Just because sharing a bed is considered the cultural norm, doesn’t mean it’s always the best option.
Melissa Bunker has been sleepwalking since she was a little kid.
It was harmless enough at first. She has silly stories, like the time in college when she walked around her dorm, took all the pictures off the wall, and then crammed them into the fridge.
After Melissa got married and began sharing a bed with her husband, Leon, the stories got stranger. One night, she woke up in the hospital and was told she had driven, in her sleep, from her home in North Carolina to the border of South Carolina.
Her sleepwalking, combined with Leon’s snoring (“He sounds like a werewolf in heat,” Melissa says), means there aren’t many restful nights for the pair.
Eventually, Melissa’s excessive sleepwalking, or somnambulism, was diagnosed as a symptom of sleep apnea, a serious disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is disrupted during sleep, often causing snoring.
After working with a sleep disorder specialist and getting CPAP treatment, Melissa is often able to spend a full night in bed.
But even with the diagnosis, Melissa and her husband don’t share a bed every single night.
Melissa says she doesn’t like the general judgment society seems to have about the practice of a couple sleeping in separate beds.
“It works for me and my husband,” Melissa says. “What’s more socially acceptable nowadays? Multiple partners in multiple beds or multiple beds with one partner?”
Perhaps the instinct to judge co-sleeping — and deciding not to — is a result of popular culture, suggests Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago.
“Interestingly, co-sleeping with a spouse was not always the norm,” she says. “If you look back to television shows from the ’60s, for example, shows like ‘Dick Van Dyke’ showed separate beds for the spouses in the bedroom. At this point in time, sitcoms largely show spouses sleeping in the same bed.”
About 1 in 4 couples sleep separately, according to a survey from the National Sleep Foundation. And more recent surveys indicate that number could be climbing.
With so many couples sleeping apart, it’s hard to understand why the phenomenon is associated with shame.
Part of it may be in the assumption there is no sexual intimacy, but Melissa says for Leon and her, that’s not true at all. She wouldn’t see Leon for long stretches of time while he was in an active duty military post. “Was I lonely? Yes. But did our intimacy wane? Absolutely not.”
“Intimacy is going to be a case by case study,” Melissa continues. “You can have someone who has a picturesque relationship — same bed or different country, they’ll have that bond.”
Just because sharing a bed is considered the norm, it’s not necessarily better or more healthy.
“It would be great if people were more comfortable talking about things that troubled them so that others going through the same thing did not feel alone with their struggle,” Medalie says.
We use beds to get a good night’s sleep. You do not need to share a bed to have a loving and intimate relationship, but you do need a good night’s sleep to be a high-functioning, happy partner.
“If a couple simply prefers to sleep separately, there is no need to feel wrong or bad about that preference,” Medalie says, freeing us all from cultural judgment.
There you have it, doctor’s orders.