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.
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)
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