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Top image credit: Mlaw

At home, my parents share a Queen-sized bed in the Master bedroom. As for me, I sleep alone in a super single, in what the floor plan calls ‘bedroom 2’.

In 5 years’ time, I will share a Queen-sized (hopefully King-sized) bed with my husband. Then, it’ll be my turn to have the privilege of sleeping in the Master bedroom.

That’s how I, and everyone else, expects it to be.

Parents sleep together. It’s the norm, and how it’s always been. Sleeping in the same bed is expected of any couple, so much so that when we hear of parents sleeping in separate beds, a broken home is what immediately comes to mind.

When Tiffany was just in primary school, her parents stopped sleeping together and moved to separate bedrooms.

“I understood from a young age that my parents didn’t get along well. Their characters are really different,” she tells me. “My parents don’t even communicate much daily, so I don’t even need to talk about physical proximity and intimacy.”

Tiffany’s experience is not uncommon, and fits the idea we often have of parents who don’t want to sleep together.

It’s something we not only see it in real life, but on the silver screen as well. In Julie and Julia, a fight between the protagonist and her husband ends with him storming out of their house and spending the next few nights sleeping at his office while she sleeps alone at home.

As such, most of us have come to internalise the association between sleeping separately and a lack of intimacy and romance; therefore, an unhappy marriage.

Yet when I ask around, it doesn’t take me long to realise that this phenomenon happens not just frequently, but in healthy relationships as well.

Perceptions of decoupled sleep tend to be incomplete.

5 years ago, Wen Ting’s parents stopped sleeping together. But it wasn’t because they had problems. Rather, it was because her father was a light sleeper and her mother, a snorer. Although he had put up with the noise for many years, her snoring worsened as she got older until he finally had enough.

Instances like Wen Ting’s highlight how perceptions of decoupled sleep tend to be incomplete.

Instead of focusing solely on marital problems, sleep compatibility plays an often ignored role when a couple decides whether to continue sleeping together.

My friend Tiffany and I once shared a bed during a 3D2N trip to Cairns. While I slept like a log and had no complaints, she on the other hand accused me of stealing the covers, punching her in the face, and elbowing her in the side.

It’s safe to say we’re not sleep compatible, and that she never shared a bed with me ever again.

Strained marriages aside, a lack of sleep compatibility is a very real reason why many couples choose not to share a bed. When it comes to sleep, we all have our preferences.   

We’re particular about where we face when we sleep, the time at which we sleep, the brightness of the room, how warm or cold we want to be, the number of pillows we use, and how much space we like to occupy.

Most of us grow into these habits after years of sleeping alone. Upon marriage, we’re forced to readjust. When we share a bed with someone, we’re faced with new struggles for territory, new noises, new movements and new compromises to be made for comfort.

Understandably, some people struggle to embrace this change.

Ten years ago, Wilson’s parents too decided that they would sleep separately. For them, it was because his dad disliked sleeping with the air conditioning on and instead preferred to sleep on the floor with the TV switched on in the background.

After struggling for years to adapt, Wilson’s father now sleeps on the floor in the living room while his mother gets the master bedroom.

It seems like while we’ve fully embraced the idea and practice of sleeping together, we don’t seem to realise that it’s frequently easier said than done. And so the stigma surrounding decoupled sleep remains.

(Getty Images)
Apart from sleep compatibility, sleeping apart can also be an effective way of dealing with marital problems.

In 2015, after 26 years of marriage, June’s parents started sleeping in separate rooms.

“Right after they got married, the problems started. They would fight a lot and hardly talk. They never got along too well.”

However, “Sleeping apart definitely helped to improve their marriage,” says June, having witnessed her parent’s relationship improve over the past 2 years. “The space did them good. Also, this way they both get better sleep and so they feel less cranky and irritated at each other.”

Just like every marriage, every couple functions and copes differently. When there are problems, some parents choose to throw themselves into work. Some find new hobbies, some go on long vacations alone. Others choose to sleep apart.

The lesson, it seems, is that you can’t avoid marital conflict but you can learn to handle it better.

Besides, as Tiffany puts it, “Sleeping together is just the icing on the cake when it comes to a happy marriage.”

“On TV, we always see parents portrayed as either happy or in a broken marriage: two extremes. But I believe that there are many families that are in that grey area, where they live together but don’t necessarily have that physical/emotional connection anymore.

“Even though my parents may no longer sleep together, I can see that they’re still working together in their own ways to build a family and be loving and parental figures for us.”

Tiffany’s experience reminds me that while romance and intimacy certainly do matter in a marriage, it’s different for everyone.

There are many upsides to sharing a bed. We do it for warmth, security, and for the intimacy that comes with having someone to cuddle with in the comfort of our pyjamas.

But this isn’t the template for romance. Couples don’t have to follow and fit this mould, and insisting that they should can cause more problems than it’s worth. Romance can be about building a family, running a household and learning and working around each other’s habits. Or it can be one, just two, or even none of these things.

Although Tiffany’s, June’s, Wen Ting’s and Wilson’s parents all no longer sleep together, that hasn’t hampered their ability to define their own versions of love.

Perhaps as we get married and grow older, love will start to mature and change. Maybe comfort will start to matter more than keeping up the appearance of a happy marriage. And then maybe it’ll be okay, to not sleep together.   

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