~ MARCH 2023 ~
To sleep together or to sleep separately? For many 21st-century couples that is the question. Although sleeping in separate twin beds was the norm for many married couples between the 1850s and 1950s, it started to be seen as a sign of a failing union in the mid-1950s.
But trends are circular (hello again, low-rise jeans) and now studies show that one in four American couples sleep separately, with the choice becoming increasingly common. Refinery29 spoke to four couples about what led to their choice and how it’s changed their relationship.
Ruth, 27, she/her & Edward, 27, he/him Brooklyn, New York
Ruth knows she got lucky – both with her partner, Edward, who she describes as a great dog dad, her best friend, and an incredible advocate who works as a personal interest attorney – and their apartment, a two-bedroom that straddles the Park Slope and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and allows each of them to have their own rooms.
Ruth and Edward met in high school but by the time their friendship blossomed into a romantic relationship, it came with strings: Edward was headed to Hong Kong and they would be in a transnational long-distance relationship for three years. Six years later, the two live together with their dog in Brooklyn and if you thought being separated by 8,000 miles for years of their relationship would make them value their personal space less, you’d be wrong. “As much as we do enjoy spending time together, there’s a lot of value in having personal space,” Ruth said. “We’ll cuddle in the morning or before bed [then go to our separate bedrooms].”
This way, the time they do spend together is a conscious choice. And they share their secret with anyone who asks. “When other couples ask advice about cohabitation, we say one of the key ingredients is to have separate spaces,” Edward said.
Morgan, 28, she/they & Kayla, 29, she her
Charleston, West Virginia
Morgan and Kayla have lived together for all but a few months of their seven-year relationship (“we’re U-Haul lesbians,” Morgan laughs). Those years were spent on friends’ couches and in various apartments as they tried to find a soft place to land after family turmoil shook up their lives.Then in 2021, the pair bought their own house, complete with an office for each of them. Some nights, Morgan, who works for an airline, sleeps on the living room couch of her office couch. Some nights, she sleeps in her bedroom with Kayla, but she worries — will her strange work schedule wake Kayla up? Some mornings, she has to be up by 2:30 a.m. and other nights, she doesn’t go to bed until near the same time. “I hate waking her up,” Morgan said. “Bless her heart. I’ve always been the one who enjoys sleeping by myself and having that space to just chill and relax by myself.”
Plus, their bedroom is too small for a king-sized bed, which Kayla thinks would make all the difference. She’s not much of a cuddler and she likes to sprawl out when she sleeps but if they move again, she hopes it comes with a bigger bedroom. “I would definitely prefer us to be in the same room with a more in-sync schedule and just [with] a bigger bed.”
Amy, 31, they/them & Benji, 31, he/him
Amy grew up believing that sleeping separately spelled doom in a relationship but when they and their partner, Nathaniel, couldn’t stop waking each other up, they decided to give it a shot. (“Also, I’m a neat freak,” Amy said. “And I wouldn’t say he’s messy, but his standards are not up to mine.”) Now, Amy and Nathaniel take turns on the living room futon and the plan to each have their own bedroom in their next apartment. And far from portending the end of their relationship, the sleeping arrangements seemed to have strengthened it.
They bicker less and though Amy was worried they would be less intimate, the opposite has been true. “I think we have sex more now because we’re not waiting until the end of the day to do it,” Amy said. “You have to make more of an effort and it’s more of a priority.”
Now, the couple thinks they’ll sleep separately forever. “We’re not willing to compromise on it because it makes our life so much better.” Benji agrees that the arrangement has positively impacted their relationship. “It’s only gotten better,” he said. “And really the idea that sleeping together is a sign of a healthy relationship is a societal myth rooted in monogamy hegemony.”
Abby, 29, she/they, Ben*, 29, he/him, & Grace*, 28, she/they
Los Angeles, California
There was a time when Abby, Ben, and Grace, a polyamorous trio, shared a one-bedroom apartment, but they’re all glad that time has come and gone. Now, they each have their own bedroom, which facilitates not only healthy sleep schedules but their own creative pursuits. Ben and Grace sleep together most frequently, as they’re both early birds, with Abby preferring to stay awake until deep into the night. “I wake up at like 5 a.m.,” Ben said. “That’s two hours after Abby goes to bed.” Plus, Grace says, there’s the question of mattress strength. Her own mattress is akin to a “wooden plank” while Abby prefers a “cloud.”
For Ben, it’s helpful to delineate that his desire to spend time by himself is not an indictment on his partners but more of a desire to be with himself. And, Abby says, it’s an unexpected delight to see how Ben and Grace outfit their rooms. “Seeing both of their rooms, it’s like you see the way people bloom in themselves when they’re surrounded by things that make them feel like them,” she said.
While the reasons for sleeping separately vary — from personal space to differing schedules — couples who make this choice have one thing in common: they’re willing to imagine another way of being together. Even if that means being together in different beds.
A version of this article originally appeared here on refinery29.com