Are Separate Bedrooms a Healthy Marriage Trend

When Lucile Ball and Desi Arnez kept twin beds on I Love Lucy it may not have been just to appease the Hollywood censors. Although many Americans consider the idea of separate beds an antiquated ’50s notion, a closer look under the covers has revealed a growing trend among modern couples.

In fact, 23 percent of married couples sleep alone, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, an increase from 12 percent of American couples in 2001. The National Association of Home Builders, which has reported requests for duel-master bedroom houses on the rise since the early 90s, predicts in the next five years 60 percent of new, upper-middle-class homes will use the double master bedroom plan.

Why separate beds? Conrad Smith, a sleep therapist in Dallas, said Americans, in general, are seeing rising trends in sleep disorders due to our faster-paced lives, stress, diet, and various health issues.

“When one partner has trouble sleeping, the other partner often stays awake too,” Smith said. “I have, unfortunately, seen couples separate completely over snoring, sleep apnea, or insomnia. I encourage many married couples to try separate beds before the frustration and lack of sleep doom their marriage.”

Bella, a 34-year-old web designer originally from South Africa who requested her last name and her husband’s name not be used, has kept a separate bedroom from her husband, 37, for seven years.

“He snores and is a very restless sleeper,” she said. “He also likes to watch TV and sleep very late, while I’m up at 5:00 a.m. every morning. I need to get to sleep by 10:00 p.m. at the latest. We love each other and consider our marriage to be a good one. We just don’t sleep in the same bed.” The National Sleep Foundation reports that on average when one partner snores, the other will lose almost an hour of sleep each night.

Carrie Jones, a 28-year-old photographer from Memphis, Tenn., began taking the spare bedroom when her freelance journalism gigs kept her out later than her high-school-teacher husband, also 28. (Jones’ husband, like most men interviewed for this sensitive topic, prefers to stay unnamed.) He was experiencing spousal arousal syndrome, a new term encompassing sleep disturbances from the spouse’s bedroom habits that affect job performance and daily moods.

“No matter how quiet I was I would always wake him up when I got in from late games or society events,” Jones said. “It would take him hours to fall back to sleep and that made him cranky and unfocused during his classes the next day. Trust me, his students much prefer me to sleep in the guest bedroom!”

For some married couples, separate beds are just safer. A black eye forced Roy, a 36-year-old retail salesman from Atlanta, Ga., out of the master bedroom. Roy and his wife Jackie, a 31-year-old real estate agent, had dealt with his frequent bedtime spasms and twitching for four years of marriage.

“One night, I dreamed I was in a car wreck and woke up with a pounding headache to discover Roy had accidentally elbowed me in the eye,” Jackie said. “He felt so bad. Our friends teased him about it for months and some of my clients didn’t believe the story. We decided it was safer for his reputation to keep separate beds.”

It’s no surprise that children can alter the sleep equation for married couples, but not just from crying infants. In a 2001 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 12 percent of married adults admit to sleeping in their children’s bedrooms instead of their own bedroom with their spouse. Carla, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher in Dallas, Texas, said she never dreamed she would spend more time in her child’s bedroom than her own.

“If our three-year-old wakes up alone she is terrified,” Carla said. “We tried staying with her till she falls asleep and sneaking out, but when she wakes up she screams bloody murder. It’s easier if I just sleep on a mattress on the floor in her room.”

Married couples have reported countless reasons for keeping separate beds or bedrooms, including a plethora of sleep irregularities and disturbances, teeth grinding, constant trips to the bathroom, disagreements on room temperature, and even arguments over which side of the bed to sleep on.

But what about intimacy? Some marriage counselors, like Rev. Perry Threckald in Atlanta, still equate separate beds with warning signs for a weak marriage. “Sharing a marriage bed is extremely important to sustain intimacy,” Threckald said. “Couples overlook the bonds built by simple cuddling, spooning, and hugging. There is a lot to be said for waking up next to your spouse each morning.”

Yet, most couples like the Joneses see nothing wrong with the separate bed syndrome.

“It actually kind of keeps a spark going,” Carrie said when asked whether she and her husband’s separate bedrooms had led to a lack of sexual intimacy. “One night I came home late and he was waiting for me in the guest bedroom. I didn’t know his school had been canceled the next day and it was a nice surprise. Sometimes he jokes about asking me back to ‘his place’ or kisses me at the bedroom door like on a date.”

Roy and Jackie said they also have fun with their non-traditional lifestyle. “Even if we shared the same bed we would have to schedule sex,” Jackie said. “I know some of my girlfriends have complained about that in their busy lives too. We set up dates and quickies to avoid a rut. Usually, we use the master bedroom because it has a bigger bed and a romantic fireplace. If we fall asleep afterward, then that’s where we sleep. If he gets to twitching and wakes me up, I just take my pillow and find a quieter bed.”

Still, not everyone loves the new trend. Carla is looking forward to nights of spooning with her husband again. “I can’t wait until my daughter grows out of this. We are setting up some family counseling to ease her into more independent behavior,” she said. “I miss my husband. I miss the little things, like rolling over and smelling his hair on the pillow next to mine and talking first thing in the morning before we even get out of bed.”