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I love you but don’t want to sleep with you: Why even young couples opt for separate bedrooms

Snoring and conflicting schedules are top causes, but sex therapists and marriage counsellors have their doubts about the arrangement

Last spring, as Valerie Weisler was preparing to move to New York City to live with her partner, she realised she wanted her own bedroom. She’d been living alone while in college in Ireland, and the idea of sharing a bedroom, even with a partner, filled her with dread. But the alternative filled her with self-doubt.

“Is there something wrong with me for wanting this?” the 24-year-old remembers thinking. “You meet someone, you fall in love and you move in together. And moving in together means sharing a room. And that’s just what life looks like.”

Her partner, Ky Dates, had assumed they’d sleep in the same bedroom – isn’t that what couples do? – and felt blindsided by the suggestion that they change course. “I was totally freaked out,” says the 22-year-old, who worried that this could be a sign of a relationship in trouble. “It was a lot of fear responses, for sure.”

After Weisler explained how she had come to value personal space during her time living in Ireland, Ky warmed to the idea. And in September the couple moved into a four-bedroom apartment in New York, sharing it with two room-mates. Everyone has their own room.

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Sleeping apart is more common than one might think – in the United States, one in five couples sleep in separate bedrooms, almost two-thirds of them every night, according to a survey of 2,200 Americans for the New York Times in January.

Perhaps these couples have found the secret to domestic bliss – a room of one’s own. Everyone gets a better night’s sleep, undisturbed by a partner’s incessant snoring, penchant for blanket-stealing or devotion to late-night TikTok scrolling. Plus, add a little space and you make room for more spice.

Sex therapists and marriage counsellors have their doubts. Prof Katherine Hertlein worries about the motivation behind the decision to slumber in separate quarters. Is it really because a partner tosses and turns too much? Or is that an excuse to avoid talking about bigger problems at home? Or a non-confrontational way to escape an unhappy pairing?

“What are you pretending not to know?” she says. “I have people say things like, ‘I moved to that other bedroom because of my back,’ and I’m, like, ‘did you? Did you?’”

Few metaphors better convey a relationship on the rocks than a couple sleeping apart. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the ultimate ode to marital discord, opens with a philandering spouse cast out on a couch, the defining symbol of an unhappy family. While the aristocracy has long kept separate boudoirs, often portrayed alone in their grand private bedchambers on shows such as The Crown and Downton Abbey, they are also a class that tends to marry for money or title, not love. Couples who marry for love double up. Even Lucy and Ricky Ricardo shared a room on I Love Lucy, despite their famous twin beds.

Take away the guaranteed together time, not to mention the easy opportunity for sex, and lovers could morph into glorified room-mates

Take away the guaranteed together time, not to mention the easy opportunity for sex, found at the end of each day curled up in bed together, and lovers could morph into glorified room-mates. “I get a little bit of a mild pink flag,” says Cheryl Fraser, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and the author of Buddha’s Bedroom. “It’s not a big leap from healthy solitude to a little bit of distance.”

In her surveys of 3,000 couples in long-term relationships, Fraser has found that roughly 33-40 per cent report that they are in a sexless relationship, clinically defined as having sex together no more than six times a year. Take away the snuggle time that happens in a shared bed and the sex might soon go, too. “When you sleep in the same bed, sex naturally happens,” she says. “We marry for love and therefore we want to be in the same bed and have sex with each other.”

Rich Newhart says he feels closer to his wife – and more eager to be intimate with her – precisely because they have their own bedrooms in their house. “You’re no longer trying to figure out ways to break away from your family and get your alone time,” says the 31-year-old, who works for a health-insurance company.

The couple started sleeping apart at the beginning of the pandemic when they were home together 24/7. All the family time was more than his wife, 30-year-old Cara Newhart, could take. She moved into a guest room. “I’m an introvert and I need alone time to recharge,” says the interior designer and host of a podcast called Make Space.

Once she made the move, she loved it. She realised what she had missed, having only lived alone briefly in college and becoming a mother at 24.

With her own room, she could express herself. “We had to be thrown into being parents; we both lost ourselves. As our daughter gets older we are re-emerging and asking, ‘What are my hobbies? Who am I?’” Cara Newhart says. “Having physical space for that process has helped a lot. We don’t feel like we’re just stuck with somebody.”

As far as flirting, cuddling and making out, we do that quite a bit, and that is very spontaneous. But, usually, if we’re going to the bedroom together, that’s its own thing, and there is a more deliberate aspect of that level of intimacy

Last June, the couple decided to make the new sleeping arrangement permanent when they moved to a three-bedroom house. Cara designed her room with burnt orange and navy hues, light natural wood tones, and a bold, patterned statement wall behind the bed. She designed Rich’s room with cool blues, greys and darker wood tones. Their six-year-old daughter sleeps down the hall. “I want my space to look like my personality, and that’s really important to me,” she says. “I wanted a room where we don’t take our design styles and mash them up.”

You don’t have to do that much to make two rooms feel equally special. Rodney Lawrence, an interior designer recently worked with a young couple on New York’s Upper East Side who wanted to make a secondary bedroom feel more like a primary one so the wife could sleep alone because her husband kept her up late. Lawrence selected furnishings and colours for each room that complemented the couple’s overall aesthetic and resulted in two spaces that felt equally significant, so one partner did not feel relegated to the guest room. “I think it’s way more common than people think,” he says.

About 46 per cent of the people surveyed who say they had called the shared bed quits blamed a partner’s snoring or tossing and turning for the change. The survey found other common culprits, too, like different sleep schedules or conflicting wind-down routines. Almost one-fifth of respondents say they sleep in separate quarters because they simply want private space. And 22 per cent of respondents say they made the change in the past year, raising the possibility that the arrangement is becoming more common, not less so.

In the 13 years that Laura Perna and Geoffrey Glass have been together, the couple have never shared a bedroom. They live in a four-bedroom house that they share with a room-mate in Austin, Texas. Perna, who is 40 and the communications director for a disability-rights organisation, likes that she has a neat, tidy space all of her own. And Glass, a veterinary technician for the city of Austin’s animal shelter, prefers his space full of knick-knacks and cosy. “He prefers his room and I prefer mine, but the important thing is that we’re with each other,” Perna says.

Occasionally, they’ll spend a full night together, like when they watch a scary movie, or during times when they need comfort, like after one of their cats died a year ago. “There are definitely times when we do sleep together for emotional support,” says Glass, 47. “It’s often something we just don’t even discuss. If we’re going through a tough time, oftentimes that is what will happen.”

Like many couples interviewed for this article, Glass did not see sex and sleep as two activities that were necessarily connected. “As far as flirting, cuddling and making out, we do that quite a bit, and that is very spontaneous,” Glass says. “But usually, if we’re going to the bedroom together, that’s its own thing, and there is a more deliberate aspect of that level of intimacy.”

Weisler and Dates in Brooklyn sleep apart during the week, with sleepovers in each other’s rooms on the weekends, which they find romantic and playful. “It adds spark to our relationship,” Dates says.

Sometimes people just need a little bit of space. No matter how big your apartment is, it’s never big enough

Weisler loves walking down the apartment’s hallway and seeing the door to her room at the end. She decorated the door with confetti stickers and a sign from a charity shop in Ireland that says “Joy”. The space feels like her sanctuary, one she enjoys sharing with Dates.

“When Ky comes into my room, it’s like, ‘Do you want lavender or green-tea room spray on your pillow?’” says Weisler, who offers her partner snacks from the minifridge in her room. “It’s kind of like hosting each other within our home.”

Before they found their apartment, Dates worried that finding one with separate bedrooms would translate to higher rent in a city where housing costs are already impossibly steep, particularly for young people. But they each pay around $1,000 a month for their modest-size rooms. They estimated they would have incurred similar costs for a different apartment with a bedroom large enough for two.

“Sometimes people just need a little bit of space. No matter how big your apartment is, it’s never big enough,” says Jacqueline Newman, a Manhattan divorce attorney, adding that the pandemic has changed how couples interact, particularly as they settle into years of hybrid work arrangements, spending far more time together than they ever did in the past. “It’s all about what works for you.”

Ermelinda and Jay Wood have been married 40 years. For the past 20 they have slept in separate bedrooms because Jay, who is 66, snores loudly and crowds his wife out with all his pillows. Ermelinda, who is a year older, can’t tolerate it.

“You have to be practical with marriage if you want to stay married,” says Ermelinda. “You have to understand that you’re not always going to be on the same page and you’re not always going to be lovey-dovey.”

Maybe the question is: What is a bedroom? Is it a place for you to have sex? For me, the bedroom has always been the place where I go to rejuvenate and sleep

But Ermelinda worries about the social stigma associated with a couple sleeping apart. (When her mother was still alive, she used to give her grief about it until she once heard Jay snoring. Then she relented.)

“It’s almost like a dirty secret,” Ermelinda says. She worries that if she told friends about their living arrangement she and her husband would be judged for breaking a cardinal rule of marriage: Married people sleep together.

But Ermelinda has come to cherish having her own room, starting to wonder if it’s a space she’d ever relinquish under any circumstances. “Why wait until someone is dead to get a good night’s sleep?” she says, adding, “Maybe the question is: What is a bedroom? Is it a place for you to have sex? Is it a place for you to go read your book? For me, the bedroom has always been the place where I go to rejuvenate and sleep.”

And sometimes, sleep happens best alone. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

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