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Sleeping With The Enemy

Sharing a bed is one of the pillars of a romantic relationship, but if it's stopping us from getting a good night's sleep, is it really smart to keep doing it?

By Kate Guest | Published: 5 Apr 2014

Trouble Sleeping
Photo: Riccardo Tinelli

It all started innocently enough. A few stolen nights here and there, once my husband was asleep. I’d silently, guiltily, creep from our bed, into another. Everything about it was just as I’d imagined it could be. Exciting. Liberating. Rewarding. At first he didn’t notice – I always made sure I was back before morning – but after a while I got careless. I stayed out all night. By then, I was hooked. I didn’t care. I wanted him to find out, but when he did I could no longer pretend that my behaviour wasn’t causing damage. It was hard to give it up, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I spent one last night in the spare room, then I moved back into the marital bed.

I’ve successfully resisted the siren call of the spare bedroom ever since, but as every recovering addict knows, it’s not easy. I miss my cool sheets. I miss having space to spread out. I miss reading late at night, watching films in bed or being able to answer that sudden urge to Google something if I want to.

Sharing a bed is one of the pillars of a romantic relationship, yet the unacknowledged truth is that it’s also one of the hardest things we do in the name of coupledom. Even if we can admit to finding it difficult, we rarely do anything about it. Instead we adopt a kind of ‘grin and bear it’ approach, laughingly grumbling about it with our friends, but nothing more. We view couples who sleep apart suspiciously, and if a friend lets slip that she and her partner have separate beds, don’t we immediately assume they are on the road to Splitsville?

Yet, the romantic ideal of co-sleeping – the two of you lying nose to nose, arms draped around each other for eight uninterrupted hours – is about as real as the tooth fairy. The reality is more like two fatigued combatants facing off night in, night out, ready to do battle over issues that in daylight hours haven’t bothered us since we were five. Ever pinched a snorer until he’s turned over? Used the edge of the pillow as a boundary and become enraged if your partner ventures so much as a little finger onto ‘your’ side of the bed? My point exactly.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for reverting to immaturity come nightfall. Sharing a bed isn’t a natural inclination for humans. In fact, in many societies the marital bed has only been around a few hundred years. In the UK, it came into prominence during the Industrial Revolution, when families moved into cities and living space was reduced. And sleep is precious. A life-giver and a sanity-saver. It’s no wonder we lash out at perceived threats to it. Even on nights that start out well, one snore too loud, a duvet snatch too many, and happy relations can quickly descend into chaos. For me, temperature control is a major flash point. You don’t appreciate how warm the human body can get until you’re sharing a bed with one night after night. Factor in the Malaysian climate, and you have a red-hot flare for a fight, and all sorts of sub-issues to address. Air-conditioner, fan or open window? Duvet, sheet or nothing on top? Even attempted cuddling can be viewed as an act of war when the would-be cuddler’s skin could fry an egg.

Then there’s the question of timing. If the two of you aren’t on the same sleep schedule, then one is bound to be disturbed by the other. And these days, there’s the thorny issue of tech in the bed to deal with, too. The television is no longer the only screen vying for attention in the bedroom; we also have to decide whether we allow laptops, iPads and phones in. A survey by the US National Sleep Foundation found that more than a quarter of people have lost sleep because of their partner, and almost as many have slept in separate beds to get a better night’s rest. (I like to think the remainder haven’t only because they don’t have a spare bedroom to run to.)

Research by British sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley suggests that, on average, couples suffer 50 per cent more sleep disturbance if they share a bed, with consequences far more serious than a groggy start to the morning. Disturbed sleep can increase the risk of stroke, depression, weight gain, heart disease and respiratory failure. “Sleep is a biological necessity and good sleep is essential for our physical, mental and emotional health,” he says. “It is essential to the optimal functioning of the body’s endocrine, metabolic and immune systems. Even as little as one hour a night less sleep can have measurable effects on your physical and mental health.”

Dr Stanley is evangelical about separate beds and practises what he preaches. But what about that one crucial benefit of sharing a bed – sex? “Far from [separate beds] being the end of intimacy, it could be the start. After a good night’s sleep, you will be more refreshed and in a better mood,” he says. It might require careful timetabling, but keeping your sex life separate from your sleep life could be a good idea after all.

There’s no denying I woke up refreshed after a full eight hours of snore-free rest in my own bed, and I suppose my husband experienced the same when he didn’t have to deal with my fidgeting and sighing all night. But as blissful as my own bed was, I missed our pre-slumber routine. I missed the pillow talk that comes when the lights are out, the unguarded conversations you can only have in the dark, the chat that brings you back to each other at the end of a day apart – and the jokes. With nothing and nobody to distract us, we’re really funny just before sleep, I swear. We have in-jokes invented during this magical half-hour that have lasted years. And finally, sleeping in another room meant I didn’t always see my husband in the morning before he left, and waking to the sound of the front door slamming is a cold way to start the day. Going back was the right decision.

There are reams of advice on how to keep your sex life exciting when you’ve been with someone for a long time, when actually your sleep life, not your sex life, is the nocturnal activity that will probably have the biggest impact on whether your relationship is a happy one or not. If you and your partner are not compatible sleepers, it’s hard to be compatible, full stop. Co-sleeping is a minefield, but you already know what the answer to navigating it is, because it’s the same as for every other relationship quandary: compromise. So now when I go to bed, I take a deep breath and try to do what I’m there for: relax.


DR NEIL STANLEY’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S REST (EVEN IF YOU DO SHARE A BED)

  1. The best way to get a good night’s sleep is to be awake during the day.
  2. Have a bedtime routine that allows you time to relax and wind down. Taking a warm bath half an hour before bed will help you decompress and sleep better. Make your bedroom a haven of tranquillity.
  3. Keep a pen and paper beside your bed to write down your worries so you won’t lie awake all night thinking about them. If you lie awake for more than 15 minutes, do something else, like read.
  4. Buy the biggest and best mattress you can afford. You will likely spend close to 25 years of your life in bed. You should be comfortable.
  5. Make sleep a pleasure. It is as vital to good physical and mental health as diet and exercise, but can be much more fun.

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