As the fairy tale goes, a couple in love sleeps entwined while only a spouse in trouble gets banished to the couch. But for some happy couples, sharing a life doesn't have to mean sharing a bed. Depending on which poll you look at, up to a quarter of couples who are married or living together sleep separately — not due to strife, but because they slumber better solo.
"There's a sense of embarrassment and shame when people sleep apart, but I think it happens more often than people realize," said psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, author of "The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment" (Jossey-Bass).
In a National Sleep Foundation poll released in January, 89 percent of people who are married, partnered or living with someone said they share a bed with a significant other, suggesting that 11 percent do not. A 2005 NSF poll suggested the arrangement was more widespread: 23 percent of couples said sleep problems drove them to sleep in separate beds, rooms or on the couch.
While sleeping apart can be counterproductive if it's driven by anger, argument or disconnection, Haltzman said, doing so for practical reasons (such as incompatible sleep schedules or insufferable snoring) can be beneficial.
"We already live in a culture where we're sleep deprived," he said. "Some people value sleep more than spooning."
Bed-sharing does interfere with sleep, especially among women, studies have shown. Nearly 30 percent of women responding to a 2004 Harris survey said they slept less and more poorly because of their bedmates' snoring, tossing or blanket hogging; 17 percent of men said the same.
A study by the National Association of Home Builders in 2007 unleashed a media frenzy when it predicted a significant increase in demand for dual master bedrooms in new upscale homes after 2015, sparking speculation that if couples could afford to sleep separately, they would.
But it doesn't appear we're on course to become a nation of solitary sleepers. An extra master bedroom could be intended for kids returning from college or visiting in-laws, and anyway, the recession has shifted priorities, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the homebuilders association. In a December survey, builders ranked the dual master bedroom suite as the least likely to be included in a new home in 2015, Melman said.
When partners don't sleep side-by-side, they miss moments to comfort each other or to roll over into spontaneous middle-of-the-night sex, Haltzman said. But if they have a mutually satisfying sex life and strong intimate connection, sleeping separately can be perfectly healthy, he said.
For Eva Belles and Pete Berenc, decamping to independent sleep chambers seemed a perfectly natural solution when they discovered they slept better under different summertime bedroom conditions. Every summer night for most of their 11-year relationship, Berenc migrates to the futon in a guest bedroom so that he can enjoy the cool of the air conditioning, while Belles, who prefers an open window and fresh air, stays in the master bedroom.
"In some cases you have to be a little selfish and look out for yourself, too," said Belles, 33. "And in the morning you're not groggy or angry at your partner."
Good night kisses
Despite a greater likelihood of disturbed sleep, most couples value snoozing together. In interviews for his book "Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing" (State University of New York Press), Paul Rosenblatt, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, found that intimacy was the central reason couples liked sharing a bed, though other practical benefits included safety and sexual access.
For some couples, bedtime represents the only time of the day that they have a chance to really talk, Rosenblatt said.