Separate Bedrooms, Happy Marriage
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Separate Bedrooms, Happy Marriage

For my husband and me, the secret to a closer relationship is sleeping apart. No, really.

My husband's guitar-playing skills plateaued about three years ago, somewhere between "beginner" and "not so good." He loves his guitar. He particularly loves playing it in bed at 11 p.m. -- the same hour that I enjoy quiet reading time.

Some nights I took a deep breath and reminded myself that there are worse ways for a man to blow off steam. Right? Other nights I pointed out that he's been playing the same three songs for five years. (How was he not sick of them? I was.) Or I lost my cool and ejected him from the room. But mostly, I toughed it out. What else could I do?

Well, I could move to my own bedroom. And two years ago, that's exactly what I did.

The idea came to me one night when I crawled under the covers with Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing, by psychologist Paul Rosenblatt. (Yes, I really do read things like that. That's how much I love reading.) He found that many couples sleep apart. They keep a master bedroom with one bed but they don't always share it, and they don't advertise that fact. (Experts call it a "sleep divorce.") And they do it for a variety of reasons, from different temperature or light preferences to snoring and other sleep disturbances to sharp toenails.

It made me think: Why was I forcing myself to endure my husband's nightly guitar strumming? Why didn't I change what I was doing?

So that night I said, "Hey babe, I'm gonna hit the hay," and headed to the guest room. He looked surprised, then nodded as he continued to play. I closed the door of what I would soon turn into my bedroom and sunk into the quiet bed -- topped with an amazing four-inch memory-foam mattress pad -- and wrapped myself in the purple covers. I was so happy and cozy that I started calling my new room The Nest.

Free to Do My Own Thing

I'm not the first to discover that having "a room of one's own" is a good idea. Author Virginia Woolf coined the phrase 85 years ago in a series of lectures pointing out that a woman needs a room with a lock and a key in order to meet her own goals. Woolf's argument was both literal and figurative, acknowledging the impossibility of, say, reading a book -- let alone writing one -- while at the beck and call of husband and children. But in the age of the master suite with a flat-screen TV, this message has gotten lost. Our homes now seem designed on the assumption that husband and wife will spend eight-plus hours a day within five inches of each other. It wasn't working for me.

So I started retreating to the guest room twice a week. I confess that my stays in The Nest became some of my favorite nights -- book in hand, the sound of my husband's guitar replaced by a classical music playlist. When I was ready to go to bed, I switched on the soothing white noise machine that always kept my husband awake.

The really fun part was when I decided to give The Nest a makeover. It was like the thrill you feel as a teenager when you're finally allowed to decorate your own room. I chose a decidedly feminine palette of bright colors and hunted down a luxurious velvet Victorian headboard. Let's face it: Most shared bedrooms are a major design compromise, and my husband's dark, spartan aesthetic -- rock-hard mattress, emphasis on the color black -- had somehow won out in ours. As I began to paint the walls in bold yellow and green stripes, I realized that I hadn't decorated without someone else's input in years. The first night my husband slept in there, I asked what he thought of it. "I feel like I'm sleeping in a hatbox," he said. Perfect.

The "Tradition" That Wasn't

My best friend was surprised -- and concerned -- when I told her about my new bedroom. "Uh-oh, I thought you two got along so well!" she said. We do. She, like many people, assumed that all couples should sleep together because it brings them physically and emotionally closer, and because, well, that's just what married couples do.

Too bad it's not true. In his research Rosenblatt discovered that many couples struggle to share a bed for decades in the belief that it's a marriage prerequisite. Historically speaking, this is false: The wealthy and royal have long kept separate rooms, as any Victorian or early-20th-century mansion illustrates. Our Western bed-sharing habit is the legacy of poorer couples who couldn't afford more space. Today it's driven less by economic need and more by the fact that many middle-class homes aren't designed with an extra marital bedroom in mind. That may change, though. This year the National Association of Home Builders found that 38 percent of home buyers prefer houses with two master bedrooms, which means more will likely be on the market soon.

Reassured by this knowledge, I sunk into the memory foam and plowed through all the books on my nightstand. It made me so happy, which didn't surprise Gary Lewandowski, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Monmouth University. "Reading is a 'rediscovery activity' for you," he told me. "It's something you couldn't do in your life as much once you were married."

Making Two Bedrooms Work

A Surprising Perk

All that reading time was great, but I discovered another benefit I hadn't expected: I slept more soundly in my new bedroom than I have since, well, I met my husband. I'm a light sleeper, and if I'm awoken within the first or last two hours of sleep, it's hopeless -- I'm up. Now, two mornings a week, I wake up feeling truly refreshed.

Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist and clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, oversees many sleep divorces. The biggest problem he sees that separates couples is snoring (45 to 50 percent of men snore versus 20 percent of women), followed by different wake-up times and light sleepers. Before suggesting a sleep divorce, he asks patients to try earplugs, white noise machines, and nasal decongestants (for people who snore due to allergies). But generally many of his patients wind up sleeping in separate bedrooms. "It works out dramatically better for them," he says. Breus saw nothing wrong with my two-bedroom setup, but he did have one warning. "It's okay as long as you're careful not to lose intimacy," he told me. "Studies show that when couples aren't in close proximity, their relationship can suffer."

That's where I faltered. I realized that I missed my husband, especially when he left early for work, meaning that I didn't see him for nearly 24 hours. And I missed our playful cuddling. The loss is, apparently, measurable. The average couple doesn't actually talk that much during a day -- research shows 15 minutes of conversation is pretty good, says Rosenblatt. "So if you're talking in bed for a few minutes when you fall asleep, that's a lot."

Making Two Bedrooms Work

Was it possible to keep my own room without hurting my marriage? I called a few experts for advice. "I try to encourage couples to sleep together as often as possible, even if it's not for the entire night," says relationship expert Terri Orbuch, PhD, a scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. "Touch, whether physical or sexual, is very important to emotional closeness." I took her advice, staying in our bedroom more often until I started to doze off, then shuffling across the hall as needed.

And I hadn't, perhaps, handled the sleep divorce diplomatically, which I realized when my husband announced, two months after my move, that he felt abandoned. You may recall that I'd simply left. Bad idea. So I told him that while I loved my space, I really missed him. He suggested we prioritize cuddle time (well, he calls it "hangout time"). Now we try to crawl in bed with each other in the morning. On weekends I bring him breakfast in bed.

The obvious question is the one my friends ask: "What about sex?" Well, we weren't having sex every night to begin with, so not much has changed. But I'm about to have my first baby, so I think it's going fine. "One of the myths is that couples who have separate bedrooms aren't having sex," says Orbuch. "It's quality of sex, not frequency, that's important. Having separate bedrooms doesn't mean that you can't touch."

And as it turns out, my husband likes having his own space, too. Last month he hired a painter and redecorated his room, Mediterranean-style: aqua blue windowsills, faux-limestone walls, and minimalist furniture. It's his room now. No compromising. I'll let you in on a secret: When I'm in there, I feel like I'm sleeping in a Mediterranean dungeon. But that's okay. He gets a room of his own, too -- with two guitars that I never have to hear.