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Sleeping Together: The Intimacy of Sharing a Bed

Why is actually sharing sleep sometimes an even more intimate act?

In this essay, I am using the term “sleeping together” not as a euphemism for having sex, but exactly as it seems to mean—sleeping in the same bed. Odd as it may be to some, there are very happy couples who do not sleep together. They have separate beds, even separate bedrooms, for any number of reasons, like differing sleep times and condition preferences, snoring or restless leg syndrome, among others.

Sleeping apart does not necessarily mean that the couple does not have a satisfying sexual life. Sometimes it’s even sexier to have one partner join the other in bed for just that specific purpose. Where there's a will, there's a way.

Several years ago, an adult male friend of mine told me about a vacation trip he took with his family in a crowded, two-room cabin that had only two double beds. When I asked how they managed, he told me that his parents took one bed, and he and his older sister shared the other.

When my reaction must have shown on my face—sharing a bed with his sister?—he responded: “What? We both were fully dressed.”

Nonetheless, it seemed shocking to me. Clothed or not, sharing a bed for sleep was then and still is in my mind an intimate act.

I tried to normalize it by remembering my father’s stories of growing up desperately poor and sleeping in one bed with his four bothers in one familial puppy pile. He spoke of that time with fondness when I, who had a separate room from my own sibling, shuddered at the thought of such a total lack of privacy.

That’s really what it’s all about in my mind, not any suspicion of my friend doing anything improper with his sister or my father with his brothers. The issue is that I think of sleeping as an essentially private act.

We are totally unguarded and defenseless in our sleep. Our bodies can make embarrassing noises. We can cry out in our dreams, groan, whimper, or show emotions from our dream life we might choose to keep hidden from others when awake. Any social mask we might care to wear in waking life is gone, and we are completely exposed to any watching eyes.

The movies of my youth always showed married couples awakening with the wife's full makeup as fresh as when it was applied supposedly hours before. (What woman slept in full makeup? Why didn’t it smear all over her face and rub off on her pillowcase?)

His pajama top and bottoms (which no man I ever knew wore) were always totally unwrinkled and pressed to perfection. (I bet I know which one of them ironed them!) Nobody’s hair was standing on end like a rooster’s coxcomb, and no one had sleep wrinkles on their cheeks or drool marks on their chin.

Even as a child, I knew what I saw on the screen was totally unrealistic. Even then, though, I worried about someday having to go to bed, sleep, and wake up with a stranger. I know, he wouldn’t be a stranger, would he? But still…

Now, all these years later, I can look back on a life in which I have shared my bed with more than a few “strangers,” but my sense of privacy about sleeping remains.

My regular partner of more than six years finds it funny that I feel somehow more relaxed once he has gotten up in the morning, earlier than I usually do, and leaves me to sleep alone, sprawled across two people’s worth of bed, happy in the privacy of unobserved sleep.