My grandparents had a secret. When I was growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the 1970s, my paternal grandparents lived in the house immediately behind us. (My uncle lived next door in a set-up my father likened to Faulkner.) But my grandparents did something in their otherwise typical suburban home that was always something of a mystery to me.
They slept in separate bedrooms.
I speculated that this bifurcated sleeping arrangement had something to do with Southern gentility, Papa’s late-night ham radio habit, or some unseen rift in their marriage. But since my parents slept in side-by-side twin beds, and my wife and I later chose a king-size mattress, I assumed separate bedrooms had gone the way of other bygone relics, like sleeping caps or corsets.
I was wrong. It turns out my grandparents were ahead of their time.
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.
Even Hollywood is catching on. The former bodyguard for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt told In Touch Weekly recently that the couple often sleeps in separate rooms. (Ms. Jolie informed Vanity Fair that the couple sometimes sleeps in one “giant bed” with their six children.) In Touch also reported this spring that five months after Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers traded his purity ring for a wedding band, he was sleeping separately from his wife. The reason, a friend said: “He snores like a freight train.”
(In Touch apparently has become the Official Chronicler of American Bedding.)
The marital bed, once the symbol of American matrimony on a par with the diamond ring, the tiered wedding cake and his-and-hers martinis, is threatened with extinction. “Till Death Do Us Part” is fast becoming “Till Sleep Do Us Part.”
Separate sleepers cite a bevy of reasons for their habit, including apnea, restless leg syndrome, his insistence on watching “SportsCenter,” her need to get up early for yoga. As Barbara Tober, the former chairwoman of the Museum of Arts and Design, told The New York Times recently, “Not that we don’t love each other, but at a certain point you just want your own room.”
“What happened in the last decade,” said Dr. Meir Kryger, a sleep specialist at Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut, “is that people are suddenly making their own sleep a priority. If their rest is being impaired by their partner, the attitude now is that I don’t have to put up with this.”
Children represent another threat. Dr. William Sears, a leader of the “attachment parenting” movement, reports in the 2005 “Baby Sleep Book” that two-thirds of American families say they “sometimes” or “always” sleep with a child in their bed. Another 16 percent welcome a pet under the covers.
Technology is an even greater intrusion. Forget the tired debate about TV in the bedroom; how about your ex’s Twitter feed? Anyone who’s around teenage girls or techy men knows someone who checks e-mail, text messages or Facebook pages after turning out the light at night and before going to the bathroom in the morning.
With all this commotion, it’s no wonder the bed has become such an unappealing place to sleep. Between whining kids, buzzing BlackBerrys, stacks of unpaid bills and overturned bottles of Evian and Ambien, the bedroom has become more crowded than the kitchen. If my house is any indication (“You get up early with the kids on Monday, I’ll move the car on Tuesday”), my bed needs its own Outlook calendar.
This would all be fine, just another example of how modern life has managed to overrun the institutions once used to contain it, if it weren’t that the bed is the one place where couples spend most of their time together. In an age when partners no longer eat together, exercise together or pray together, sleeping together may be the last bastion of togetherness in American relationships. If pillow talk dies, can throwing in the towel be far behind?
Fortunately, we know how to handle situations like this. We need a campaign. One of those national initiatives politicians are always calling for. “The War on Bed Divorce,” call it, or “Brush Up on Your Bediquette.” Thirty-five years after “Save the Whales,” it’s time for “Save the Sheets.”
To start, we can ask the editors at In Touch to find us a celebrity spokesperson to point out that many sleep problems are fixable. As Dr. Kryger observed, “What saddens me is that people are sleeping apart for conditions that are easily treatable.” Page Dr. Gupta, Mr. Jonas! That snoring can be silenced.
Next, we can highlight some benefits of co-sleeping. Paul C. Rosenblatt, a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota, interviewed 42 couples for his book “Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing” and came to some surprising conclusions.
Co-sleeping is better for your health. His subjects mentioned seizures, diabetic shock and other medical emergencies that would have gone undetected if not for a proximate partner.
Co-sleeping is better for your sex life. “I talked to plenty of men (and women) who think that sexual intercourse is far more frequent if they have access to their partner,” Dr. Rosenblatt said. “If you want it, share a bed.”
Co-sleeping is better for your security. Women, in particular, feel safer from intruders when sleeping with another person.
In the end, the best way to enhance co-sleeping may be to emphasize mattress manners. Here are four steps to restoring honor and dignity to the American bed.
1. Make it. It takes less than a minute; it makes you feel good all day; it’s the opening note for a good night’s sleep.
2. Declutter it. Feng shui masters say that adjusting the environs around a bed can bring couples closer. Time to admit you’re not going to read those books gathering dust on your night stand or order things from those catalogs from before the recession. To improve harmony, Steven Post, a feng shui consultant in San Francisco, recommends wrapping the legs of your bed in red (the color of romance and prosperity) or draping a red cloth over the line that separates the two box springs under a king mattress.
3. Sanctify it. Sleep specialists say that those who pray before they go to bed are more likely to get a good night’s sleep. Dr. Kryger says any ritual will do, including meditating, reading a poem or keeping a journal.
4. Choreograph it. Dr. Rosenblatt found that most couples sleep best when they face away from each other, the better to avoid flexing knees and “that little gush of bad breath.” Map out a strategy, he said, and adjust it frequently. “Sleeping together is an achievement.”
For years, I fell short of that achievement. I was a poor sleeper, while my wife was a pro. Then I got cancer and spent nine months in bed. I feared my wife would be relegated to the sofa, but she stayed by my side, and her presence, occasional touch and peaceful breathing brought comfort to many long nights. Maybe it was the act of confronting my worst fears, but by the end of that year, I was cured of my restlessness. As my Cold War-era grandparents might have appreciated, forced to come face-to-face with my nightmares, I learned to stop worrying and love my bed.
That’s our little secret.
Bruce Feiler is the author, most recently, of “The Council of Dads.” For an excerpt,
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