The British Science Festival is a pretty big deal in the world of European scientists. An event held annually since 1831, except during times of war, the festival’s history includes the first use of the term dinosaur, the first demonstration of wireless transmission, and an important early debate on Darwinism. One week in late September of 2009, thousands of researchers left their labs and set off for Guildford, the town about thirty miles outside of London where the festival was held that year, to present their latest findings and to gossip about faculty openings. It wasn’t the type of event — like, say, the Oscars, or the Cannes International Film Festival — that tabloid editors circle on their calendars because they expect something big to happen. Yet the minute Neil Stanley opened his mouth, the humble gathering of doctorates transformed into international news.
The kicker was the scientific suggestion that sharing a bed with someone you care about is great for sex, but not much else. Stanley, a well-regarded sleep researcher at the University of Surrey whose gray-thinning hair hinted at his more than two decades in the field, told his listeners that he didn’t sleep in the same bed as his wife and that they should probably think about getting their own beds, too, if they knew what was good for them. As proof, he pointed to research he conducted with a colleague which showed that someone who shared a bed was 50 percent more likely to be disturbed during the night than a person who slept alone. “Sleep is a selfish thing to do,” he said. “No one can share your sleep.”
There just wasn’t enough room, for one thing. “You have up to nine inches less per person in a double bed than a child has in a single bed,” Stanley said, grounding his argument in the can’t-argue-with-this logic of ratios. “Add to this another person who kicks, punches, snores and gets up to go to the loo and is it any wonder that we are not getting a good night’s sleep?” He wasn’t against sex, he assured his audience — only the most literal interpretation of sleeping together. “We all know what it’s like to have a cuddle and then say, ‘I’m going to sleep now,’ and go to the opposite side of the bed. So why not just toddle off down the landing?”
Stanley then turned to the effects of all of those poor nights of sleep, charting a sad lineup of outcomes ranging from divorce to depression to heart disease. But there was hope, he said. Because sleep is as important as diet and exercise, maximizing our rest meant that we would be fitter, smarter, healthier — the sort of people, in short, we would want to share a cuddle with. “Isn’t it much better when someone tiptoes across the corridor for a snuggle because they want to, rather than snoring, farting and kicking all through the night?” Stanley wondered.
The suggestion was eminently practical, but a social grenade. Newspapers begged him to write opinion pieces. Psychologists and marriage counselors debated on television what sleeping in separate beds said about the state of a relationship. From the response to his talk, it was clear that Stanley was not the only one who had had enough of ongoing nocturnal battles over snoring, blankets, temperature control, lighting, and every compromise that comes with lying next to another person every night. He became famous for daring to say what many had always thought: even the most lovely person in the world can turn into an enemy taking up space on a mattress once sleep is at stake.
This is far from romantic. The average person in a relationship is inclined to sleep next to his or her partner regardless of the drawbacks, a phenomenon that shows up in studies of sleep quality. In a test conducted by one of Stanley’s colleagues, researchers monitored couples over several nights of sleep. Pairs were split up and sent to sleep in separate rooms for half of the test, and then allowed to come back to the shared mattress for the rest. When asked to rate their sleep quality when they woke up, subjects tended to say that they had a better night’s sleep on the nights when their partner was next to them. But their brain waves suggested otherwise. Data collected from the experiment found that subjects not only were less likely to wake up during the night but also spent almost thirty additional minutes in the deeper stages of sleep on nights when they had a room to themselves.
Here was a case where the heart seemed to conflict with the brain and the body. Despite the benefits of better-quality sleep when given their own rooms, subjects in the test consistently chose sleeping next to their partners. The question was, why? Was there something innately satisfying about sleeping next to someone else that couldn’t be found on a chart of brain waves? Or was it simply habit?
The answer to that question is more complicated than it first appears, in part because of the ever-changing conceptions of what constitutes a healthy relationship. Beds, as you may not be surprised to learn, played a large part in the history of monogamy. Before the start of the Industrial Age, a mattress and its frame were often the most expensive purchases made in a lifetime, and for good reason. The common bed was where the most significant events of life happened: sex, births, illnesses, and death. The mattress — whether stuffed with feathers, straw, or sawdust — was where one came into the world and was the last stop on the ride out. Within a family, who slept on what easily corresponded to the everyday hierarchy of family life. Parents would get the most comfortable spot, often the family’s only mattress, while children made do with whatever soft materials they could find. The nightly ritual of sleep meant rounding everyone up, checking the room for rats and bugs, and blowing out a candle. Few had their own rooms, but sleeping indoors rather than outside was considered a small luxury. Those who could afford otherwise were limited to the aristocracy, a class that often chose to have separate sleeping quarters for marriage partners because few unions were based on love in the first place.
This began to change in the Victorian era, a time we now recognize as the start of the modern age in which old habits were rapidly shed and reconstituted into a new way of life. In England and elsewhere, science took on a new air of professionalism, and culture put an emphasis on progress. Cities expanded, owing to the benefits of industrialization, and the emerging middle class gained the means to emphasize cleanliness and sanitation in response to the grime of urban life.
Hygiene became paramount. Science had yet to accept that germs spread disease, but demonstrations in the power of electricity and radio waves hinted at the power of an unseen world. As a result, influential public health figures believed that sickness was caused by so-called bad air, a theory called miasma. Edwin Chadwick, who was eventually knighted for his part in directing the cleanup of the sewer system while he was sanitary commissioner of London, believed until his death that the source of cholera was stench alone. “All smell is disease,” he wrote.
Those theories soon filtered into the bedroom. “The home, far from being a simple haven of safety and calm to which those tossed on the turbulent seas of public life could retreat, was seen as a place of actual and potential danger,” noted Hilary Hinds, a professor at Lancaster University who has studied the era. In 1880, for example, a self-proclaimed British health expert known as Dr. Richardson spent thousands of words in his influential international bestseller Good Words on the subject of keeping a bedroom sanitary. He advised his readers that sleeping next to someone else was a potential death trap. “At some time or other the breath of one of the sleepers must, in some degree, affect the other; the breath is heavy, disagreeable, it may be so intolerable that in waking hours, when the senses are alive to it, it would be sickening, soon after a short exposure to it,” Richardson wrote. “Here in bed with the senses locked up, the disagreeable odour may not be realised, but assuredly because it is not detected it is not less injurious.” Sleep, in other words, was when your partner’s bad breath could strike just when your defenses were down. Richardson believed that “the system of having beds in which two persons can sleep is always, to some extent, unhealthy.”
If bad air wasn’t enough, there was also a brimming fear that a spouse could unwittingly steal his or her partner’s invisible electrical charges. The health concerns of sleeping next to another person captivated a doctor named R. B. D. Wells, whose chief specialty was phrenology — a soon-to-be-discarded pseudoscience which held that the size of the head determined a person’s intelligence and personality traits. Wells conceded that it was possible for couples to share a bed successfully, but those cases were rare. “Two healthy persons may sleep together without injury when they are of nearly equal age, but it is not well for young and old to sleep together,” he wrote. “Married couples, between whom there is a natural affinity, and when one sex is of a positive and the other of a negative nature, will be benefited by the magnetism reciprocally imparted; but, unhappily, such cases of connubial compatibility are not common.” Differing magnetic natures in a couple would inadvertently lead to the drainage of the “vital forces” from one partner throughout the night, a silent health threat that would leave the weakened party “fretful, peevish, fault-finding and discouraged.” The clashing of electrical forces each night, over a lifetime, would be irreversible. “No two persons, no matter who they are, should habitually sleep together. One will thrive and the other will lose.”
But there was a remedy — what Dr. Richardson called the “single-bed system,” or what we would now recognize as a twin bed. These slender mattresses, built for one, gave a reassuring sense of distance from a spouse whose electrical charges or breath may be suspect. Each member of the couple was in a cleaner, less polluted environment, giving both an advantage in the daily battle of survival that Darwin had recently made so clear. Other experts readily joined Richardson’s cause. “Such a thing even as a double bed should not exist,” admonished one of his contemporaries. The public was convinced. Middle-class customers flocked to the new beds and their iron frames (wood, after all, was a building material whose hygiene was also suspect).
Dr. Richardson’s solution proved so popular that even the eventual rejection of the miasma theory didn’t stop the march of the twin beds. They were no longer necessary if the body’s bad air alone was not the cause of disease, but they had other things going for them. For one, these beds evoked a certain modern sensibility and taste on the part of the buyer. Department stores ran ads aimed at middle-class shoppers that put twin beds squarely in the middle of chic bedrooms. The end of the sanitary craze allowed furniture stores to boast of new mattresses and frames that “combine[d] all the hygienic advantages of the metal, with the artistic possibilities of the wooden bedstead.”
But no discussion of beds was ever about furniture alone. Sex was always a consideration as well. And for many who had enough money to furnish their homes with more than function in mind, their approach to sex constituted a big part of who they were. “One distinctive characteristic of the emerging middle class was its emphasis on its unique sexual morality,” Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at Evergreen State College, told me. “They constructed their class identity on the basis of their moral rectitude, in contrast to the ‘immoral’ poor and the ‘debauched’ aristocracy. Their insistence on sexual reticence, even outright prudery, was much stronger than that of either the working classes or the very wealthy.” After all, she said, this was the same group that began referring to parts of a chicken as either light or dark meat rather than saying the words breasts or legs.
Sleeping on twin beds was one way to paper over the fact that husbands and wives eventually gave in to their basic biological urges. “There was a sense — and I actually remember this from my taking an oral history of my own grandmother — that there was something mildly disreputable about essentially advertising, even to your kids, that you might be having sex together,” Coontz said. That prudery and squeamishness lasted well into the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the fact that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were actually married at the same time that they portrayed a fictional husband and wife on television, viewers of “I Love Lucy” saw them nearly every week sitting and talking in their separate twin beds. The only program at the time to show a married couple sharing a double bed was The Flintstones. And it featured a yapping pet dinosaur.
Movies weren’t much different. In 1934, every major film studio voluntarily agreed to a list of rules that became known as the Hays Code in honor of Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian elder and former postmaster general who took on the role of president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hays wanted films to be proper moral influences. And under Hollywood’s self-censorship, directors had to comply with his code in order to have their movies distributed to theaters across America. When a scene called for a couple to occupy the same bed at once, at least one actor had to keep one foot on the floor at all times to guard against the dire threat of horizontality.
The Hays Code was officially abandoned by the late 1960s, but attitudes toward sex in marriage changed well before that. What seemed modern at the turn of the twentieth century simply felt outdated by the middle of it, in part because baby boomers saw twin beds as something out of their parents’ generation. Sex became recognized as not only an obvious part of marriage but also an important part of maintaining a healthy one. Freudian-influenced marriage counselors started worrying about “frigid” wives, and magazines and self-help manuals urged women to become receptive to their husband’s sexual needs. Sleeping apart began to be seen as either a sign of a marital problem or something that would eventually lead to one. If a couple wasn’t enjoying every moment together — even when those moments conflicted with something as prosaic as sleep — then something was amiss. The pendulum swung back to the shared bed, and for many it took better sleep along with it. “I have taken oral histories of women who mentioned that they had really wanted a separate bed, because their husband snored or thrashed about, but were afraid to ask for fear he would ‘take it wrong’ or just felt there was something wrong with them for not being able to adjust,” Coontz told me.
Attitudes are changing once again, however. It is impossible to know to what extent, but the once-unquestioned idea that relationships are healthy only if a shared bed is involved is weakening just like the dogma of the twin beds before it. Because of busy work schedules, better and more open communication, or the fact that many people wait until they are older to get married and don’t want to give up the power of controlling their sleep environment, more couples in happy relationships are choosing to spend their nights in separate beds. As one young physician said, “To be honest, I have never really seen the appeal of spending the whole night sleeping next to somebody. Just because I love someone and want to spend my life with them doesn’t mean I want to be in the same bed at the same time. I just don’t see the connection.” Architects and construction companies surveyed by the National Association of Home Builders predict that by 2016 more than half of all new custom-built homes in the United States will have separate master bedrooms. And yet lingering cultural assumptions make some couples feel like they have to hide it. “The builder knows, the architect knows, the cabinet maker knows, but it’s not something they like to advertise because right away people will think something is wrong,” one interior designer said about his work designing separate bedrooms for married couples.
Intriguingly, the move back toward separate beds comes at a time when researchers are finding new links between a woman’s sleep quality and marital happiness. Wendy Troxel is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Early in her career, she noticed that subjects who said they were in high-quality marriages tended to be healthier overall. She began wondering what it was, exactly, about marriages on the less happy end of the spectrum that manifested itself in higher rates of cardiovascular disease and other negative outcomes. Studies had offered theories on stress, smoking, family income, and physical activity. But to Troxel, it seemed like the field was overlooking one of the most obvious aspects of daily life between two people in a relationship. “Sleep was largely neglected despite the fact that we know it’s a critically important health behavior,” she told me. Even though more than 60 percent of couples sleep with their partner, most studies of marital happiness never considered that it could be a factor.
Troxel recruited couples to wear wristwatch sleep monitors while they shared their bed each night and to rate each of their interactions with their partner for ten days. When describing each time they had a conversation with their spouse, subjects were given the choice between four positive ratings, such as feeling supported, and four negative ones, such as feeling ignored. Each person in the relationship submitted his or her responses separately, so that a spouse wouldn’t feel pressured to modify a rating to appease the other.
The results were clear: the most severe negative ratings came after nights when the woman had slept poorly. Not only that, but the quality of wives’ sleep was a more important predictor of happy interactions than a hard day at work or any other form of stress. “Some of that can be because women drive the emotional climate of a relationship more strongly than men in general,” Troxel said. “If they have a poor night of sleep they may be more expressive [about it] and tend to be more communicative in relationships. A husband is much more likely to pick up on his wife’s cues that she’s had a bad night of sleep than his own.”
Men tend to sleep better next to their partners than when they go to bed alone, but that may be because they get to enjoy the emotional benefits of proximity without having to listen to their partner snoring. In one of nature’s dark jokes, women not only are far less likely to snore than men but also tend to be lighter sleepers. The result is a nightly farce that is one reason why wives also suffer from insomnia more often than their husbands.
The fact that the importance of sleep is becoming more recognized as a health concern may have the side effect of shaping healthier — and happier — marriages. “One of the values of sleep is that it is a very effective gateway treatment,” Troxel told me. “I’m a clinical psychiatrist with a specialty in relationships. In many cases I see patients who would never show up in a general psychotherapy clinic. The idea of sitting on a couch in some therapist’s office would go against their entire worldview. But they are concerned about their sleep enough that they’re willing to see whomever. And once you get started on sleep, you can address some other issues that otherwise would have been swept under the rug.” Returning soldiers, for instance, may be willing to talk about signs of post-traumatic stress disorder if they see it as a way to improve their rest. Because sleep doesn’t carry the same stigma that still unfairly lingers for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, dealing with sleep issues somehow seems both less scary and more practical to some patients. Couples are often willing to change their routine and try separate beds at night if both partners are aware that they are splitting up for better sleep alone, and not because of some unspoken change of heart.
Given that sleep studies consistently find that subjects sleep better when given their own bed at night, why do so many couples decide to deprive themselves of a lifetime of better sleep and remain on a shared mattress? For an answer to that question I tracked down Paul Rosenblatt, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and one of the few sociologists who has studied couples’ sleeping patterns in the United States. He became interested in the topic after what he calls a traumatic experience. A number of years ago he was working on a research project that documented the lives of rural farmers. One family invited him to stay for the weekend, and suggested that he bring his twelve-year-old son along. Rosenblatt readily agreed, thinking it would be a nice father-son bonding experience. But when they arrived at the family’s house, he learned that his hosts had only one double bed for the two of them to share. It was the first time that his son had ever spent a night on the same mattress as someone else. “It was hell,” Rosenblatt told me. “He had no concept of where his body was in relationship to me. No concept of sleeping on the long side of the bed. By the middle of the night I was clinging to the edge of the bed as if my life depended on it.”
Curious after that ordeal, he began looking for academic research on what to him seemed an obvious topic: bed sharing. But out of the more than thirty thousand studies he found that looked at human sleep, couples, or marriage, only nine breached the topic of sharing a mattress. The research overlooked what Rosenblatt considered an important building block in navigating and surviving a relationship. “You learn things by sharing a bed,” he told me. “The shock of ending virginity and having sex for the first time is a big deal. But the first time that you share a bed is also a very big deal. Couples can have a very romantic or sexual interest in each other, but if neither has shared a bed before, they are going to have to learn something about getting along — how they spread out, what they do about toenails that are sharp, or if the other person steals a blanket.”
He set out to discover why couples opted to share a bed and how the experience affected their relationships. He rounded up couples who lived in Minneapolis and its suburbs, taking care to include subjects spread across the spectrum of love. Some were older and married, some were young and living together, and others were same-sex couples in long-term relationships. Rosenblatt spent several hours interviewing each pair about why they were willing to spend the energy learning to happily coexist on a mattress when it would have been much easier to continue sleeping in separate beds.
The answers were consistent. Couple after couple told Rosenblatt that sleeping in the same bed was often one of their only chances to spend time alone together. If life consisted of playing the roles of parent, employee, or friend, then the shared mattress functioned as a backstage, away from everyday responsibilities and judgments. Bedding down on the same mattress next to a loved one was what made it easier to face tomorrow and the day after that.
That isn’t to say that the transition from sleeping in one’s own bed to sharing a mattress was an easy one. In one interview, Rosenblatt casually remarked to a subject, a man in his twenties, that it sounded like he somehow learned to swing his elbows less in bed over time. “Not ‘somehow,’” the man responded. “There’s no ‘somehow.’ It’s her telling me, ‘That hurt!’ Or, ‘Don’t do that!’ Or ‘Watch where you’re swinging that elbow!’” Many couples told Rosenblatt that they initially began to share a mattress because that’s what they thought everyone did. But, over time, they felt less constrained by their expectations and allowed themselves the freedom to adapt. In another interview, for instance, a couple revealed that one of the most liberating moments of their relationship was when they realized that they didn’t have to spoon every night. They could now wake up without sore shoulders, secure in the knowledge that moving to separate sides of the mattress to fall asleep had no greater significance than physical comfort.
Other subjects highlighted the fact that, despite the drawbacks, having another person in bed simply made them feel safer. This was especially true for women. Some female subjects admitted to going to their sister’s homes to share a bed rather than face the prospect of sleeping in a room alone when their partner was out of town. Security was also a big concern for older couples. One man told Rosenblatt that he once went into diabetic shock in the middle of the night. His wife woke up, recognized the signs, and called an ambulance. “That is one guy who is never going to want to lie down by himself again, no matter how hot his wife wants the bedroom or whether she likes putting a nightlight on,” Rosenblatt said. For these couples, the give-and-take of bedding down on the same mattress was outweighed by a sense of emotional support that could be given only by proximity.
One question still gnawed at me, however. Stanley, the British sleep scientist, argued that there is only one good reason to share a mattress. I asked Rosenblatt about the contention that sleeping in the same bed as one’s partner is good for sex and little else. He laughed. If any man actually followed that, Rosenblatt said, he would realize that men who sleep by themselves actually have less sex than those who share a bed with their partners. The change in a couple’s sex life after one moves to the room down the hall was so pronounced that men in his study couldn’t stop talking about it.
“Some of the men were really grieving the loss of sexual access when they stopped sharing a bed,” he told me. “None of the women said that,” he added.
The mystery of the shared mattress was solved.
Reprinted from “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” by David K. Randall. Copyright (c) 2012 by David K. Randall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.