hours of the night. Not because of someone else’s snores or midnight bathroom trips, but because my brain, a**hole that it is, just wanted me to wake up and think about an email I forgot to reply to three years ago. I realized that there didn’t have to be someone at fault in my sleep problems, someone whose imperfect behavior was to blame. The problem was just that I couldn’t sleep.
Somehow, sleeping apart made our relationship better.
As the weeks went on, my sleep problems persisted, but something shifted in our marriage, something I hadn’t even fully realized was there: I stopped feeling resentful. You hear a lot about how weird it is for couples to not share a bed; you hear far less about how weird it is that resentment can sneak in between two people who really like each other, in ways you don’t even notice. My husband and I have been a couple for eight years now, and I consider us almost improbably happy with each other. But when I was sleeping on the couch, it felt impossible to not feel always a little resentful, as if it was his unsettled sleep that was keeping me exhausted every day. It seeped into other arenas without my even noticing — I’d be quicker to anger, or we’d have arguments and I’d catch myself thinking, “What do you know! You can’t even sleep right!” I didn’t even notice it was happening, until it stopped. A 2009 article in Sleep Medicine Review hypothesized something similar: “disturbed sleep due to sleep disorders or prolonged sleep disturbance contributes to unhealthy relationship functioning by impairing emotion regulation and cognitive function and influencing physiological mechanisms.” Basically: when you’re trying to make a go of sleeping in the same bed and it’s not working, you’re sleepy and angry all the time, so yeah, it’s not going to be great for the relationship.
Somehow, sleeping apart made our relationship better. Not that it was at all bad before. But as our time in our separate beds went on, I noticed that I trusted my husband more. I felt less moved to second-guess his decisions or assume that he couldn’t handle certain tasks on his own. We had deeper conversations more often. We made up more jokes, became more spontaneous, took more tiny trips around town to do something silly and romantic, just because. I hadn’t realized how much my sleep resentment had clogged up my brain, made me view him as different than the man I had fallen crazy in love with almost a decade before. But he was still there. I just needed to be awake enough to see him.
The separate beds worked for Jesse, too. He was also sleeping better, and no longer spent hours awake at night, terrified “about my every movement waking you up,” he told me. “Something as simple as being able to pee in the middle of the night is an extraordinary pleasure and privilege I wasn't sure I'd ever live to see.” He’s actually gotten on board with the idea of a second bedroom some time in the future, to more easily accommodate our divergent schedules. “It wouldn't make me love you any less or feel any less close to you,” he said.
You don’t need a queen size bed to get it on, any more than you needed one to be in love.
My fear that others would think we were headed towards a break-up proved unfounded, too. What we heard from friends was that more of them struggled to sleep with a partner than we had ever known; lots of them also spent many nights on the couch, and some had even ended relationships over it. None of them had ever brought it up before, though, because they were convinced that they were the only ones having this issue. By and large, they thought separate beds were a great solution to a problem they didn’t even know they were allowed to admit they had.
I still wake up in the middle of the night fairly often, and while I’m still seeking medical help, it hasn’t yielded any real results yet. But when that happens now, I feel differently about it. I don’t feel like a victim anymore; just a woman with a medical problem.
And, it has to be noted, the separate beds led to us having more sex, not less. Like, way more sex. It isn’t just a function of my sleeping better and having more energy. It’s a function of feeling closer and happier. I had been worried about there being enough room to maneuver sexually, but actually, I found a full-size bed to be more than enough space. As it turns out, you don’t need a queen size bed to get it on, any more than you needed one to be in love.