Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Separate Bedrooms

The joys of personal space

Posted Aug 29, 2012

I’ve just finished reading an entertaining novel by Chuck Klosterman entitled The Visible Man.  It isn’t much of a plot spoiler to tell you that one of the main characters in the story is a man who has invented a suit that allows him to steal around in other people’s homes without being detected.  He uses this ability to observe randomly chosen strangers in their native habitat and to see what kinds of things they do when they think that nobody is watching.  As I read about his sightings, sometimes squirming uncomfortably at the audacious invasiveness of his acts, I thought about my own habits of solitude.  There’s a certain silly facial expression I use sometimes when I look at myself in the mirror.  I have been doing this for as long as I remember and I don’t know why—just for fun I suppose.  But now it’s out there.  There’s a lot more to my solitary self than a silly face, but it’s just for me and not for sharing.  How about you?  What would Klosterman's visible man see if he was watching you?  What are the outward manifestations of your deepest private self (please don’t tell me….just think about it!)?

What is more to the point of this post:  do you have enough opportunity to let that deep and private persona out of the bag from time to time?  In a world that’s saturated not only with other people but with surveillance technology that is monitoring our every move, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find any time or place for the simple pleasure of utter solitude.  Even social networking tools, though they might not necessarily include video or photographs, present a kind of implicit demand that we show a face to the world, even if it only means responding to texts, Facebook updates, and tweets.

So where to go?  As Virginia Woolf understood when she wrote the essay, there’s really nothing like A Room of One’s Own.  Woolf’s essay was an important piece of feminist literature and her main goal was to discuss what women writers need to succeed.  But I want to talk here about the benefits of private space for both women and men.  Over the course of several long-term relationships and many, many residential spaces, I have become a strong believer in the psychological importance of private space.  For co-habiting couples, the idea has far too often been borne out in design as a shared master bedroom and then an auxiliary space—for example a “man-cave” that is the exclusive domain of the other member of the dyad. 

There’s an interesting trend, though, and hardly a new thing, for each member of a couple to have their own private bedroom. Although the psychology of co-sleeping adults has not been a strong focus in sleep studies, there is at least preliminary scientific evidence to confirm what many of us already know:  that when two people share one bed there is a strong interdependence of sleep-waking rhythms.  Indeed, Neil Stanley, a prominent sleep researcher in this area, has been widely cited in popular media as suggesting that couples who sleep together experience considerably higher rates of sleep disturbances than those who sleep alone.

But there’s really much more to my having a private bedroom in my house than being able to stretch myself out on the bed and not worry about whether I snore or whether she needs to get up seven times to use the bathroom, and it has to do with letting out my private person without feeling that I have to arrange my face (silly or otherwise) for anyone—not even my beloved.  There’s a feeling of empowerment that comes from knowing that I have a piece of personal territory in the house which I can furnish, decorate, and use exactly as I want to.  I haven’t measured my physiological stress levels in my bedroom (yet), but I already have a strong inkling about what they will show—when I retreat to my own space for an hour of calm or a night of sleep, negative stresses will be lower than they are at any other time.

When my partner or I tell people that we don’t normally sleep together, we get a range of reactions but very often it’s a long look of sad commiseration—the “I hope things work out for you” face.  Even my children have had a hard time understanding the arrangement from time to time.  In fact, my sixteen-year-old daughter once accused us of “not really living together!”  But the simple truth of it is that we know that whenever we are together, it’s not because we have nowhere else to go.  It’s because that’s what we want.  And we both know that we each have our own special place to unfold our completely private selves.  I can make my silly faces and she can take the succour she needs from her own special envelope of quietness.  It’s a formula we’re very happy to have discovered.

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