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.”

Television affirms this, but only partially. Charles and Caroline Ingalls shared a bed in the late 1800’s on Little House on the Prairie, the cabin of which, true to the program’s title, was far too small for a family of six. But Robert and Cora Crawley, who certainly had the funds to support separate snoozing quarters at Downton Abbey circa the early 1900’s, still chose to toss and turn on the same mattress.

It appears our history of bunking together runs much deeper than just financial necessity. We human beings are also scared of the dark.

“Night, man’s first necessary evil, inspired widespread fear before the Industrial Revolution,” Ekirch says. “Never did families feel more vulnerable than when they retired at night. Bedmates afforded a strong sense of security, given the prevalence of perils, real and imagined—from thieves and arsonists to ghosts, witches, and the prince of darkness himself.”

Borrowing from another television genre, horror movie fans know the safety of sleeping with a partner, under the covers, with the door shut. It’s when one bedfellow goes on solitary reconnaissance to investigate a midnight noise that the chainsaw-wielding madman leaps out of the shadows. In modern times, sleeping together has less to do with being afraid of witches or burglars, but rather the fear of a different, social demon.

“The main issue is if you’re not sleeping in the same bed, the perception is you’re not having sex and people are afraid to admit to sleeping apart,” Crespi says. “I’ve seen it be problematic and not problematic. And a lot really depends on what is going on in the relationship.”

Witches, murderers, and marital sex aside, sleeping together has long been a bonding experience.

“Often a bedmate became your best friend. Not just married couples, but sons sleeping with servants, sisters with one another, and aristocratic wives with mistresses. Darkness, within the intimate confines of a bed, leveled social distinctions despite differences in gender and status,” Ekirch says. “Most individuals did not readily fall sleep but conversed freely. In the absence of light, bedmates coveted that hour when, frequently, formality and etiquette perished by the bedside.”

We sleep together not because it’s fiscally responsible, but because we are affectionate beings. Our minds need rest, but our minds also need camaraderie and intimacy and whispering. Anxiety and stress seem less intimidating when discussed with a partner while wearing pajamas. It’s important to talk about our days lying side by side, discuss children and household situations, gossip about neighbors and colleagues, plan for tomorrow in the confines of private chambers. We cuddle. We laugh. At the end of each day we remove the onerous cloaks we’ve donned to face the world, and we want to do this lying next to our best friends, to know we’re not in it alone.

“We are creatures of attachment,” Crespi says. “We like to have someone close, to be in proximity to other people.”

Even when they snore. Especially when they sleep sideways.