BEDTIME should be a blissful part of any happy couple’s day – the point at which they close the door on the world, cosy up together in a welcome moment of intimacy, then drift off to sleep.
That’s the idealistic notion of how it goes, at least. In reality, sleeping together is more often a hot-bed of bad tempers, mismatched body clocks and seething resentment.
One of you likes the bedroom cold, the other prefers it hot. One of you snores like a bear, the other grinds their teeth. One of you is a night owl, the other an early bird. The list of potential battlegrounds seems to be endless.
Small wonder that an increasing number of couples are choosing to sleep in separate beds – and often in separate rooms. Their marriages are happy and their sex life on track: it’s just that they’ve realised the best way to a good night’s sleep is not to share the bed with their spouse.
When Debbie and James Clayden cuddled up together in the bridal suite on their wedding night last August, it was the first time they had shared a bed in several years.
And at the end of their two-week honeymoon in Kenya, Debbie and James, both 29, returned to separate bedrooms at their home in northern England. Debbie, an actress, and James, a mechanical engineer, say their relationship has been improved by separate beds.
“We have a healthy sex life. We can make love wherever and whenever the mood takes us, and taking sex out of the marital bed makes it more exciting,” says Debbie. “When we do make love in bed, it’s usually in James’s bed. We enjoy a cuddle and a chat afterwards, then I go off to my own room.”
James suffers from a sleep behaviour disorder which sees him acting out his dreams while asleep.
Debbie says: “We shared a bed at first, but it became unbearable. I have a bad back, and it’s painful unless I move regularly, but when I turned over I disturbed James, who would hit or kick out at me.
“James was permanently exhausted during the day, so I persuaded him to visit our GP and a specialist diagnosed a sleep disorder. He prescribed a tranquilliser to help James sleep deeply.”
The medication helped, but James still thrashes around in bed when he has had a busy day or is feeling stressed.
Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor, says she now encounters many more couples who sleep apart than she did in the past. She attributes that to more people working shifts, but also believes sharing a bedroom is often a source of marital conflict.
“Couples start talking about problems when they go to bed and an argument can start. One partner might eventually try to avoid rounding off the day like this by going into a separate room,” she says.
But Denise says sleeping apart doesn’t have to impair a couple’s sex life. “For some couples, it increases their desire because it’s like going back to dating. Making love in their partner’s bedroom, then going back to their own to sleep can be thrilling.
“And if your partner’s sleeping habits mean you’re sleep-deprived, that’s bound to get in the way of a good sexual relationship.”
That said, Denise says sleeping separately can drive a wedge between couples whose relationship is already in trouble.
“Turning your bedroom into your territory and making it a no-go zone for your partner is a bad idea.”
However, sleeping apart is an arrangement that works well for Shelley Harrison, 35, and her partner of five years, Alex Olejnic, 39, from Essex in southern England.
They have had separate rooms for more than two years.
Shelley, an accounts manager, says: “Sleeping apart is the best thing we ever did. I’ve never slept well with someone beside me – being alone in bed feels far more natural. When we shared a bed, Alex and I spent the night tossing and turning. That’s frustrating when you have to get up early for work.
“Alex goes to bed at about 1am, when I’ve already been tucked up for three hours, but it can be 4am before he falls asleep and then he grinds his teeth. I used to take myself off to the spare room so often that eventually I suggested we make it permanent. I’m a misery without a good night’s sleep, as is he, so we’re both happy with this arrangement.”
Shelley and Alex have encountered suspicion about their decision. “My mom thinks it’s bizarre for a couple to sleep apart, and colleagues look at me askance when I mention it to them,” says Shelley.
Alex says sleeping separately has done wonders for his relationship with Shelley. He says he’s never been happier with a woman and attributes that to their sleeping apart.
“Now we barely have a cross word – and the time we spend cuddling up feels more special.”
The idyllic image of a couple spooning comfortably night after night while locked in quality sleep is something of a myth, it seems.
But many people worry that separate beds might be the start of a slow drift into separate lives.
Professor Ben Fletcher, of the University of Hertfordshire, has written a book about relationships called Flex – Do Something Different.
He says he has mixed feelings about the trend to sleep apart: “People need to be alert at work – especially in these difficult times when they might be struggling to hold on to their jobs – and they need an undisturbed night’s sleep to achieve this.
“Some couples are physically incompatible, perhaps because of snoring or one being easily disturbed. Those with small children might sleep in separate rooms to take turns seeing to the children. But it’s important for couples to go to bed together at the end of the day.
“Even without the sex, it’s an intimacy issue, lying side by side and talking.”
– Daily Mail