The bedroom can seem to contain the heart of a marriage. In the 2012 Judd Apatow movie This Is 40, the epicenter of marital tension is the bedroom of the onscreen couple, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. Pete and Debbie are as comely as their Los Angeles home, but the couple flirt with divorce fantasies more than with each other. Debbie mourns a loss of mystery; Pete craves independence. Of a kind, anyway. He’ll shed his boxers so that Debbie can weigh in on the progress of a hemorrhoid, but he also has a habit of sneaking off to hang with his buddies, an act his wife likens to infidelity. A scene in bed captures the riddle at the heart of this marriage—a parry, essentially, between forms of intimacy. Wander too far in search of privacy, and you nullify romance; get too close, and the same occurs. The couple lie under the sheets, Debbie on her laptop and Pete passing gas. “This is why we never have sex,” she says with desperation in her voice, as he grins. “You’re gross.”
The years-old scene felt fresh when I stumbled upon it some months ago, as a somewhat freshly minted divorcée. On an Apatow kick (triggered by the breakup movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall), I watched Pete and Debbie with a sense of foreboding. They may live in a mansion, but their quandary looked familiar, as it might to anyone who’s ever felt the pressures of so-called couple-form love. In the case of my partner and me, circumstances dictated the terms of our physical space. As fresh college graduates in Chicago, we lived in a rambly three-bedroom that cost half of what we would pay down the line in New York for a one-bedroom. In the latter, denser city, our relationship felt forced into uncomfortable proximity, of the literal and figurative kind. His lackadaisical nature, a mild feature in our Chicago home (even an asset, for the way it balanced me out), now disturbed my peace. A mislaid item—abandoned socks, say—could seem like a conscious insult, a gesture against collaboration.
In all this, the bedroom acted as a symbolic locus, an architectural manifestation of a peculiar sort of pressure: to convert into a single unit, with shared needs and desires. When he put his shod feet on the bed, I thought of larger differences; I was raised in an Asian household, where shoes were verboten indoors. If I sprinted out of bed early on a Saturday, he saw an absence of old romance. Our misalignments in the bedroom ranged from serious to frivolous, but all of them could seem to suggest something sinister. After all, the bedroom is where a person goes to find peace. If a couple prove catastrophically at odds with each other in this space, what sort of nightly reprieve can be hoped for? We showed ourselves, in the ruthless light of the bedroom, to be profoundly separate halves. We split. Watching Pete and Debbie on-screen months later, I thought that they might, too. I wondered if in my situation or theirs, a different physical arrangement might have produced a different emotional one.
In this frame of mind, I picked up The Bedroom, a fascinating if somewhat abstruse recent book by the historian Michelle Perrot. Translated by Lauren Elkin from French, it uses the titular space as a laboratory for observers to study the breadth of human nature. Perrot examines European texts over several centuries to consider children’s nurseries, workers’ quarters, hotel rooms, and other sleeping chambers. I was drawn to the book thanks to the neat metaphoric heft of the shared bedroom. It seemed to me that breaking down its history might clarify the social norms that dictate unions more generally. If I understood how the marital bedroom became a presumed standard, I might break from a rigid way of seeing things and open my mind to all the transmutations available to a couple in search of the right form for them. In short, I picked up The Bedroom in hopes of restoring my interest in partnership.
What I believe I found instead is an incidental argument in favor of nightly separation. Despite its pointed historicism, the book reads at times as an annotation to certain ongoing and resolutely modern narratives—a companion script to the past decade in lifestyle news and pop culture. Perrot exhorts readers to take seriously the relevance of sleep to biological and emotional functioning; she discusses the need for new structural norms for marriage; and she frames the bedroom as a haven for respite, a construct with special relevance at a time when a phoneless room can feel like a mythical destination.
My preoccupations drew me to the passages that concern the marital bedroom, and its influence on a couple. Conveniently, this focus dominates Perrot’s framework; she calls the marital bedroom, in the book’s introduction, a “theater of existence,” and later “the frontier of civilization,” her implicit emphasis on procreation as a star feature. Meanwhile, as I fell deeper into the rabbit hole of my bedroom investigation, nonprocreative couples all around me offered—without my asking—less heady, more pressing reasons to dissect this particular space. A friend in her 50s with a husband, son, and glamorous Manhattan pad told me that she fantasized about renting her own tiny studio somewhere. Girlfriends in newish marriages told me wistfully how lucky I was to be alone, seeming to bundle together my emotional and living situations in doing so. As I read Perrot’s book alone in my queen-size bed, I felt an occasional twinge of guilt for everyone in my life who seemed cramped and unhappy.
If the bedrooms of famous couples today inspire judgment—Donald and Melania Trump’s use of separate bedrooms has been analyzed, to no clear end—Perrot suggests that to invade the private spaces of public figures is to continue a tradition with long roots. In his time, Louis XIV got ahead of the story. His bedchamber in Versailles included a “briefly outlined stage,” according to Perrot. He essentially ruled from the bedroom, which sat at the center of a property meant to act as a “summary of the universe.” His sex life, however, took place under a shroud of secrecy, aided in part by a balustrade beyond which only certain key operatives—mostly doctors and valets, and on occasion a foreign ambassador—could pass. Before Louis, according to Perrot’s research, royals of the Roman empire compartmentalized architecturally as well, with small chambers intended only for sex.
Meanwhile, ordinary people lived by factors outside their control, then as now. Perrot’s accounts of sleeping conditions in rural 18th- and 19th-century France make for bleak reading. Families crowded into communal rooms outfitted with box-beds (hulking wooden structures popular in the Breton countryside), in which multiple family members huddled under heaps of blankets for lack of space and warmth, often swapping disease among one another. Industrialization offered up new options. With the advent of factory-made spring mattresses, beds in Europe got smaller, lower to the ground, and cheaper to buy. As they became more generally accessible, marital versions followed. Perrot describes couples of the late 19th century going into debt to purchase a shared bed, desirous of “the status it conferred”—a new vision of marriage that prioritized independence from the family unit.
Yet the marital bed didn’t always engender intimacy. Perrot finds ample record of strife: A cache of letters sourced from French abbés details the sex lives of Catholic women, who wrote to local church leaders as part of a campaign to document the realities of marriage. One missive from the early 20th century describes a situation not unlike a scenario that once played out on House of Cards, when Claire Underwood seemed to require more sexually from her husband, Frank, than he could give. Only whereas Claire hardly lacked for access to lovers—whom she could entertain in her private bedroom—the woman writing found little relief. Stuck in the bedroom with her husband, she “often resorted to wrapping [herself] in a blanket and stretching out on the floor.” In her thwarted state, she “could not bear to feel the heat of [her husband’s body] so close.” Proximity, for her, forced a reminder of the absence of an intimacy she so craved.
Perrot keeps her references rooted in archival research, but as I read (laptop occasionally breathing next to me like a partner), I found that the internet functioned as a companion play to the book, containing as it does an unfolding living drama about how and why couples share space. News items have for some time now tracked rises in “solo sleepers.” “Sleep divorce,” as the practice of splitting for the night is often called, holds enough interest that in 2014 the data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight conducted its own study on the trend, which can seem to track more broadly with a shift in the parameters of companionship. Unions that take as a given certain types of independence—on, say, work and social fronts—might consider architectural independence as well. After all, two individuals with tricky schedules may not harmonious bedfellows make.
But a nightly split isn’t often seen as pragmatic or desirable (even in the suburbs, where space can come a bit cheaper). Studies about the popularity of sleep divorce surface online periodically—the most recent inspired a column this summer in The New York Times. The drama of the ensuing media flurry typically hinges on the seeming boldness of the choice, for stigma persists—based on a notion that love or affection must necessarily be in remission. The marriage researcher Stephanie Coontz told me that she became aware of the degree to which private sleep habits stir public judgment when she appeared on the Today show in 2006. The author of a book on the history of marriage, she wound up talking more about her private life than about her work. Another guest, a psychologist, seemed to see in Coontz’s marital setup—the writer and her husband kept separate bedrooms—evidence of “the end of marriage,” Coontz recalled. (She and her husband, now both in their 60s, still happily sleep apart, she said.) Coontz noted the tenor of mail she received after the show aired: Letters from solo sleepers across the country thanked her for taking heat for a lifestyle they often felt judged for assuming.
My short inquiry produced its own evocations of stigma. One therapist I spoke with briskly dismissed arguments in favor of sleep divorce as wishful propaganda, saying the practice supports disconnection, no matter the fancy linguistic footwork about autonomy or independence. (I’d brought up a point that had surfaced in my call with Coontz, related to the informal practice in some European countries of “living apart together,” in which a married pair reside at separate addresses.) A friend practically whispered his desire for a bed apart from his wife when I theorized during a long car ride en route to a weekend away (a lone singleton, I would enjoy a mattress to myself) that a lack of spatial privacy had affected my marriage. His hushed tone perplexed me; he and his wife speak freely about their decision to open up their marriage to other partners, yet longing for a separate bed merited what sounded like guilt.
Stigma could potentially explain the bland reasons usually cited in conversations on the topic. The friend who whispered to me made clear, for instance, that his concern was quality of sleep: His wife is a fidgeter and he’s a light sleeper. Were he to get better sleep, he speculated, their entire relationship might benefit. Online, sleep schedules rank high among cited reasons by solo sleepers (as does the phrase duvet hogging, in the British press). Less forthcoming is the suggestion central to Pete and Debbie’s world, and to mine: the notion that there may simply be such a thing as too much intimacy. In the more capacious world of fiction, at least, many couples grow too close for comfort. An episode from Season 4 of the sitcom New Girl works as a sort of coda to the Pete and Debbie scene. “I’m crazy about you, but I don’t need to spend every second with you in what amounts to a one-room log cabin,” Jess tells Nick, after the couple decide to call it quits on an attempt to co-sleep. For Jess, the culprit isn’t gas, but Nick’s billowy nightshirt and dirty feet. Yet Nick’s casual nature also makes him a worthwhile partner, as loyalists of the show know. Proximity proves antithetical not only to romance, but also to affection. Qualities that, with a healthy amount of distance, function as lovable assets turn the opposite up close, into the sort of matter that can make a person hate the one they’re with.
Perrot is not the first French thinker to tackle the bedroom as a concept. Centuries before her, the writer Honoré de Balzac produced an intricate nonfiction tract on marital bedrooms, as part of his 1829 work, The Physiology of Marriage. In this manual—cited briefly in Perrot’s—I found a hotheaded yet occasionally persuasive rhetoric. Balzac ponders the bedroom’s influence on privacy and intimacy with a vigor unmatched by any thinker I encountered elsewhere. And he does so in a structure that feels almost predictive of concerns that linger today. Indeed, one of the book’s chapters, titled “Theory of the Bed,” sets out three scenarios that each find a pop-cultural parallel: Pete and Debbie’s arrangement (the conjoined bed); what one might call the I Love Lucy setup (two beds inside a single room); and finally, the House of Cards model (separate bedrooms).
Of course, there are limitations to his arguments, which rest on a robustly heteronormative conception of marriage that centers the man. A shared bed—the best-known arrangement today—comes with pros and cons for his protagonist: On the one hand, a husband with a wife asleep by his side can keep tabs on her mood and stave off lovers. On the other hand, sleep acts as a man’s “rival,” according to Balzac, who cites various physical changes that take over a body lost in slumber. Besides, the tract argues, even before sleep transforms a man, the bedroom can reveal his inadequacies, rendering him mortal. (For evidence of the damaging PR potential of bedroom habits, recall the treatment of Michelle Obama’s jokes early in her husband’s first presidential campaign about his morning breath, proof of humanity that his handlers apparently asked her to stop dropping.)
As to whether a husband might find his wife’s nighttime rituals off-putting, Balzac spares no thought on that hypothetical. In popular culture, too, few examples seem to exist of a wife who lets loose her grip on her femininity at night. If anything, the opposite turns problematic: Her attempts to stave off the encroachment of time might occupy her so intensely as to disconcert her naive husband, who thinks her smooth skin the result of nothing more than air and water, not hyaluronic serums and vaseline-coated gloves. A scene from Everybody Loves Raymond comes to mind, in which Debra slathers lotion on her arms as she lectures Raymond on the futility of her efforts to conjure a carefree appearance with hypervigilant beauty routines. Meanwhile, his societal value and peace of mind seem to grow with the years.
Balzac deploys his harshest words for an arrangement that might evoke, in the American imagination, a platonic, simpler-times sort of romance. The 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy features its iconic couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, split by twin beds in the same room. The sitcom’s choice of bedroom architecture arose out of prescriptions assigned by the Hays Code, a now-defunct film-industry standard that dictated, among other morality-based rules, how a couple could be shown on-screen. Perrot allots no pages to the consideration of this halfway arrangement, but Balzac attacks it with such force that a reader might presume all his dearest enemies were engaged in the practice. He characterizes twin beds as “grotesque”: Couples that use them lose the benefits of intimacy and gain none of the advantages of separation. By Balzac’s reasoning, our man, for instance, still succumbs to the demeaning power of sleep, yet his ability to read his wife’s mood is effectively destroyed by the gulf between mattresses; he might as well “be in Siberia while [his wife] lies in the tropics.”
Separate bedrooms, then? Not feasible for many of us, but perhaps a conceptual northern star for those in search of peace between obligations to the self and obligations to others (and the promise of a possible palliative, at the very least, for my own anxieties). Perrot name-checks intellectuals who thought as much: Centuries apart, Michel de Montaigne and Jean-Paul Sartre preferred to sleep alone—Montaigne while married, and Sartre while in a partnership with Simone de Beauvoir. So, too, did the writer Virginia Woolf, who slept apart from her husband, Leonard. Her lecture titled “A Room of One’s Own” famously gave rise to the notion that solitude is a prerequisite for serious thought. In modern times, the practice of nightly separation allows for better sleep and comfort, Perrot writes, without “indicat[ing] any lack of love.” Centuries before her, Balzac weighed in with more gusto. Couples who veer into different rooms at day’s end “have become either divorced, or have attained to the discovery of happiness,” he wrote. They “either abominate or adore each other.”
Reading those lines, I thought of my own love story: how physical distance helped to produce contentment. Given the space to abominate each other, my partner and I seemed better able to adore each other. Perrot’s book didn’t offer a tidy resolution to all my questions. I still go to bed each night in slight emotional disarray at the disturbing pleasantness of it all, the thought high in my mind that anything good requires sacrifice, which in my new state I’m not asked to make. The Bedroom gave me remote company, though. For it’s not just to me, of course, that hate and love, distance and proximity prove mysterious constructs in connection with each other, the states that seem to go together in theory not always so cooperative in practice.