Why We Sleep Together

A long time ago, beds were expensive—but there's more to it than that.

With a guest in town occupying the second bedroom of our Manhattan apartment, my three-year-old son, a notorious sideways sleeper, bunked with my pregnant wife and me. Too many snores and little feet in the back of my neck, I relocated to the sofa, where I was blessed with the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.

As a self-diagnosed insomniac, a good night’s rest for me lasts anywhere from three to five hours. I generally break up the slumber with walks around the apartment, followed by lying awake and unearthing inconsequential paranoia that, come morning, will not live up to the hype. When I hear people claim they get eight hours of sleep each night, they might as well be talking about the Loch Ness Monster, or alien life. All three are things I suppose it’s possible someone may have encountered, but I cannot personally confirm their existence.

The sleeping conditions were sublime on that couch: a slight rain outside, the muffled traffic of Amsterdam Avenue, and the epiphany that I was sleeping alone—cushions, pillows, and silence all to myself. By the time I awoke, the pigeons were cooing on the windowsill. I had slept through an entire night.

“It’s called enlarged mucus membranes. That’s what happens when you’re pregnant,” my wife will explain on nights I reference her snoring. Her job in pregnancy is obvious. Mine is to lie awake, keep quiet, and never, ever Google “pregnancy mucous membranes.” And I cannot confess to her that I slept better on the couch than in our bed. After all, we’re married, and married people sleep together.

“People don’t want to talk about it. It’s a dirty little secret,” says Lee Crespi, a New York City-based couples therapist. “There are people who say sleeping apart is not good because it fosters distance, but I think you can argue both ways. People do, in fact, sleep more soundly when they sleep alone.”

Years ago during a dinner with friends, the topic turned to a married couple that not only slept in different beds, but different rooms. They were parents, they loved each other, and that was the arrangement that clicked. My wife and I agreed that would not work for us, that it was important to sleep in the same bed no matter the challenge. One of the perks of being in a relationship is waking up next to someone. Also, more practically, we lived in Manhattan and could not afford separate bedrooms.

Sleep, much like running a marathon or chewing food, is a solitary activity. We physically lie next to each other, but we sleep alone. So why did this custom originate? According to Virginia Tech professor Roger Ekirch, an historian and author of the book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, there used to be a financial incentive to sleeping together, as recently as the 1800s.

“Even livestock often resided under the same roof, because there was no other structure to put them in, and they generated welcome warmth. Among the lower classes in preindustrial Europe, it was customary for an entire family to sleep in the same bed—typically the costliest item of furniture—if not to ‘pig’ together on a straw pile,” Ekirch says. “Genteel couples, for greater comfort, occasionally slept apart, especially when a spouse was ill.”

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Jon Methven is a novelist based in New York City. He is the author of This Is Your Captain Speaking.

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