I’m Married, But Sometimes I Prefer Sleeping Alone

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

About a month ago, my husband developed a cough. He was not subtle about this; he sputtered and hacked in loud fits that spiraled into dry heaving. I was annoyed by these dramatics, especially when they woke me up in the middle of the night. After a few episodes, I stormed out of bed at 2 a.m. and into my office, a pantry-size room that has a storage loft with a mattress in it. The sheets weren’t even clean (a visiting cousin had slept there a few weeks earlier), but I didn’t care. I dove face-first into the pillows and slept like a rock.

The following night, I brushed my teeth, got a glass of water, and climbed up the ladder to the loft again. Prior to this, I’d only slept up there a few times, mostly while I was pregnant and needed to nap during the day (my husband works in our bedroom). It would be a stretch to call it comfortable; the ceiling is low enough to bump your head, and the mattress is sandwiched between a wall and a railing. Guests occasionally stay up there, but no one has given it a rave review.

None of this bothered me. I could still hear my husband coughing in the next room, but I turned on a fan that mostly drowned it out. I lugged up a stack of magazines and felt like a teenager in a tree house, removed from the rest of the world, hogging the rumpled blankets all to myself.

After night two, I started to worry that I liked sleeping alone a little too much. Was this how marriages frayed — a slow retreat to separate rooms and separate lives? Some Google research produced the term sleep divorce — not encouraging.

When I shared my concerns with Dr. Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine, she was reassuring. “Our society can be very judgmental toward couples who sleep separately,” she said. “When I was training as a therapist, a lot of my supervisors would say, ‘If they’re not sleeping together, it means there’s something wrong with the relationship.’ But I disagree.”

In fact, she believes that sleeping separately can help save relationships. “When partners have different sleep schedules, or one person moves a lot or snores or disrupts the other person regularly, it creates a lot of resentment,” she explained. “Many couples sleep together because they feel like they should. But when I say, ‘Try sleeping separately,’ and they get permission to do it, many people are so relieved.”

Obviously, it’s not a cure-all. “If there are bigger cracks in the relationship, better sleep isn’t necessarily going to fix it,” said Harris. “But research shows that if you’re rested, you’re able to tolerate stress much better. You’re less reactive. You’re less irritable. You’re less snippy. And that can improve relationships in a lot of ways.”

Little did I know how much we were about to put these statements to the test. On the third night of my separate-bed experiment, I woke up to our 1-year-old son crying with unusual urgency. When I went in to check on him, he was gasping for breath, his lungs rattling. We called his pediatrician helpline; they told us to call 911. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with croup — and COVID. Turns out, my husband had it too.

Isolating from either of them was pointless. I’d already been exposed, and besides, my husband and I had to trade off child-care duties while we tried (unsuccessfully) not to fall too behind on work. But I continued to sleep in my office anyway, partly to escape my husband’s coughs, but mostly because it was the only time I got to myself. Sick and clingy, my son refused to let me out of his sight, accompanying me to the bathroom and scrabbling at my laptop when I tried to answer emails. I brought him into the shower with me so that the steam could clear his lungs. At night, I would retreat to my solitary nest, wishing I could pull the ladder up behind me.

Of course, there were downsides to sleeping separately too. The most obvious one was that I felt distant from my husband. Bedtime is when we usually set aside whatever we sniped about earlier; we snuggle with our cat and show each other dumb videos of animals on our phones. I also missed my normal bedroom. In more than one instance, I almost fell down the ladder when I blearily descended from the loft in the middle of the night. And it was hot up there, even with a fan on.

When I mentioned this to Harris, she explained that our situation wasn’t ideal. “In order for the arrangement to work, you have to both make sure that the sleep environments are mutually agreed upon and they’re as equal as possible,” she said. “It’s not fair if someone is relegated to an uncomfortable couch.” She admitted this is easier said than done — most people don’t have a spare bed just waiting around. Our storage loft is hardly the Ritz, but it’s a luxury in a Brooklyn apartment.

Still, I felt pretty good, all things considered. Unlike our family’s previous bout of COVID six months earlier, which brought me to the brink of an existential crisis, this one didn’t even make me contemplate divorce. Sure, my husband and I were stretched thin and grumpy at times, but we weathered our ten days of isolation decently well. And by some miracle, I managed to stay healthy, despite my son frequently sneezing into my mouth.

Gradually, everyone recovered. Child care resumed. My husband’s coughing abated, and he asked when I was coming back to bed. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to sleep apart forever, but I’d grown attached to my loft nest. Especially after exhausting days of work and caregiving, it felt decadent to be on my own, undisturbed, reading and flopping around without fear of kicking the cat or waking anyone.

In order for separate beds to succeed long term, Harris says that both members of the couple must be onboard and keep as much of their evening routine unchanged as possible. “Do all the same things that you would normally do together at night,” she advised. “But then once you’re rolling over to go to sleep, go to your separate environment instead.”

Ironically, following this advice wound up ending my streak. It was 10 p.m., and I was under the covers in our bedroom, talking to my husband; when my eyes grew heavy, I didn’t feel like leaving. So I stayed and fell asleep. The same thing happened the next night, and the next. For now, it’s working. But if I ever need some space and quiet, it’s nice to know where I can find it.

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I’m Married, But Sometimes I Prefer Sleeping Alone