Why We Sleep Together

co-sleeping, sleeping together, sharing bed

Why do we share a bed with the one we love?

It is said that Rene Descartes developed the Cartesian coordinate system while lying in bed watching a fly crawl across the ceiling of his room. While no stroke of genius, I developed the thoughts below while lying tucked beneath the same set of bedclothes on the same mattress as my girlfriend—writhing in the excruciating pain of non-sleep.

My main thought: sleeping in the same bed with someone kind of sucks. I much prefer a space all to myself.

We want out of the system, but we don’t want to break from it. There is a first-mover disadvantage in a myriad of ways: hurt feelings, fears of rejection, disapproving comments from friends or family.

To continue with Descartes, the bed is a large rectangle. A couple lies together within that rectangle—usually under one set of bedclothes. This is a system. A system constrains the individual pieces of that system. There are the struggles for territory and comfort. The desire to achieve comfort while also not wanting your comfort to come at the expense of the comfort of the one next to you. This limited system requires these two moving parts to be in sync with each other—not only in terms of the sleep cycles but also their “comfort quirks”: their desired temperature, and other environmental factors like background noise or lighting.

As I write this, my girlfriend is asleep. She wasn’t asleep thirty minutes ago when I got up out of bed to come write this post. She was playing on her phone because she couldn’t get the nod. It could be that she would have fallen asleep had I stayed in the bed, but her insomnia follows a pattern. When I leave the bed in the middle of the night—as is my habit—she miraculously falls asleep. She sprawls out catty-corner across the bed—her arms splayed over into my evacuated hemisphere. Likewise, my best sleep is captured when she’s not in bed with me. When she heads to work in the morning on my days off, the few hours that I have the bed to myself make up the bulk of my quality sleep time.

I don’t think this is a very controversial topic, though I have received hostile looks and tsks when mentioning in the past that I’m not fond of sleeping next to another person whose body is putting off heat, whom I have to engage in an unconscious struggle for cover, and whose bodily movements jar me out of REM. It’s impossible to ignore that bed comfort is important in our society. We are concerned with the efficient use of time and sleep. We want eight hours of sleep—the more solid the better.

Mattress stores are about as common today as vitamin shops, organic markets, and gourmet coffeehouses. Consumers are dying for bed comfort, but they’ve yet to make a massive push towards decoupled sleep. Not only do we have the bed stores, but we have the Brookstone outlets that sell all sorts of sleep aid devices; we have the TV commercials advertising special comfort beds whose major selling points include isolated springs which prevent one person’s bed movement from disturbing the other. We want out of the system, but we don’t want to break from it. There is a first-mover disadvantage in a myriad of ways: hurt feelings, fears of rejection, disapproving comments from friends or family.

And then, of course, we have the covers. This is a widespread cultural meme—fighting for covers. This is the natural outcome of a systemic over- and under-lay. What we have is a turf battle on two fronts—one above and one below the couple lying in limbo. When presented this way, I have to ask, what is so great about sleeping in the same bed?

As we’d expect, research has been conducted on this topic, and it seems perfectly intuitive. Research from the University of Vienna found that when men slept with a partner they performed worse on cognitive tests than when they’d slept without a partner. They also displayed higher stress hormones. Women, on the other hand, did not display such drastic changes in mental ability and stress. They were able to reach deeper sleep when sleeping with a partner.

I also wonder if there are any latent frustrations stemming from the bed turf battle that later show up as relationship problems. As Dr. Neil Stanley at the University of Surrey said:

Historically, we have never been meant to sleep in the same bed as each other. It is a bizarre thing to do. Sleep is the most selfish thing you can do and it’s vital for good physical and mental health. Sharing the bed space with someone who is making noises and who you have to fight with for the duvet is not sensible. If you are happy sleeping together that’s great, but if not there is no shame in separate beds.

So what keeps us from admitting that coupled sleep is a drag? In a recent blog post, Dr. Robin Hanson believes that we trick ourselves:

This seems an obvious example of signaling aided by self-deception. It looks bad to your spouse to want to sleep apart. In the recent movie Hope Springs, sleeping apart is seen as a big sign of an unhealthy relation; most of us have internalized this association. So to be able to send the right sincere signal, we deceive ourselves into thinking we sleep better.

Instead of being about comfort or protection, co-sleeping is a signal on the part of each to remain committed to the same sham.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

 

Read more on Health, Psych & Addiction.

Image credit: jerine/Flickr

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Comments

  1. My paternal grandparents slept in separate beds. I don’t remember it ever being a thing. The wife and I sometimes sleep in separate beds if we’re away and the only option is a full sized bed. King or nothing.

    Another possibility is space. Most of us cannot afford much of it. That limits the number of beds we can fit under one roof.

  2. Sleeping next to my wife and feeling her head on my shoulder is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

    • Chuck Ross says:

      Dave,

      I don’t mean to sound too cranky about it. I enjoy the head-in-the-shoulder thing too. I just can’t fall asleep that way.

      • Fair enough, to each his own, but I love it. It’s even better in the dopey part of the morning when she rolls over and puts her head on my shoulder and we wake up that way.

    • I hear ya. I can’t believe the article ended there. It leaves out a very big consideration too: that we’re social beings and we need each other as much as we need to physically restore during sleep. Maybe sleeping with someone next to us meets an evolutionary need: it reminds us that yes, even in our most vulnerable time, we have a trusted member of the community that is there for us.

  3. I better fall asleep first, because my partner’s snoring is a sleep-killer!

  4. I have to respond to this.

    I used to give a hard time to Terry, the Love of My Life (who died of AIDS in 1990) that he couldn’t fool me with his “I’m independent and don’t need anybody” daytime stance; as the moment he fell to sleep, he would be all wrapped around me. I would have to shove the little, Italian-Irish furnace back to his side of the bed just so that I could sleep. “…you give yourself away, baby, in your sleep.” God, I loved that guy.

    Then and since, I’ve always known that I need to sleep with some space, preferably alone.

    In 2007, I met and fell in love with Scott. What we both discovered, with one another, was that we instinctively slept, completely wrapped around and enveloped in one another. When one of us would roll over, the other would reverse the spoon, or put his head on the shoulder of the other. I am to this day amazed at what I discovered with Scott; and I have never, ever slept to peacefully or so well as when we slept together; hearts, souls, minds enmeshed and linked.

    Our relationship ended for reasons beyond our feelings for one another; and we remain close friends. I can’t imagine ever settling for less than what I had with him.

  5. I absolutely hate it and want so badly to have my own bed again. He never liked it anyways and always had a problem with it when he was tired so I became aware of that in my sleep and he is happy that I am almost off the bed every night, even while I was pregnant. He doesn’t even hear the baby, so its like we’re not there at all. With the (sorry men) constant disgusting scratching, touching creeps me out and well its just dirty… Want my own space and clean sheets.

  6. Cj Kaplan says:

    Great post, Chuck! I wrote a similar piece for The Boston Globe Magazine (http://adwriter.net/boston_globe_magazine_articles/out_of_touch) a couple of years ago and was painted as a villain in some circles for my sleeping preferences. Apparently, you’re supposed to automatically enjoy sleeping in the same bed as another person as soon as you enter into a committed relationship. At least, according to some (very vocal) people.

  7. I suffer terribly from insomnia and also have to get up several times a night, but there was one certain redhead I was with for a couple of years…with her curled up beside me or with her head on my chest, I slept like a rock. I’ve always wondered about that.

  8. I can’t stand sleeping in the same bed as my wife. It’s just not comfortable. In the next house we are making sure the master bedroom is large enough for a king size bed so we never have to touch each other when sleeping. King size beds in hotels are wonderful at this point.

  9. My husband hates to hear this; but from the first night we slept together (tried to sleep together) I had not gotten a good night’s sleep until I injured my hip getting out of our waterbed. I couldn’t sit, stand, lay down the pain was so bad. I couldn’t even explain what was going on because it hurt so bad I couldn’t even get words out. It was worse than labor for me.

    I talked for a couple of days about sleeping in the guest room, but he was so upset about it. (I had talked about this every once in a while for years. He would get depressed about it.) When he finally had to take me to an urgent care place to see a doctor, and I had a hard time explaining to the doctor just what was wrong, again because of the pain, I made up my mind that I was going to sleep in the guest bedroom.

    It wasn’t any more comfortable. But after a couple of months, I started to get some decent sleep. Every once in a while he would come and try to sleep with me–but the bed is too short and he takes up too much space with his knees tucked up. So we don’t get any sleep.

    I love my hubby (We’ve been married for 35 years.) But sleep deprivation is no foundation for a good relationship. Hubs says he can’t get to sleep unless he can touch me and know I’m there. And I can’t sleep if he touches me.

    So for now the separate beds is working for me but not for him. I am able now to sleep in the waterbed for short periods. So I will start the night with him and leave after he falls asleep. It’s the best I can do.

    • um, call me crazy; but, perhaps dump the water bed? Seems sort of a gimme to dump the bed that hurts and get one that’s big enough for both of you and perhaps even independently adjustable. This seems so obvious that it’s almost embarrassing to suggest it.

      On the other hand, if you’ve managed 35 years…

  10. hmm a study of 8 couples for 20 nights – that is so definitive.

    Why even quote it?

    #badscience

  11. blueoyster says:

    My hypothesis is that in our culture (Western culture that is) babies sleep alone (generally). They have their own rooms, they are alone at night. Even if there are siblings they share a room but not a bed. Then, we sleep alone until we are adults, so we are practically raised to sleep alone. In other cultures where the whole family sleeps in a communal bed its not a big deal.

  12. Madeira says:

    My husband sleeps better with me, and I with him. We both have some nasty things in our past and sleeping together is comforting. I love him waking me up with a kiss.

  13. wellokaythen says:

    Great article. This is GMP at its best.

    Falling asleep in each other’s arms can be wonderful, but only if you’re wired that way. It’s not a universal thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that humans aren’t meant to fall asleep next to each other, just that some people can and some people can’t. If you can’t, it’s not a moral failing, and it doesn’t mean your relationship is in trouble, and it doesn’t mean “you’re not doing it right.”

    My wife and I sleep in a gigantic king-sized bed. We sleep much better now than we did when we shared a queen-sized futon.

    Another possibility is to have separate covers. Long, long ago my college girlfriend and I slept in the same bed but with different top covers, which worked quite well. We were individually wrapped like two burritos on the same plate.

  14. I LOVE when my guy spoons me and I love to spoon him. I especially when I awaken to his hands on my bottom, caressing me lightly from a dream to find him there, arms and mouth gaping.

  15. If my boyfriend and I ever move in together, we’ve considered seperate beds. We’re both light sleeoers and insomniacs. He has sleep apnea and uses a CPAP. I’m always cold and steal the blankets. We are both tall and like to stretch out.

    I saw a blog post once where a woman said sleeping with soneone else is like sleeping with 7 dwarves named Sleepy, Snorey, Sprawly, Farty, Tossy, Turny, and Sex.

  16. My boyfriend says he can’t get to sleep without touching me and feeling that I am there. When either of us goes away for a work trip, neither of us can sleep well until we are reunited. Being pressed against each other is actually quite comforting for us. I am convinced that snuggling with my boyfriend in the early morning while we are still waking up is the greatest feeling ever.

    That said, I did once have a relationship in my past with a man who hated sleeping with me. He would shake me awake several times through the night out of… I don’t know maybe spite or something. I was absolutely miserable, I was falling apart as I lacked more and more sleep. We both fostered an ever-increasing resentment for each other over this.

    I tried repeatedly to go sleep on the couch so I could function at work (I commuted to a 9-5 every M-F and he just stayed at home all day, so I absolutely had to be well rested by 7 AM), but he would get furious. He would actually yell and fume whenever he’d discover me sneaking off to sleep on the couch. But then when I would cave and sleep in the bed to appease him, he would go back to shaking me awake every hour or so because he was mad that he couldn’t sleep and thought I should share the misery.

    I tried telling him that it wasn’t a rejection to have separate beds, and that our relationship would suffer if we didn’t sleep apart. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Big surprise, that relationship did not last. Of course, he was pretty much a horrible person all-around, so even if I did win on the “let’s sleep separately” front, it still would have been better to leave him.

    Since that experience is a part of my past, and since my current snuggle bunny is the greatest love of my life in every way possible, it is hard for me not to see a failure to sleep together as symptomatic of deeper problems. I mean, I don’t intellectually think it is, but emotionally I don’t think I can be impartial anymore.

  17. Rudi Kramp says:

    The oldest generation slept in separate beds. That way, the other person wouldn’t get woken up almost whenever you turned over or touched them. It’s one matter being cuddled, and another getting a good nights sleep. Insomnia is also quite common now. The older generation were more wiser than we thought. There can also be that if one or both snore than separate bedrooms.

  18. I love sleeping with someone else, as long as the bed is big enough! I used to have a lot of nightmares, and those all but stopped once my then-boyfriend (now ex-husband) started spending the night. Now, I even enjoy sleeping next to a friend, my mom, whoever. There’s just something so calming about sleeping beside someone you care about.

  19. we sleep together, because it makes sex a lot easier and more likely to happen…..

    but in the long run, sleeping separately a few nights a week is a good idea….

  20. I am definitely the one who causes the sleep issues, I’m a very heavy sleeper, always asleep first, blanket hog (in my sleep) and I occasionally have the odd shout of nonsensical jabber. ………I’m clearly quite the catch ha!!!

    I have just been on holiday with my boyfriend and the apartment that we stayed in had a huge bed but two single Duvets …it was amazing!!! I am a fidget before I fall asleep and I love to tuck my self in with the covers, 2 things that usually aren’t possible. The moment I fall asleep I seem to lay claim to the entire duvet again the 2 single Duvets prevented this from being an issue.

    We have decided that this is the answer for us and will solve our battles in bed. And we won’t need to buy 2 beds and find space for them and best of all there will still be spooning.

  21. I’m mixed on this one. I love sleeping in bed by myself, but I hate falling asleep without my partner. I feel safe and comforted knowing he’s beside me. I think he prefers to sleep without me, but I know he loves waking up together. Just snuggling is great, but the occasional early morning lovemaking session really has a positive impact on the rest of the day, too!

    • Jule Dragstrem says:

      I agree, Autumn. I’m kind-of selfish about my space, but miss the protected feeling when he isn’t there. I get frustrated when he won’t come to bed because my sequence is out of wack. Wow, that sounds really selfish.

  22. My husband I sleep very well in the same bed, however my aunt and uncle haven’t slept in the same bed in years as they sleep better apart. If you can find someone you can successfully sleep in the same bed as, that’s great. Our rest is key to a myriad of factors and I’d personally rather see a person well-rested than sleeping in the same bed because it’s dictated we must.

  23. Felicia says:

    It did take a certain amount of adjustment, but my husband and I sleep better in the same bed than we do apart now. He almost never wakes me up in the middle of the night and I have trouble falling asleep without him there.

  24. If I ever end up in a co-habitation relationship again I will urge for separate bedrooms. Where we may have our own space, design our own rooms to reflect the nuances of our own unique personalities.
    That we can continue to have sleepovers for as long as we are together and we may crawl into our own space when we need that deep full sleep.

    When we move into one room into one bed (and start ‘falling asleep’ together) then one person is likely going to dominate that space.
    Plus I don’t want to fall asleep with someone, I want to wake up with them! 😉

  25. andreea m. says:

    From my experience, the best sleep I can get is when I`m with someone else next to me. It`s either a close friend or my boyfriend. Actually last night while sitting next to him I was observing how fast my body was relaxing and preparing to shut down. There`s a feeling I almost never achieve while being alone, no matter how tired I am. When we`re apart at nights I can see it on my own and – from what he`s sharing – we fall asleep harder and the quality of the sleep is lower than usual. In the amount of time when we`re apart he has mentioned that in the first weeks he can hardly fall asleep before 2-3 AM. Anyway, let`s just say I`m a lucky gal :-); as far as I`m concerned, I couldn`t disagree more on this article :)

  26. When you are breastfeeding a baby, two beds in separate rooms is the only way the husband is going to get any sleep! Too much togetherness is confining!

  27. I don’t believe this is accurate. From what this science is saying is that a person is nothing but an individual with shellfish needs. I honestly miss my wife and have trouble sleeping without her near me, not that I haven’t liked a good rest without her from time to time, but a part of me misses her where she’s not near. This is due to a heart that loves and a mind that recognizes that LOVE needs to always be in charge of the heart, mind and soul.

  28. Separate (single size) covers and a king-size bed does the trick for us. That way we can sleep together, but independently. For me, sharing covers is a nightmare. As is too little room.

  29. Co-sleeping vs Sleeping separate… Really the biggest thing that matters is ARE YOU SLEEPING? If you sleep well together that is awesome. But if you aren’t then that will make your relationship extremely unhealthy. Relationships work best when both units are healthy and happy. If you are tired, you are far from both happy and healthy. You will anger easily, your body will ache and you will feel tired all the time. To continue to sleep together will doom your relationship into a downward spiral of no sleep and arguments that will cause more sleepless nights. Nothing is wrong with separate beds after all you aren’t even awake then. As long as you are interacting on a healthy level when you are awake that is cool. You can even sneak in for a morning snuggle or evening snuggle and of course some nookie time. Either way it’s up to you to figure how your relationship works. The decision to sleep in the same bed should be considered just deciding who should be responsible to drop off the kids in the morning, basically that mean deciding what works best.

  30. Sabennaba says:

    I’m not sure about these gender based studies…kinda want to see their methodology. While I agree that sleeping with someone can result in interrupted, lower quality sleep, I can’t believe that it is different for men and women. Co-sleeping takes some getting used to and, like a relationship, it takes work. I typically do not sleep well in the early stage of a co-sleeping relationship. At the beginning of the relationship, my dude would pass out and would I just lay still, paralyzed with love…or something..until I’d drift off. This dynamic changes with relationship and life changes. Everyone is different. Back to the study…were they only testing a specific demographic? Couples in their thirties with kids and tight schedules? What about couples of different ages? What about same sex couples? What about couples with different schedules? What about survival and the origins of co-sleeping?? Humans are not “meant” to sleep 8 hours. It is just a modern convention. Hell, in southern Europe, they work til the early afternoon, eat lunch take a siesta and go back to work later in the day. Go home, eat a late dinner, sleep way less than 8 hours, and repeat. Sleep is a biological necessity, sleep conventions are cultural, and how you choose to sleep should be as easy as an honest conversation with your sleep partner.

  31. babe, i love you to the moon and back but, we really do need a bigger bed.

  32. Six months ago I read this post and was in a long distance relationship, living in different countries. All I wanted was to be able to sleep beside my man on a consistent basis.
    For the last three months we’ve been together – at last! I love him dearly and yet have had sub-optimum sleep ever since. The only time I sleep well is when I’ve been so frustrated I’ve flung myself elsewhere (first the couch and now the spare bed… often half way through the night, sometimes from the start).
    I have been physically wornout, mentally unsharp, and a cranky woman since sleeping with him. It has effected my moods, my motivation, and my weight as I eat more sugar and carbs when I’m tired, while have easily eaten a very clean diet while living alone and / or when I’ve slept alone the night before.
    I’m typing this before 6am as I listen to him snore in the next room, loving him and resenting him at the same time, and have come to the conclusion I can’t sleep beside him anymore. I feel sad about this, as it feels like a bad relationship if we don’t sleep together…. Such is the stigma…. :(
    This is not a sex thing. It’s a simple need to get some goddamn rest!

  33. You didn’t come to the obvious – that most mammals sleep together for protection and shared body heat? So obvious is the evolutionary trend.

  34. This is strange..but i guess we are all different..:) I sleep very well with my partner lying next to me, so does he! Infact I pretty much judge a new relationship by how well I can sleep with him. For me, it is a lot more important a barometer than sex is, coz sex can get better with time, but the kind of security you feel with the other person, doesnt change overnight. N it is not always a logical thing, I am not sure of my reasons for feeling safe enough to fall asleep next to a guy, not that it bothers me.

    • Cause you are a woman!!!!!!!

      • Um not exactly the reason. I’m a woman and I hate sleeping with anyone. You can’t sleep! You are constantly woken up by the other person whether they are in your space, touching you, or keeping you awake from the start. Funny thing is that if my child sleeps with me, I have no issue. Caveat: my children don’t move around, kick me or anything else. They crash out hard. But they never are in my space, trying to be up on me. Many of my women friends, actually all the women that I know now that I think about it, hate sleeping with their mates because they never get any rest.

  35. Interesting ideas on the difference between women and men in their sleep preferences. Biologically it might make sense that women feel safer with someone by their side (man or woman), but this doesn’t account for children — male or female — who always seem to want to sleep with their parents in order to feel safe.

  36. So true and like your style of writing…

  37. To me, there is nothing more relaxing than the sound of another’s heart beating. My sleep may be lighter with a partner, but I’m so much more relaxed that I am better rested in the morning.

  38. I’ve been with my husband for 4 years and before him I never got a full night’s sleep. Even in high school I would lay awake at night watching TV and reading because I just couldn’t sleep. During my drinking years that was great because I could get 4 hours of sleep after being out all night then go to work in the morning like I’d slept all night.

    Now is totally different. I still struggle with insomnia in times of great stress (two kids and a tight income do that) but I would say my husband and I are extremely compatible sleep partners. First of all, he can lay in bed and just drop to sleep in the blink of an eye. Other than finding it annoying because I usually take 10 minute to drift off on most nights, I love how wacky our conversations get when he’s suddenly half asleep and talking about his dreams. We sleep back to back a lot, neither of us likes cuddling in our sleep much and I’ve always been the type to sleep right up against the edge of the bed. He sleeps hot and half the time I do too so we almost never struggle over covers. The only sleep issue we have mutually is the obvious desire for a little more space. Every time we stay in a king size bed hotel room, it’s best night of sleep we get. It’s like a twin bed for two.

    As far as couples who both struggle to fall asleep, the author and his girlfriend in particular, shut off your phones, computers and TVs. Those are murder on your sleep cycle. Reading for 30 minutes for bed helps a ton. We also work out pretty regularly so dropping off to sleep after an evening workout is never an issue. Working out has the added benefit of being able to pop awake after 6 hours of sleep absolutely bursting with energy.

  39. Stephanie says:

    I think the reason that men and women sleep differently when bed sharing boils down to an evolutionary stand point. Women are mother’s and when carrying for our very young often bed share with them in order to protect them and also be available to tend their nightly needs. Men on the other hand are the protectors, when they have spouse/children in the bed with them they have whole other lives besides their own to look out for, so they become alert and sleep lightly until the other has left the bed to go about their day. I could be way off base, of course, but this is what came to mind as I read this.

  40. I’m a woman and I don’t like to sleep with my boyfriend in the same bed. I love him very much but we have very different sleeping styles and I can’t sleep when we are in the same bed. My friends and family say “I need to change that about me or then my relationship will fall apart”
    Why? If we spend all this quality time together when we are awake? Why do we have to be happily together when we are not even conscious?
    Sleeping is for health and a process needed to rest and replenish energy, it is and individual process. Why society keeps thinking that a couple needs to sleep together to be “close” “connected ” and etc etc??
    Am I going to be perceived as crazy and not fitted for marriage because of this?

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