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Sleep and Sex: Mutually Exclusive?

When did 'sleeping together' start meaning sex?

Key points

  • Loving couples need not tolerate the other's bothersome sleep habits and sacrifice affection.
  • The shared bed is a product of a socially constructed belief system.
  • Scientists have found that when sleep is measured objectively, people actually sleep worse with a partner.

Let’s face it; there are long-standing societal expectations for couples. And then there is reality. Most of us, however, fall along a spectrum of what we consider “normal” when it comes to our habits and lifestyles. So where do you weigh in on couples that sleep apart from one another — in different bedrooms? Does this sound patently unloving to you, as if the thrill must have exited their relationship long ago?

 Ana Maria Munoz
Source: Pexels: Ana Maria Munoz

TED’s Wendy Troxel, PhD, explains, “The shared bed is a window into our deepest vulnerabilities and how we look to our relationships to help us feel safe during threatening times. As a sleep scientist who has spent my career studying the coupled nature of sleep, there’s probably no question I’m asked more frequently than ‘Is it bad if my partner and I sleep apart?’”

She goes on to say that there is a lot of pressure around the meaning of the shared bed, but that it’s more a socially constructed belief system, having nothing to do with science. After all, sleep science is studied in a lab, where subjects sleep alone under tightly controlled conditions.

Real life may mean sleeping next to another person who is noisy (snores), wears a cPap machine that doesn’t always stay tightly connected (hissing), has OCD habits before bedtime (hour-long showers or 20-minute electric tooth-brushing), takes frequent nightly bathroom runs, rattles pills at bedtime, naturally or for the sake of work keeps different hours than you do, or may be ill. And unless you are an inordinately heavy sleeper, any and all of these events can add up to a really lousy night’s sleep.

The older you get, the more these issues raise their heads, even if you’ve tried hard to please the other person. When asked rhetorically, however, most loving couples would admit that in a perfect world, they would fall asleep at night and/or awaken each morning entwined in one another’s arms.

To take this further, how often have you heard the term “sleeping together” means having sex with one another — as if sleep has anything to do with the physical act? It was during the sexual revolution that term became common, resulting in cultural attitudes that we still hold today — that sleeping apart is necessarily a sign of a loveless or sexless union. If you’re a Boomer, however, it was common for us to see 1950s and ‘60s movies and TV shows that showed couples sleeping in twin beds in the same room. The entertainment industry held itself to a set of “decency” laws, where at least one person in a given scene would have to keep one foot on the floor if two people were on a bed together. It made us ask our parents how on earth Ricky Ricardo and Lucy made a baby while sleeping in separate beds, and our parents would just laugh.

According to a 1994 National Institutes of Health study, researchers Hankhurst and Horne found that, when sleep is measured objectively, people actually sleep worse with a partner. “In fact, if you sleep with someone who snores, you can blame them for up to 50 percent of your sleep disruptions.” One partner lies awake and in agony until they bring themselves to give their partner a jab or an (angry) bed bounce, hoping for an interruption of the noise only to find that the results are short-lived. This results in both partners sleeping badly, and the growing resentment (as well as lack of sleep) can result in relationship problems while affecting health and well-being.

It stands to reason that having sex is easier and more spontaneous when couples sleep in the same bed, especially if conversational foreplay is not required. But research also shows that couples with good problem-solving skills are able to overcome the challenges otherwise associated with being out of sync in their sleeping.

Couples can spend meaningful (affectionate) time together before heading off to bed, as well as have spontaneous morning visits to one another (timed so that the night owl doesn’t resent being woken up by the early bird). “For many couples, the times before falling asleep and after waking up can be important to a strong relationship, says Troxel. “After all, a key to healthy relationships is knowing how to negotiate differences and find compromises, day and night.”