"Why does Daddy always sleep on the couch?"
Our eight-year-old son's question makes my husband and me pause in the middle of our morning conversation. We raise eyebrows at each other across the table, recognizing a perfect TV-sitcom line and almost hearing studio audience guffaws. I clear my throat, suddenly beset by imaginary scenes: our little boy spills the "secret" to his teenage sister, who e-mails her grandma with tentative questions, while neighborhood kids snicker and our pastor calls to ask if we're doing OK.
Tim reassures our son. "Your mom and I still sleep in our bed together," he says. "Just not always anymore. We've got different reasons, like me getting too hot because Mommy needs more blankets, but everything's fine."
The simple explanation satisfies the child, but my reaction to his curiosity bothers me. I still worry about people discovering the change Tim and I made that allowed us both a better night's sleep. We didn't consider it the first 16 years of our wedded journey, although each of us endured more than temperature variations in our less than blissful bed-dom.
My husband, who suffers from tinitis, a constant ringing in his ears, holds the title for lightest sleeper on the planet. It helped him serving on a submarine years ago to be fully awake at a moment's notice, but it's a different story in bed, with a woman who tosses like a stormy sea and has been known to—um—snore. I, on the other hand, wake before dawn. Lying still awaiting the seven o'clock alarm makes me grit my teeth, imagining the things my morning energy could be accomplishing.
So we started sleeping apart. Tim and I agree it benefits us both. But what bugs me is the negative view people have of our innovation. No matter how you fluff the pillows, marriage and a double bed are supposed to go together. Cuddling under cover all night symbolizes modern romance, endless intimacy, love American-style.
While couples these days are applauded for sharing adventures from skydiver weddings to adopting children from overseas, a jointly decided separate bedding arrangement still brings worried expressions from friends. "I wish my husband wouldn't mention it," a lady at church whispered after her mate of 20-plus years told a group they sleep apart. She'd prefer that younger couples focus on the care and respect the two of them have for each other, rather than zeroing in on the "tarnish" of their detached nighttime proximity.
Tim and I recognized the stigma too. In a group of women, I find myself covering up the fact that I usually cover up alone. Tim's not bragging to the guys about how he grabs his blanket and pillow from the hall most nights to set up in the living room. It's like we've altered the rules of a secret society. We've besmirched a tradition dating back to Adam and Eve's shared goatskin. Can our marriage be healthy?
As in any committed union, Tim and I make our own special times. Nights away from home we cuddle honeymoon close. I've been surprised by my husband showing up early from work and whisking me to the bedroom. Not having to deal with our varying sleep patterns so often, we're less stressed out. I even suspect our disagreements get settled sooner since we've become more well-rested.
Am I advocating a separate quarters campaign for couples? No way. In most cases, the marriage bed is just one of many areas where two people can compromise and come up with a working system. My dad and mom have managed, despite sleep disturbers ranging from hormonal hot flashes to deviated-septum snores, to spend 44 years of nights together in their queen-sized bed. For them it's part of that cleaving to each other thing the Bible teaches.
For others who've admitted slumbering apart keeps them from leaving, it might help to learn there is a quiet consensus about lone nighttime rituals. A recent study reported in Health magazine found two out of ten young adults prefer to sleep without their mates. Over age 65, the number of partners snoozing solitarily rises to five in ten. Apparently TV-sitcom writers don't know there are couples who sleep asunder and stay together.
They certainly don't know Tim and me or the love we share all hours of the day. So I'll keep hoping my neighbors won't snicker when they overhear our son telling his friends Daddy spent last night on the couch. I'll bet some of the married folks can relate to us, though, and take heart knowing they're not alone in reaping double blessings by sleeping single.
Deanna Hershiser is a writer, wife and mother. She and her husband, Tim, sleep soundly and separately in Eugene, Oregon.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.