The Un-Romantic Bed

Bill Maher: If ever there were an unromantic guy, it is Bill Maher with his surgeon-like skill to slice away all artifice and get to the earthy or seamy underbelly of so much of life, political and otherwise. Recently, he made a comment about sleep which got me thinking about the unromantic aspect of sleeping together or apart.

But first, his comment. Mr. Maher, in an interview with guest Dr. Drew Pinsky on his HBO talk show Real Time while discussing the demise of Whitney Houston, made this observation about celebrities and drugs “…one thing you can’t command, any of us, is sleep.” In Maher’s opinion, “A lot of these deaths (referring to celebrity deaths) are about sleep.” In that context Mr. Maher reached as far back as Elvis, who, he believes, died in pursuit of a good night’s sleep. Mr. Maher and Dr. Drew were in agreement that prescription drugs, readily available to the rich and powerful, are often the pathway to untimely and tragic death. Why? Mega stars have entourages, including physicians whose role is to gratify their clients every whim. In Mr. Maher’s view, no one has the magic spell that brings “on demand” the elusive state of sleep without relying on a potentially lethal potion of chemicals and alcohol that ultimately can make sleep permanent. And no one can guess, neither those who may provide the drugs or drink, nor the imbibers, when that potion might take the lethal turn.

Sleep Over Romance: Mr. Maher speaks the truth when he says, ”No one can command sleep.” But almost anything can interrupt it for many. It is this conundrum of shared bedding that often puts even the best of compatible Coupledoms in a quandary over how to stay intimate and spoon in the double, queen or king-size realm, and still get a decent night’s sleep. Snoring, insomnia, spouses who talk or groan in their sleep, toss and turn and even strike out an arm or a leg sometimes smacking their unsuspecting partner, steal sheets, need the T.V. on, turn on a light to read, leave the bed several times to pee, get hot flashes and rip off the covers or their PJ’s in middle of the night, fight over windows open or closed: these are just some of the interruptions that can lead to serious sleep deprivation. Those are challenges enough to Coupledom sleep compatibility without adding the great sleep challenge that child rearing brings to the art of achieving a peaceful night’s sleep “together.” (See my previously published post on the subject, Musical Beds: Bedtime And The Coupledom).

In a blog published in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, the “sleeping separately” solution for those who cannot achieve sleep while sharing a bed with their partner is outed and normalized as a reasonable alternative to serious sleep deprivation. Perhaps a different issue than the celebrity search for a restful night, which may be complicated by serious emotional issues, a lifestyle of erratic hours, and drug dependency, the typical Coupledom may be suffering from the social pressure to appear “happily married” by co-existing nightly under the same set of sheets at the price of sleep loss, a potentially serious medical threat to one’s health and a surefire way to reduce emotional tolerance in any relationship.

Sex, Vacations and Visitors: We are a culture that tries to conform to conventional images that portray happiness and health. Isn’t that what advertising is all about? Happy couples in separate beds or bedrooms have not been pictured in catalogs, movies or television shows since Lucy and Desi. Yet, despite media displays of marital bliss as one bed, two spooning bodies, many couples sleep apart not because they are alienated from each other, but because they cannot forgo another night of sleep without losing all pleasure in living. When on vacation these same couples are challenged to find affordable options for separate rooms, and when visitors come to their home, they are faced with revealing this “anomaly” of coupling or spending a few nights back in the sack together sleepless again. That sexual contact is associated with sharing a bed is countered by anecdotes from many a couple who remain in the same bed while experiencing serious emotional and sexual alienation even to the point of seeing a divorce attorney. Bedding down together each night is no guarantee that intimacy of any kind is actually taking place.

Children: I have yet to find scholarly research on the impact on children of parents sleeping either in separate beds or bedrooms. Emphasis in blog posts and articles is on the relationship between spouses while they are awake ,which more fully tells their children the story of their parents’ relationship than who sleeps where. It is also useful to be clear why separate bedrooms work if the child raises the topic or has some questions. Children are not particularly eager to hear about their parents’ sex life, so a general sense that all is well is conveyed by affectionate displays and real life observations that their parents enjoy each other’s company, rather than grunts and groans heard through bedroom walls.

However, I did come across an article for parents who are getting divorced that includes an easy guide to understanding from a developmental perspective how children of different ages view their familial world, published by North Carolina State University. Understanding the stages of child awareness at all ages can help parents separate fears from facts.

The Un-Romantic Bed: My unromantic poster boy, Bill Maher, has the knack for flushing out hidden shame on many subjects. That sleep is important is not a new idea. But that in the search for a peaceful sleep, some succumb to the temptations that an “elixir” of sorts can, like the long sought fountain of youth, bring eternal happiness is exposed for the ruse that it is. And that “shameful fact” that many couples cannot achieve nocturnal bliss side-by-side should be outed as well, rather than guffawed over or sneered at as some skeleton in the marital closet. Perhaps Mr. Maher can out that fact as well? With all Coupledom issues, what is healthy is truth, earthy, often unromantic but not shameful. A good night’s sleep for each partner makes for a better Coupledom.

Have That Conversation. It is very personal but it is also very practical.

Sweet dreams.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

3 Responses to “The Un-Romantic Bed”

  1. Kim

    nytimes – family matter 7/23/2010,
    “Nearly one in four American couples sleep in separate bedrooms or beds, the National Sleep Foundation reported in a 2005 survey. Recent studies in England and Japan have found similar results. And the National Association of Home Builders says it expects 60 percent of custom homes to have dual master bedrooms by 2015.”

    We started sleeping in separate rooms about 5 years ago, I remember feeling so much better throughout the day, phsyically I had more energy.

    At first it did seem awkward if the subject came up around friends, but then the realization that I didn’t care what anyone thought, because sleeping all night is a really good thing.

    In our case, the kids totally understood why we couldn’t sleep together. They could hear the snoring too. Vacations are difficult, but knowing that I’m going home and can catch up on sleep instead of extending the deprivation, reduces some of the anxiety from disruptive sleep.

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Thank you for your honest approach. I have also received a few other comments privately, one suggesting that a sexually satisfying interlude enhances sleep. The other that especially for show biz people who work intense hours and have to be in tip top shape to perform, sleep becomes a very complex issue.

      • Kim

        In my opinion, the sexually satisfying interlude
        Is much more likely if nights are spent sleeping peacefully. i.e. separate bedrooms.


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