Bedtime should be a blissful part of any happy couple’s day — the point at which they close the door on the world, cosy up together in a welcome moment of intimacy, then drift off into a solid night’s sleep.
That’s the idealistic notion of how it goes, at least. In reality, sleeping together is more often a hot-bed of bad tempers, mismatched body clocks and seething resentments.
One of you likes the bedroom cold, the other prefers it hot. One of you snores like a bear, the other grinds their teeth. One of you is a night owl, the other an early bird. The list of potential battlegrounds seems to be endless.
Small wonder that an increasing number of couples are choosing to sleep in separate beds — and often in separate rooms. Their marriages are happy and their sex life very much on track: it’s just that they’ve realised the best way to a good night’s sleep is not to share the mattress and duvet with their spouse.
When Debbie and James Clayden cuddled up together in the bridal suite on their wedding night last August, it was the first time they had shared a bed in several years.
And at the end of their two-week honeymoon in Kenya, Debbie and James, both 29, returned to separate bedrooms at their home in Adelaide. Debbie, an actress, and James, a mechanical engineer, say their relationship has been improved by separate beds.
‘We have a healthy sex life. We can make love wherever and whenever the mood takes us, and taking sex out of the marital bed makes it more exciting,’ says Debbie. ‘When we do make love in bed, it’s usually in James’s bed. We enjoy a cuddle and a chat afterwards, then I go off to my own room.’
James suffers from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder, which means he acts out his dreams while asleep. Debbie says: ‘We shared a bed at first, but it became unbearable. I have a bad back that is painful unless I move regularly, but when I turned over I disturbed James, who would then hit or kick out at me.
‘James was permanently exhausted during the day, so I persuaded him to visit our GP and a specialist diagnosed REM sleep behaviour disorder. He prescribed a tranquiliser to help James sleep deeply.’ The medication helped, but James still thrashes around in bed when he has had a busy day or is feeling stressed.
He says: ‘I’m still quite restless when I sleep. Without Debbie moving round at my side, I get more settled sleep.’ Friends have told the Claydens they feel it’s weird for a husband and wife not to sleep together and James admits: ‘If someone had said ten years ago that I would end up sleeping apart from my wife, I’d have thought it a bit odd. But our marriage is happy and fulfilling in every way.’
Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor with charity Relate, says she encounters many more couples who sleep apart now than she did in the past. She attributes that to more people working shifts, but also believes sharing a bedroom is all too often a source of marital conflict.
‘Couples start talking about problems when they go to bed and an argument can start. One partner might eventually try to avoid rounding off the day like this by going into a separate room,’ she says.
But Denise says sleeping apart doesn’t have to impair a couple’s sex life: ‘For some couples it increases their desire because it’s like going back to dating. Making love in their partner’s bedroom then going back to their own to sleep can be thrilling.
‘And if your partner’s sleeping habits mean you’re sleep-deprived that’s bound to get in the way of a good sexual relationship. Separate bedrooms and a good night’s sleep may bring about more physical closeness.’ That said, Denise says sleeping separately can drive a wedge between couples whose relationship is already in trouble. ‘Turning your bedroom into your territory and making it a no-go zone for your partner is a bad idea.’
However, sleeping apart is an arrangement that works perfectly for Shelley Harrison, 35, and her partner of five years, Alex Olejnic, 39, from Sydney. They have had separate rooms for more than two years. Shelley, an accounts manager, says: ‘Sleeping apart is the best thing we ever did. I’ve never slept well with someone beside me — being alone in bed feels far more natural. When we shared a bed, Alex and I spent the night tossing and turning. That’s frustrating when you have to get up early for work.
‘Alex goes to bed at about 1am, when I’ve already been tucked up for three hours, but it can be 4am before he falls asleep, and then he grinds his teeth. I used to take myself off to the spare room so often that eventually I suggested we make it permanent. I’m a misery without a good night’s sleep, as is he, so we’re both happy with this arrangement.’
Shelley and Alex, 39, have encountered suspicion about their decision. ‘My mum thinks it’s bizarre for a couple to sleep apart, and colleagues look at me askance when I mention it to them,’ says Shelley. ‘They can’t understand a couple in a committed relationship not sharing a bed — one told me she would never let her husband sleep alone. She made me feel it wasn’t natural. But I’m happy, and we have a great relationship.
‘We have other opportunities for intimacy, and we have sex once every four to six weeks, which is probably about average for a couple who’ve been together a few years. We love and care deeply about each other, so what does it matter where we sleep?’
The couple have taken advantage of their arrangement by choosing very different décor for their respective rooms. Shelley’s is purple and feminine, while Alex’s room is a sparsely-furnished bachelor pad. Shelley says: ‘We have a shared walk-in wardrobe in our third bedroom, and on Saturday nights we often watch TV together in Alex’s bed. It feels like we’re a dating couple going back to his place, which is fun. Sometimes I fall asleep in there but usually wake in the early hours and return to the comfort of my own bed.’
Alex says sleeping separately has done wonders for his relationship with Shelley. He says he’s never been happier with a woman, and attributes that to their sleeping apart. ‘When I have a poor night’s sleep, I’m like a bear with a sore head the next day, ratty and snappy,’ Alex says. ‘Shelley makes a clicking sound when she breathes in her sleep, which feels like Chinese water torture, and she accuses me of teeth-grinding and fidgeting. So when we slept together we used to row a lot about which one kept the other awake. Now we barely have a cross word — and the time we spend cuddling up feels more special.’
The idyllic image of a couple spooning comfortably night after night while locked in quality sleep is something of a myth, it seems. But many people remain worried that separate beds might be the start of a slow drift into separate lives. Professor Ben Fletcher, of the University of Hertfordshire, has written a book about relationships called Flex — Do Something Different. He says he has mixed feelings about the trend for sleeping apart: ‘People need to be alert at work — especially in these difficult times when they might be struggling to hold on to their jobs — and they need an undisturbed night’s sleep to achieve this.
‘Some couples are physically incompatible, perhaps because of snoring or because one of them is easily disturbed. Those with small children might sleep in separate rooms so they can take turns at seeing to the children while their partner gets some sleep.
‘But it’s important for couples to go to bed together at the end of the day. Even without the sex, it’s an intimacy issue, lying side by side and talking. Potentially something is lost from a relationship — a level of closeness perhaps — without that intimacy of sleeping together.’
Really? When Sydney and Phyllis Smith, from Coventry, celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary recently, they said separate beds were the surprising secret of their marital bliss. Sydney, 97, and Phyllis, 95, said the space afforded them by sleeping apart for the past 40 years had kept them together.
Mr and Mrs Smith are in good company. The Queen and Prince Philip have separate bedrooms — a staunch tradition among Britain’s upper classes. The royals have been married since 1947 and have four children, but apparently never sleep in the same room. They have, it would appear, blazed the trail for their subjects.
Nicky Brindley and her husband Martin have hatched a successful plan to make sure they get all the sleep they need without sacrificing intimacy. They sleep apart from Sunday night to Thursday night then reunite for the weekend — an arrangement that started three years ago. The couple, who live in Hook, Hampshire, have such different sleeping habits that for years they kept each other awake.
Nicky, 39, an agency recruiter, says: ‘I go to bed around 10pm and get up at 6.30am, but Martin is a night owl. He stays up until after midnight and gets up around 9am — two hours after I’ve left for work. Also, I like to snuggle under a thick duvet — I can’t sleep when it’s cold — while Martin is always hot and insists on the window being open, even when it’s freezing.’
The turning point came three years ago, when 35-year-old company director Martin had a bad cold and was coughing so much he slept in the spare room for a couple of nights. Nicky says: ‘We enjoyed more refreshing sleep alone than we had during the previous eight years of marriage, so I suggested we sleep apart on work nights.’
At first, she was worried Martin might be offended by her suggestion, but he happily agreed to it. Now the couple sleep together at weekends and on holidays, when they can make up for any disturbances with a lie-in. Nicky says: ‘From talking to friends, it seems a lot of couples sleep apart, and I think many of those who don’t would like to.’
She and Martin enjoy a healthy and happy marriage in every respect as a result of their novel nocturnal arrangements. ‘Struggling through a day at work when you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep is tough — all you want to do is crawl back to bed,’ she says. ‘I want to do the best I can at work, and being tired impedes the way I think. Now I can give my job my all. It’s even more important that Martin is alert because his job is a lot more stressful.’
Martin is matter-of-fact about separate beds. ‘We’re fortunate to have four bedrooms, so why put up with the discomfort of sharing one? I find it hard to fully focus on my job when I’m tired,’ he says. ‘Sleeping apart has no impact on our sex life. In fact, I would say it has improved our relationship because we’re less tired and grumpy after a good night’s sleep. It also feels special when we share a bed at weekends.
‘I’m in love with my wife, as much now as I was ten years ago. We appreciate the time we spend together because we’re both well-rested.’
by Susan Floyd