Everyone sleeps alone. One might go to bed with a partner or friend or stranger, but no one ever truly sleeps with anyone. In our private unconscious, each of us exists, regardless of our surroundings, in a state of complete solitude. Yet despite this fact, romantically partnered adults are expected to bunk up like college freshmen in a dorm room—or else anyone who notices the separate sleeping arrangements assumes the relationship is headed towards dissolution.
The reason for this expectation of synchronized slumber could be that unlike wealthy Europeans, even upper-class American homes mostly only ever included one main “Mother’s room,” where both mother and father were meant to sleep, as opposed to the “bachelor’s room,” where a single man might sleep alone. But—especially given how little sleep we’re all getting—American bedrooms should probably split up as soon as possible.
The concept of a private chamber devoted to sleep is a modern invention, long limited to those who could afford such a privilege. The wealthy houses of medieval Europe had great halls where members of the household slept alongside one another on “beds” that were little more than a heap of leaves. What we think of now as a bed did not come into fashion until the 15th century, and even in the 16th century were the province of the rich. The bed was often the most expensive item in the home, and landowner, wife, children, and servants would sleep “Pigged” on this giant bed, with each person assigned a designated spot. Often, these massive, ornately carved beds included a main, curtained-off bed along with pull out trundles for children and servants. Even as the idea of separate bed chambers for select members of the house came into fashion, lower-ranking servants slept alongside each other while the more highly ranked shared beds with the heads of household. It was completely normal for traveling companions to share a bed as well, long after sleeping rooms split from social rooms. According to Atlas Obscura, “In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams spent a night sharing a bed at a New Jersey inn which was largely passed bickering over whether to keep the window open or closed.”
In the 17th century Dutch or English colonial American home, the master bedroom doubled as the entry parlor, where a family kept all its nicest possessions, including the home’s “best bed,” typically reserved for the master and mistress, according to Elizabeth Collins Cromley in “A History of American Beds and Bedrooms.” But by the mid-18th century, upper-class New Englanders had adopted the English trend of adding landings, hallways, and centrally located staircases to homes in order to create dedicated rooms for different purposes. In America, however, for the upper and middle classes, the home’s main bedroom was still connected to rooms used for entertaining, though more private, dedicated spaces for servants and children were often found upstairs. But trends toward individualizing sleeping spaces by decorating children’s rooms according to gender also had the trick of making them more private, and the “Mother’s room” (which was the term for what we now call the master bedroom) was generally tailored to a wife’s needs rather than a husband’s:
“While the modern married couple’s bedroom is almost invariably called the “master” bedroom, most nineteenth- and twentieth-century descriptions assume a bias toward the wife’s needs, listing dressing tables, mirrors tall enough to see the hem of a dress, and lounges on which to rest during the day as necessary elements in the couple’s bedroom,” Cromley writes. “Nineteenth-century descriptions often call this room “mother’s,” even though father slept there too.”
Late 19th-century focus on health and sleep hygiene would further individualize sleeping areas, with doctors increasingly recommending even married couples sleep separately. In the mid-1800s Dr. James Copeland even worried that shared beds meant that one sleep mate could, quite possibly, be sucking the life out of the other, particularly in the case of young women married to old men, which both feels correct and probably is not: “Young females married to very old men suffer in a similar manner, although seldom to so great an extent … These facts are often well known to the aged themselves, who consider the indulgence favourable to longevity, and thereby often illustrate the selfishness which, in some persons, increases with their years.” Though many living in crowded and unsafe tenement conditions in cities like New York had no choice but to sleep in communal rooms and beds, those who did have that option went for double beds, which were standard in a middle-class married couple’s bedroom by the 1920s and 30s.
Another, possibly more appealing, option, was simply opening bedrooms up to allow one person to sleep indoors and one person to sleep semi-outside, which many experts recommended as a means of warding off sickness. In a 1909 issue of Country Life, architect C. K. Shilling introduced his plan for a modern and moderately priced home that included a sleeping porch attached to three of its four bedrooms. They sound absolutely lovely and like they would make ample provision for tuberculosis-free space or just the option of being sort of in another room:
“These have screens in the summer and canvas shields in winter, with floors of reinforced concrete. The outdoor spaces are incorporated under the main house roof and thus do not read as porches but as part of the body of the house.”
Other, slightly less appealing options for extending one’s bedroom and allowing for more fresh air and less crowded sleeping arrangements included window beds, which “extended over the windowsill at night, and the sleeper pulled an awning over his head to protect himself from the rain” or “fresh air tents” that were fitted to a window but covered the occupant’s bed with an opening on each end to allow fresh air and conversation:
“This tent had a window on the bedroom side so the sleeper could converse with others in the room, and it could be used in a double bed where only one person wanted the air. If the weather was cold, one could use a hood with a shoulder cape that left only the eyes, nose, and mouth exposed to the air.”
But despite the appearances of early black-and-white television sitcoms, by the 1950s, double beds (and presumably sleeping tents) were considered old-fashioned and sexually repressive. As the idea of marriage evolved from a religious and/or financial agreement to a romantic one rooted in personal fulfillment, so too did ideas around the purpose of the single marital bed. English eugenicist Marie Stopes, for example, was infuriated by the concept of separate beds, ostensibly because they kept the people she wanted to fuck from fucking:
“Many of their inhabitants get devitalised, irritable, sleepless and unhappy,” Stopes wrote in a 1956 book called Sleep. “I think, because of them. The twin bed set was an invention of the Devil, jealous of married bliss.”
And stereotypes of the unhappy, sexless couple who prefer separate beds or even separate bedrooms have abounded even as adults become more sleep-deprived. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 35 percent of American adults sleep less than the recommended seven hours a night. According to the Better Sleep Council, 85 percent of Americans say that they have problems sleeping at night. Of those, 40 percent say that those problems are due to a partner tossing and turning and 32 percent report sleep complications due to a partner snoring. One widely circulated 2005 report put a quarter of couples sleeping in separate beds, leading many news outlets to label the phenomenon a “sleep divorce.” More accurately, however, the concept is just prioritizing good sleep over having rooms in the house going largely unused, like dedicated guest rooms, and extending the same importance to one’s own restful sleep that is extended to a guest or a child.
Rich baby boomers, who grew up when separate beds were beginning to be demonized as marriage killers, are now reversing course, leading the charge on the sleep divorce just like they did regular divorce, with one-third of those in the fancy home market, most of whom are boomers, searching for “dual master bedrooms,” making this perhaps the first time rich boomers have been correct about something since they made Joni Mitchell famous. “It happens way, way more than we think,” said architect and author Sarah Susanka, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune back in 2015 when the concept was still relatively unheard of. “One of the interesting parts of being an architect is that you learn a lot about your clients and how they actually live.”
But how most of us live is completely exhausted and too physically close to other human beings. For those of us who are not rich Boomers, the idea of space is mostly a dream in the midst of a housing crisis that “has been quietly building for half a century,” according to Foreign Affairs. However, the nearly century-old social constructs that keep adults in relationships pigged in bed like two founding fathers bickering over an open window in the Garden State are an outdated form of relationship policing that insists couples must always desire each other’s company even, or for some reason especially, while unconscious. That’s bullshit. Sleeping hours are in too short of a supply to have them interrupted for keeping up appearance’s sake. The divorce of the American bedroom has been a long time coming and is very much for the best.