A Bed of Roses or a Bed of Thorns? Negotiating the Couple Relationship Through Sleep

by Jenny Hislop
Keele University

Sociological Research Online 12(5)2

Received: 8 Jan 2007     Accepted: 29 Aug 2007    Published: 30 Sep 2007


The convention in Western societies of partners sharing a bed is symbolic of their status as a couple, their commitment to the relationship, and their desire for shared intimacy. Yet for many couples, incompatibility as sleeping partners may threaten to undermine romantic notions of the double bed. This paper draws on in-depth interview and audio diary data from research into sleep in couples aged 20-59 (N=40) to examine how couples negotiate the spatial, temporal and relational dimensions of the sleeping environment. The paper contends that the management of tensions inherent in the sleeping relationship plays a key role in framing the couple identity over time, as well as reinforcing the gendered roles, power relationships and inequalities which underpin everyday life.

Keywords: Sleep, Couples, Interaction, Negotiation, Gender


1.1 As sleepers we have an expectation of personal space and 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to recuperate from the day’s activities. Yet this idealistic portrayal of sleep is seldom realised. Results of Britain’s most comprehensive sleep survey of around 2000 men and women aged 16-93 (Groeger et al., 2004) found that 58% of respondents experienced sleep problems on one or more nights of the previous week. Twenty per cent reported problems waking up at the appropriate time; almost half reported difficulty remaining asleep during the night (with 28% of these reporting this on the majority of nights); over one third difficulty getting to sleep, and 36% difficulty getting sufficient sleep. For the majority of people, sleep disruption is a fact of life. Identifying the factors which cause disruption highlights the complex nature of sleep.

1.2 At its basic biological level, sleep is individually realised. It is a ‘shared human biological universal’ (Meadows, 2005: 240) determined in part by what Meadows refers to as ‘visceral embodiment’ or biological imperatives (p 245). While sleep is common to all, individuals exhibit different time mechanisms, or body clocks which regulate sleep. Individuals may show a preference for going to bed and getting up early (larks), or staying up late and sleeping in as long as possible in the morning (owls). Alongside this, restlessness, snoring, dreaming, ill-health, hormonal factors, and age will also influence how sleep is experienced.

1.3 Yet, as Meadows observes (2005: 240), sleep is usually also ‘a time of social interaction’; a shared experience. Seen from this perspective, sleep can be viewed as socially constructed, responsive not only to our biological needs, but to our interaction with the social environment in which sleep takes place. Previous research by Hislop and Arber [1] (2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2006) has highlighted the tensions between the individual and the physiological, institutional, and relational dynamics which characterise the social context of women’s sleep. Multiple roles at mid-life, for example, may contribute significantly to sleep disruption, with gendered expectations ensuring that the well-being of families is prioritised over women’s own sleep needs. It is perhaps not surprising that Groeger et al’s survey (2004) found that, in comparison to men, women reported more difficulties getting to sleep, remaining asleep and getting enough sleep, citing children, partners and pets as a source of sleep disturbance more often than men. These findings suggest that sleep is not only shared but gendered.

1.4 Sleep can thus be understood as the product of the interaction between the individual (or biological) self and the shared (or social) self. Together these form a composite sleep identity, reflecting the interplay of biological, social and psychological factors as well as normative expectations of appropriate sleep behaviour. Yet being in a couple relationship adds a further dimension of complexity to sleep, with the bedroom becoming a site of potential conflict as individuals seek to balance the tensions between their own sleep needs with those of their partner. It is on this conflict and its resolution that this paper focuses.


2.1 Taking up Taylor’s (1993: 465) challenge to examine the ‘ever-interesting with whom people sleep’ as part of a more sociological approach to the study of sleep, this paper examines the ways in which couples negotiate their relationship through sleep. It draws on qualitative data from a major study of sleep in 40 heterosexual couples aged 20-59 in the UK.[2] The sample design involved recruiting 10 couples in each of the following groups, stratified by male partner’s age and whether children lived at home: under age 40 with children, under 40 without children, over 40 with children, and over 40 without children. Recruiting methods were diverse and included hand delivering flyers around estates in the South East of England, mail shots to local community groups, and standard snowball sampling techniques. Particular attention was paid to ensuring that the final sample comprised a broad spread of couples in terms of socio-economic status, employment status of the female partner, and duration of the relationship.

2.2 A mixed-method approach to data collection was adopted which included in-depth interviews with couples and separate interviews with each partner, and audio diaries in which each partner gave an assessment of their sleep over seven consecutive days. The use of these methods in combination enabled a robust exploration of the ways in which couples negotiate sleep. The paper examines the interrelationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in the construction and management of intimate space, highlighting the gendered dimension of couples’ sleep and considering the reasons why, despite disruption, the majority of couples choose to sleep together rather than sleep apart.

2.3 It should be noted, however, that each couple relationship is unique not only in terms of the specific characteristics and behaviours which individuals bring to a partnership, but also in terms of the social context in which the relationship is forged and endures (or not) over time. Relationships, and consequently the quality of sleep of partners, are in a constant state of flux. Couples may be enjoying the ‘honeymoon’ period of a relationship, they may be experiencing the tensions of bringing up children, they may be contemplating separation, or resigned to continue a partnership which has long since become mundane. Yet, for the interviewer, much of the essence of a relationship will inevitably remain hidden. As outsiders, we are not usually privy to whether the couple are in a relatively stable relationship or whether they are on the brink of divorce. What the researcher captures therefore is a snapshot of the lived reality of each couple and the impact of this reality on their sleep. Thus while the following analysis can provide insights into how couples in the sample negotiate their relationship through sleep, it cannot claim to provide a definitive account of how sleep mirrors the complex nature and diversity of all couple relationships. It must be acknowledged that the story of couples’ sleep needs to go further by investigating dysfunctional relationships where bridging the gap between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in the interests of maintaining interactional order may be more difficult.

2.4 To protect the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents a naming convention has been adopted which indicates the couple number, gender and whether the data were from the couple interview (C), the individual interview (I) or from the audio diary (AD). Examples include: 1F(I) = couple number one, female, individual interview; 5M(C) = couple number five, male, couple interview and 4M(AD) couple number four, male, audio diary (cf. Venn’s article in this issue).

The composite couple and sleep disruption

‘It is a strange abuse to make two people of different sex sleep in the same room … the bed is intended for bodily rest and for nothing else.’ (From La Salle, Les Regles de la bienseance et de la civilite chretienne (1774 ed., p.31), (cited in Elias, 1978: 162)

A marriage of composite selves

3.1 The couple relationship can be described as a meeting of composite selves. Each partner brings to the relationship a composite sleep identity, developed over the life course and characterised by specific needs, behaviours and expectations of the sleep period. Although this identity, as both a biological and a socio-cultural construct, is subject to change over time, it continues to define aspects of an individual’s sleep regardless of whether the person sleeps alone or with a partner. An individual’s sleep may be disturbed by factors such as alcohol consumption, social commitments, worries about work, needing to go to the toilet, or ill-health:
Awful night, have to tell you. Got a bit of a head cold so couldn’t sleep. Took a Lemsip, still couldn’t sleep. Came downstairs, played computer, watched a little bit of telly, cup of tea and back to bed about 1am. 3M(AD)

3.2 Yet by being in a couple relationship, an individual’s biological needs and right to a good night’s sleep are potentially in conflict with both the needs of their partner and a commitment not to disturb their partner’s sleep. To embrace the role of partner is to dilute to some extent the choices and control we have as individuals over the sleep environment. In agreeing to share a bed, individuals are vulnerable to partner behaviour which digresses too much from their own. As Goffman (1959: 4) observes:

‘Once in another’s immediate presence, individuals will necessarily be faced with personal-territory contingencies – in the presence of others we become vulnerable.’
While sleeping, like most bodily functions, ‘has been increasingly shifted behind the scenes of social life’ (Elias, 1978: 163), sharing space with a partner makes it impossible to hide ‘animal behaviour’ such as snoring, grunting and teeth grinding.

3.3 Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical metaphor has some resonance here. The opportunity to go back stage and take refuge from the front stage roles of everyday life is to a large extent forsaken in the interactional confines of the shared bed where the biological realities of the human body during sleep may be at odds with the romantic ideal of the double bed. A key concern for each partner is thus to manage impressions and negotiate a shared sleeping environment which not only masks stigmatised behaviour and enables the fulfilment of individual sleep needs, but fosters harmony in the couple relationship and reinforces the notion of the double bed as a symbol of the marital relationship (cf. Lowe et al’s article in this issue). In this sense the double bed becomes a stage on which the performance of sleep takes place, ‘moulded and modified to fit into the understanding and expectations of the society in which it is presented’ (Goffman, 1959: 30), while simultaneously reflecting the biological needs and behaviours of each partner.

3.4 Yet while creating a ‘bed of roses’ in which sleep behaviour is negotiated over the course of the relationship to the mutual satisfaction of each partner remains the goal, the reality of sleep for most couples is very different. The ‘social situatedness’ (Goffman, 1983) of the double bed in which two individuals come face to face and impinge on each other’s space inevitably impacts on the sleep and well-being of each partner (cf. Venn’s article in this issue).

The double bed as a site of disruption

‘If you share a bed with a comrade, lie quietly; do not toss with your body, for this can lay yourself bare or inconvenience your companion by pulling away the blankets.’ (From De civilitate morum puerilium by Erasmus, Chapter 12 ‘On the Bedchamber’ 1530, cited in Elias (1978: 161))

3.5 While sexual compatibility is considered a key criterion for couple formation, couples rarely assess their compatibility as sleeping partners, choosing to share their nights with a partner despite the potential for disruption and poor sleep. Incompatibility in sleep behaviour and preferences may thus become a major source of tension over the life course of the couple relationship. From the early days of the relationship, sexual intimacy and sleep may become uneasy bedfellows, vying for space in the double bed. Sleeping as a couple, while considered by some to be symbolic of a loving relationship, is fraught with the potential for sleep disruption. Research conducted in the UK by the Sleep Council (2002) into the sleep patterns of 1000 couples provides insights into how sleep disruptions can impact on the couple relationship. Focusing primarily on the sleep patterns of younger couples (only 5% of the sample were aged 55 and over), the survey found that 49% of respondents complained about being awakened by their partner during the night. Partner’s snoring, tossing and turning, hogging the bed covers, waking them up to chat, reading, watching TV or listening to the radio were cited as contributing to sleep disturbances.

3.6 Research suggests that disruption may be gendered with women becoming victims of undesirable partner sleep behaviour. According to the Sleep Council (2002) survey, partner snoring was ranked as the major cause of complaint by women, with 63% of women citing this as a problem compared to just 32% of men. Similarly, women responding to the 2003 Women’s Sleep in the UK Survey (see Hislop, 2004) reported a strong association between deterioration in their sleep quality and partner behaviour, with snoring (45%), going to the toilet (30%), and restlessness (26%) as the main partner behaviours impacting on their sleep at least once a week. In analysing subjective data from sleep logs in their study of the influence of bed partners on movement during sleep, Pankhurst and Horne (1994) found that women reported significantly more awakenings caused by partners than men. Actigraphic recordings from the same study, which showed that men had a significantly greater number of discrete movements during sleep than women, suggest the potential impact of partner restlessness on women’s sleep (see also Meadows et al., 2005).

3.7 Hislop and Arber (2003a), in their study of women’s sleep, describe the bedroom as a ‘battleground’, suggesting that partners engage in a power struggle for sleeping rights. They argue that, from the perspective of their female informants, male partners may act as gatekeepers, constraining access to sleep by their sleep behaviour, needs and demands during the night. The current study, however, with its focus on both men’s and women’s sleep, adds a further dimension to Hislop and Arber’s assertion of perceived inequalities in the sleeping relationship in terms of disturbance: it is not just women whose sleep is curtailed by partner behaviour, but also men. Challenging popular stereotypes of snoring as exclusively a male trait, Venn (in this issue) found that women may also keep their partner awake by snoring, with some male partners engaged in a struggle to re-establish their right to sleep.

3.8 For the majority of couples in our study, sleeping together is more a ‘bed of thorns’ than a ‘bed of roses’. Yet ironically it is from this disruption that interactional rules emerge which define and reinforce the couple identity and create order in the shared space of the bedroom. Finding ways to ensure the best sleep outcomes possible is central to the maintenance of the couple relationship. In merging individual sleep biographies, routines and rituals in the creation of a composite couple identity, personal claims to the sleeping space are negotiated, reformulated and managed in the construction of shared intimate space.

Constructing and managing intimate space

‘Bed-sharing is an achievement of co-ordination: where to put one’s head, body, arms and legs; where to put one’s pillow; when to talk and not talk; when and how to touch each other; what to do if one partner wakes during the night…..’ (Rosenblatt, 2006, http://timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7-2403495.html)

Negotiating the sleeping environment

4.1 Negotiating the spatial, temporal and relational dimensions of the couple sleeping environment involves deciding bedtime and wake up times; which side of the bed to sleep on; whether to have the windows open or closed; whether to have the heating on; what type of mattress and pillows to have; whether to read in bed or not; whether to sleep cuddled up or apart; the acceptability of snoring and other behaviours; and who gets up for the children during the night. Reaching mutual agreement on these issues is thus fundamental to the achievement of a good night’s sleep which accommodates the needs of each partner.

4.2 To enable orderly interaction to take place within the limited confines of the double bed requires a form of stage management or negotiation involving a complex, though often tacit, system of consideration, compromise, restraint, acquiescence, and resignation. The shared goal is to find a balance between the role of sleeper and that of partner. Crossley (2004: 30) describes sleep as a ‘collective action’, negotiated ‘within a dynamic network of social relations and interactions’, and requiring a degree of compliance by those who share the sleeping space. For Meadows (2005: 243), the attainment of sleep within the couple relationship results from choices made ‘as a result of a negotiation between individual expectations, desires and social roles, and the expectations, desires and social role of others’.

4.3 Couples’ sleep is thus characterised by the emergence over time of a set of interactional rules, conventions and behaviours which bind the couple together. Sleep routines may take time to emerge in a new relationship and often reflect a reformulation of sleep behaviour established by individuals prior to meeting their partner and a period of adjustment to the couple sleeping environment:

I spent a long time on my own so having somebody in my bed was strange for a start and I think it just takes me a long time to get used to somebody to relax enough to be able to go asleep. F1(C)
The setting for the performance of sleep is the double bed. How each partner orientates to this space provides insights into the way in which couples co-operate (or not) to facilitate sleep within a shared sleeping environment.

Choosing sides: the geography of sleep

‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness’ (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet)

4.4 One of the first decisions to be made when establishing a partnership concerns the allocation of bed-sides. Couples are in general unable to define in retrospect how the decision about bed-sides came about:

I don’t quite know how it started. I don’t remember any discussion. That’s just the way it was. 24M(C)

4.5 Characteristic of the decision, however, is a sense of compromise between individual needs and shared experience. Couple narratives suggest that the choice of bed-side is part of a process of territorial claim in which individuals ‘take possession’ of a particular side, defining it by a bedside table for storing practical and personal items. This side becomes indisputably theirs and is guarded jealously throughout the relationship, regardless of whether the couple sleeps at home, at a friend’s place, or in a hotel on holidays.

4.6 In cases where individuals slept on a particular side before getting together, the decision can be straightforward, with each partner naturally assuming occupancy of the preferred side. However, for others, the space needs to be negotiated in a power struggle in which one partner inevitably compromises their self interests to ensure the well-being of the relationship:

F: I have his side of the bed, which he really hates.
M: I don’t like that.
F: We both slept on the same side of the bed before we moved in together
M: I have compromised. I just didn’t get a choice.
F: He was told. 11(C)

4.7 Data suggest that it is often the male who ‘gives in’ to the preferences of his partner, rationalising this stance in terms of the relative importance of the issue to each partner:

We normally have what (wife) wants. Or perhaps because it doesn’t really trouble me that much. I just get what is left. 12M(C)

4.8 Choice of bed-side, either left or right, closest to the window or door, is further justified in terms of the broader sleep environment. While some women, for example, may prefer the protection of their partner sleeping closest to the door, others may pragmatically sleep near the door to enable closer access to the toilet or to children during the night:

It’s because I am like an old granny and I need to get up to pee during the night. And it makes it easier if I sleep on that side. Then I don’t walk any further than I have to. 27F(C)

4.9 Orientation to a particular side of the bed reflects what Crossley (2004: 11) refers to as ‘habituation to a convention’. This habituation is illustrated by the strangeness experienced by couples when they attempt to flaunt the convention by sleeping on different sides of the bed:

M: We have tried once or twice swapping sides and it feels completely wrong. It is utterly impossible.
F: It is ridiculous. It’s a bit like sitting round a dining table and always having your spot.
M: No, no, it’s much stronger than that. I don’t think I would be able to get to sleep. It would just be so wrong. It would feel so wrong, I wouldn’t relax. 28(C)

4.10 Choice of bed-side is thus more than just a case of preference and practicality. It is fundamental to the couple relationship, enabling each partner to retain a sense of identity and personal space within a shared sleeping environment. That each partner so adamantly protects their side of the bed is indicative of the depth of feeling associated with what, at first sight, appears a relatively minor consideration in the construction of intimate space. Yet the dual purpose of the double bed as a place of sleep and a place for sex often confounds this bed-side allocation, with couples moving across the spatial boundaries during the night.

Negotiating intimacy

4.11 Although the geography of the bed is defined in terms of a division between his and her space, there is a zone of shared intimate space in which to play out the role of couple during the night. While couples profess to having a definite preference for which side of the bed they sleep on, most relationships are characterised by a degree of encroachment across boundaries during the night in the interests of intimacy.

4.12 Making love to a partner is the obvious reason for crossing the boundary into shared space, yet as Williams (2005: 91) notes, within ongoing couple relationships ‘sleeping with someone may very well denote a level of intimacy over and above the purely physical, carnal or sexual act’. As illustrated in the following excerpt, sleeping together is characterised by ‘companionship, intimacy, mutual trust and vulnerability – to say nothing of the comfort of somebody beside you’ (Williams, 2005: 91-2):

M: Yeah, I like that (going to bed at the same time). It’s nice, isn’t it
F: Yeah, we go to bed without, necessarily, always going straight to sleep obviously, sometimes we will lay down and talk about stuff and whatever, so it’s become a habit.
M: Yeah, but there’s a comfort, isn’t there, in going to bed together. Lying there, cuddling before we go to sleep. 1(C)

4.13 Yet for most couples, occupying this ‘space between’ is of a temporary nature. The bed-side negotiated by each partner creates a territory which has an agreed, though invisible, boundary which should not be transgressed during the night except for intimate contact. Couples speak of ‘trespassing’ when this line is breached by partners sleeping in the middle of the bed or too far over ‘their side’.

4.14 As the need for sleep takes over, each partner retreats back stage to their own side of the bed to regain a sense of space and comfort and to re-establish their individual identity as a sleeper. Moreover, as the following excerpt shows, one partner may take the initiative to move when faced with partner behaviour which impinges on their own space. This agency serves to maintain order in the sleeping arrangement, defuses potential conflict, and helps to preserve the aura of romance in the relationship:

Int: Do you think you stay that way all night?
F: No, not at all, can’t bear it. The minute he’s dropped off to sleep I go to my own side.
M: I end up snoring and dribbling all over (partner). Like an old Labrador.
F: It’s not even just that. I just, I don’t like it, I just… Once he’s asleep that’s it, I’ll roll over and I go to sleep. 1(C)

4.15 Negotiating the geography of the double bed is, however, just one aspect of the construction of intimate space in the bedroom. Creating a bedroom environment which reflects individual needs while maintaining intimacy is part of the forging of the couple relationship.

Mattresses, pillows, duvets and the bedroom environment

4.16 While the double bed may be the focal point of the sleep performance, the bedroom environment contains a range of stage props through which couples define the sleeping relationship. Individuals bring to the partnership a well-established set of preferences for mattress type, pillows, duvets, lighting and heating. Developed over the early life course, these preferences reflect a combination of parental decisions regarding children’s bedrooms and individual adaptations made during the period of early adulthood when individuals leave home and assume more control over their sleep environment. Once a relationship is formed, finding a balance of preferences which suits both partners can be difficult.

4.17 A good mattress, satisfactory to both partners, provides the foundation for the sleeping environment of couples. Yet a number of couples in the study recounted tales of ‘making do’ with unsuitable mattresses, sometimes for years, before graduating to a new mattress. The following couple explain their transition to a new mattress, carefully chosen to address their respective needs:

F: When we moved down here, I had this really old horrible sort of rickety wooden bed …. We had it for six months when we first moved in, then we saved up and bought our own bed and we got a mattress which is meant to be good for backs and quite firm and that is all right for me. M: Yes, but we sort of tested them and got advice and stuff. I think I have generally in the past had firmer sort of beds not soft ones, so I was quite happy with the choice. 12(C)

4.18 While a set of matching pillows may ‘look nicer’ (14F(C)) and fit the traditional consumerist image of the double bed, this arrangement may not suit the needs and preferences of both individuals within the relationship. Pillows come in all shapes and sizes; they may be thick or thin, filled with feathers or synthetic materials, or designed to provide therapeutic relief for neck problems. Individuals may prefer to sleep with just one pillow, some with none at all, and others with a number of pillows. While possibly upsetting the symmetrical balance of the double bed, the choice of pillows provides an opportunity for individuals to express elements of the pre-relationship self without compromising their partner’s sleep.

4.19 When speaking of preferences in terms of the weight of their duvet and lighting, the following couple highlight the potential for conflict which exists in establishing couple sleeping arrangements and explain how they have reached a compromise:

M: We’ve got a winter and a summer duvet.
F: I would have the summer one all year round.
M: I would have the winter all year round. So we have six months and six months. And we don’t have the curtains pulled.
F: He is someone who has always slept with the curtains open, so I’ve got used to it. 37(C)

4.20 What is clear from these examples is the way in which couples, dedicated to achieving harmony in the relationship, work to manage differences in sleep needs and preferences, either through compromise or through finding alternative solutions to resolve areas of conflict. This co-operation is evident in the ways in which couples establish sleep routines and rituals despite often marked differences in sleep preferences.

Establishing sleep routines and rituals

‘In situations of co-presence the parties to that situation need to secure co-operation from one another for their own sleep ritual, whether this means common bedtimes and sleep conditions or different but complementary patterns, with each party respecting the needs of the other.’ (Crossley, 2004: 18)

4.21 Part of the development of a couple identity is the establishment of routines and rituals associated with sleep: ‘Every couple ends up with having a sleep routine.’ (3F(C)). Couples speak of routines emerging in conjunction with settling down in a relationship. While routines may to some extent reflect a continuity of sleep patterns established during childhood and early adulthood, the reality for most couples is the formation of new routines which reflect a compromise between individual sleep needs and preferences and those of the composite relationship. One couple fondly describe the emergence of new sleep habits which reinforce their evolving identity as partners:

Int: Have your sleep patterns changed, do you think, since you have been together?
M: Yeah, I think I would have probably stayed up, later.
F: When we weren’t together, I stayed up later than he did.
M: Yeah
F: Yeah, we formed a habit. It’s like old people who take a travel rug and a thermos when they go on a day trip. It’s become a habit. When the news has finished and there is nothing much else on . . . 1(C)

4.22 For others, however, the merging of preferences creates conflict and tension in the relationship. This is particularly the case when partners each exhibit different diurnal preferences; one partner being a lark, the other an owl. The following excerpt highlights how the disjuncture between body clocks affects both partners:

F: I might go to bed at 10 but I never sleep properly until you come to bed and that is why I drive you up the wall nagging at you to come to bed because I can’t actually get properly to sleep until you come to bed because I am aware of you moving. And I can’t sleep properly until everyone else is tucked up in bed.
M: I mean I would say probably, although I don’t manage it very well, I try to discipline my sleeping so that it is less disruptive for (partner). I mean if she goes away on business or whatever I will be completely relaxed with when I go bed, when I wake up, you know I will pull a lot of later nights. 4(C)

4.23 Yet in attempting to solve the gap between sleep timing preferences, couples may create more problems, suggesting the need to ‘live and let live’ may be the only solution in some circumstances:

We’ve been going to bed a little bit later than I want, a little bit earlier than (partner) wants and I think it’s making him wake up early in the morning. Instead of him coming to bed two hours later than me, he’s waking up three hours earlier.’ 4F(AD)

4.24 Overlaying personal differences is the influence of institutional and relational factors which impinge on each partner, and, by default, on the relationship as a whole. Reflecting changing dynamics within the couple relationship over time, these factors include the scheduling of work, social life, and the impact of children. They create a routine within the relationship which may bear little resemblance to individual sleep needs or preferred sleep patterns:

No, I mean I can honestly say to you before we had the children I was lazy. I would stay in bed because obviously before weekends were your own, you could do what you wished to do. No it is only since we have had the children that life is now a routine. This happens this time of the day, this happens that time of the day. Everything is a routine now. 3F(C)

4.25 For many couples in the study, the responsibilities of work and parenthood, combined with financial constraints, have led to a lifestyle characterised by evenings spent watching the television. Reflected in the majority of couple narratives is a highly structured and constant weekday routine, in which the television, either in the living room or bedroom, acts as a prompt, initiating the transition to sleep:

M: We generally go to bed at the same time. It depends what is on telly.
F: It depends if there is anything worth watching.
M: If there is nothing worth watching I can go to bed at half ten, ten o’clock. But if I am watching something I will stay up and watch it. If there is a film on, I always watch it till the end. I will watch anything won’t I, I am terrible like that.
F: Yes. But on average though we do generally turn the TV off at about 11 o’clock and go to bed because we are both sitting there yawning anyway. 11(C)

4.26 Weekends often provide an opportunity for individuals to revert to pre-relationship sleep patterns governed by their body clock. For owls, this may mean a chance to sleep in and to catch up on sleep lost during the working week. With the tacit agreement and consideration of their partner, individuals may also benefit from opportunities to break their regular sleep routines. This is particularly the case for parents whose sleep is disturbed on a regular basis by young children:

Woke up, at uhm twenty past six to my daughter crying. So went and got her. Uhm, brought her in bed with myself. Then uhm (partner) got up at about seven o’clock and took the children downstairs, so I went back to sleep. 23F(AD)
The study of couples’ sleep may also highlight and reinforce the gendered division of labour in the household, with each partner adopting rituals and behaviours commensurate with their male/female identity.

Intimate space as a site for ‘doing’ gender

4.27 The sleep period may offer opportunities for the ‘doing’ of male and female roles, with the traditional dichotomy between the female as carer and the male as protector being played out in the bedroom. For example, the sentient activities and emotional labour (see James, 1989, and Mason, 1996) performed by women during the sleep period may consolidate the female identity as carer, ensuring the well-being of their sleeping partner:

He’ll snore and he will wheeze and then he will hold his breath. And the longer we are together and the more often the less it bothers me, but if he has been away for a while and he comes back and does it, I’m so frightened he’s not going to breathe again, and I’m laying there thinking, one, no, two, I’ll wake him in a minute and just as you move to wake him and you disturb yourself he goes [makes deep breathing in sound] 1F(C)

4.28 In the same relationship, the male ensures that his partner fulfils her maternal obligations during the night, reflecting a clear cut gendered division of labour and further reinforcing the female role of carer. He wakes during the night if one of the children calls out to remind his partner to get up:

He (partner) is awake enough to know that somebody wanted mum. Not necessarily who it is. But somebody said ‘Mum’. And I might get a nudge when it is time to go. 1F(C)

4.29 Yet the assumed inequalities inherent in these behaviours may mask mutually agreed roles within the partnership and subtle changes in the division of labour over the life course. While female partners may predominantly be responsible for caring for young children during the night, men as well as women play an active role in worrying about the safety and whereabouts of teenage children when out at night (see Venn et al., forthcoming). Moreover, while female insistence on sleeping away from the door despite partner preference may in some instances suggest a usurping of power in the relationship, it may equally reflect support for the desired male role of protector and sleep guardian:

F: I don’t want to be near the door. It is a safety thing. It’s a cultural thing. It’s like the woman always sleeps on the inside. When we moved to this house I said ‘which side do you want to sleep on?’ and he very politely said ‘oh, that side’. And I said, ‘well, you can’t’.
M: I don’t think a particular side of the bed really affected me at the time, but I think now I have got used to it a lot more. 15(C)

4.30 This male concern for the security and well-being of the household during the sleep period, is further highlighted when couples sleep apart. Whether perceived or real, women often report feelings of insecurity and vulnerability when sleeping alone without the ‘protection’ of partners, while men acknowledge their inability to provide protection and create a safe sleeping environment for their partner. Sleeping alone may compromise the performance of male gender roles during the sleep period:

F: When (partner) is working away I am worse. I am awake all the time even if I am sort of like falling asleep thinking I am going to fall asleep, I am more aware of this noise here, this noise there. So, I find I can’t sleep.
M: She can’t sleep when I am not there. But that is probably because of worry that I am not here to protect her or whatever, you know. 17(C)

4.31 Studying couples’ sleep thus provides insights into the gendered constructs of society, highlighting differences in the behaviour of men and women at night and the ways in which these behaviours help forge the gendered identity of the couple. Yet in observing and facilitating gender roles and expectations, couples may also undermine the possibility of achieving a good night’s sleep.

4.32 For most couples, the reality of sleeping in the same bed is a compromise, with each partner experiencing less than satisfactory sleep. It would seem that the logical solution to sleep disruption would be to relocate; moving into another room, or at least a twin bed, to overcome the ‘bed of thorns’ created by gendered expectations, snoring, and other aberrant partner behaviours. Yet paradoxically, according to the Sleep Council survey (2002), only 7% of couples under 55 currently sleep in separate beds, despite almost half complaining of being awakened up to six times a night. As broadcaster, Jenni Murray observes, ‘Why do we enter a lifetime’s partnership and willingly surrender the one precious thing we have enjoyed in our single life – a room of one’s own.’ (cited in Grove, 2001).

4.33 The next section of the paper attempts to answer this question, suggesting both personal and socio-cultural reasons why couples continue to share a bed rather than seek the solitude and peacefulness of sleeping alone.

Why couples sleep together

‘Although keeping separate quarters does not betoken a break in sexual intimacy, it does mark a rejection of another kind of intimacy: the rituals of preparing for sleep together, the lying side by side in the day, the awareness of each other’s presence awakening in the night, an underlying unity in life’s most private moments.’ (Forster, cited in Grove, 2001)

Sleeping alone: what’s missing?

5.1 Sleeping alone can indeed have its benefits. For many couples, there are opportunities to experience sleeping apart when one partner is travelling or away on business. Some participants speak of the innate pleasure of usurping control over the bed space, the freedom to spread out and arrange the bedding as desired, and their enjoyment of a restful, undisturbed night’s sleep. One woman, whose partner has seen active service in Iraq, speaks of an ambivalence towards the sharing of bed-space as she adjusts to long periods apart followed by time together:
When he first went to Iraq it was difficult, because I had got so used to being with him but then after a while it was nice having a bed to myself, because I could just sprawl myself out and toss and turn as much as I want. And nobody cared. But, of course, when he came back it was really weird having another body in the bed. It seemed like I had no space to do anything. 20F(I)

5.2 Sleeping apart for couples represents a break in the routines of sleep and a departure from the frame of reference so crucial to sleep patterning. Rather than promoting a good night’s sleep, sleeping alone can actually hinder sleep, with partner absence and the emptiness of the bed disturbing the ‘ambience and the ritual’ associated with sleeping together (Crossley, 2004: 11). Participants report taking longer to get to sleep when away from their partner, being more aware of noises in the night, missing the familiar presence of someone in bed, and feeling insecure.

5.3 Thus although acknowledging that sleeping alone may lead to more restful sleep when temporarily apart, none of the couples in our study was prepared to extend this behaviour into their everyday relationship on a regular basis, regardless of the degree of sleep disruption caused by sharing a bed. For the majority of couples, sleeping apart has little attraction. Even while appreciating a bed to themselves on an occasional basis, there remains a strong preference towards the norm of sleeping with a partner:

I would hate it if (female partner) wasn’t there, but I definitely reckon you sleep better on your own. You have the whole bed to yourself don’t you, and you get more comfortable and nothing is going to disturb that. 14M(I)

5.4 This suggests a strong cultural association between being a couple and sharing a bed. Despite the possibility of better sleep elsewhere, couples in general show a willingness to go along with the possible disruption associated with sharing a bed to preserve the well-being of the relationship and to meet social expectations of appropriate couple behaviour.

Observing the rules of coupledom

5.5 Sleeping together lies at the core of the couple relationship. Findings in this study support those of Pankhurst and Horne (1994), who found a general preference among couples for sleeping with their partner, despite objective evidence which showed that sleep was poorer when they did so. One participant in our study summed up this preference:

I wouldn’t have it any other way, even if (partner) snored really badly and disturbed my sleep. I wouldn’t want to be away from her, you know. It is an important part of your relationship. 16M(I)

5.6 Our data suggests that couples are prepared to deprioritise their own sleep needs to ensure the maintenance of shared sleeping arrangements and as a symbol of the depth of their loyalty to the relationship. Sleeping together is considered central to the health and well-being of the relationship; a morally right ‘thing to do’; part of the marriage contract; and a behavioural pattern passed down from parent to child over the generations. While recognising that sleeping together may represent a compromise in terms of comfort and sleep quality, participants highlight the ‘normality’ of sharing a bed:

Well (it’s) because you are together and it is just you want …. I suppose it is the way you are brought up as well, I suppose, as well. It is the way society works. It is when you grow up, your mum and dad have always slept together and it is just a natural thing to do, I would have said. You want to be with that person as well. It is not just having to do it, you want to be there, and you want to be with that person. If you are living with that person, you don’t want to necessarily sleep in a separate bed from that person. So no, it is definitely part of being together although may be the ideal is probably being alone to get a bit more sleep. 11M(I)
As well as respecting social conventions, sleeping together provides opportunities for intimacy; an essential component of the couple relationship.

Intimacy and the culture of togetherness

‘How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning.’ (Herman Melville, http://www.answers.com/topic/bed)

5.7 Couples speak of the comfort, warmth, familiarity and pleasure of having a partner beside them. For them, the bed becomes a site not merely for sexual intimacy, but for bonding and companionship through cuddles, hugs, and simply ‘messing about’. The intimate space of the double bed provides opportunities not only for physical interaction but for conversation; a chance to chat and catch up on the day’s activities; a chance to plan; a chance to discuss sensitive issues. According to the Sleep Council survey (2002), 89% of couples felt that sharing a bed was essential to keeping their love alive, with 58% of couples confessing to revealing their most ‘intimate secrets’ to one another during pillow talk. Sharing a bed is thus not only part of the routine and sexual identity of a relationship; it is ‘a significant part of keeping you together’ 28M(I). The following excerpt highlights the advantages of sleeping together:

I feel it is more natural for people to sleep together. There is the sexual connotation that people think it (sleeping together) is all about sex, but actually it is not really. It is about I think feeling safe and warm. You see, I find you are much warmer if you are actually with somebody else than on your own. There must be something about tuning into the rhythms of other people that helps modulate your own rhythms. If there is somebody there who is restful it can sometimes make you feel a bit more restful. 28F(I)

5.8 This preference for togetherness and companionship extends to couples remaining in the same bed even when one partner is ill. The emotional bond of the relationship is prioritised over a good night’s sleep:

Whenever (partner) is ill I always say, ‘why don’t I sleep in the spare room?’, and he always says, ‘no, cuddle me. Cuddle me. Don’t leave me.’ And I am like … but neither of us will sleep properly. You will be aware of trying … of keeping me awake, so you won’t sleep properly either. No, no. Or if I am ill and I know I am wriggling I will say ‘I will go and sleep…’ ‘No, no, sleep here, sleep here.’ You hate it when I am away. You mangle my pillow. 4F(C)

5.9 The lack of regimented schedules at weekends may also give couples extra time in bed and a chance to catch up on the week’s activities. The bedroom becomes a private space for communication and reinforcement of the couple bond:

We don’t lie in at weekends. What we do do is we wake up at the same time, but we just don’t get up. So we sit and talk, because it is probably the only time, because (partner) is so busy and he commutes up to London all the time – weekends are quite nice, aren’t they, if we just sort of – we lay there and talk and we might not get up until about half eight, but we are not asleep. 8F(C)

5.10 Sanctioned by society, sleeping together provides opportunities for the expression of a variety of intimacies for couples, ranging from sexual activity to cuddling and conversation. It is, in essence, a key expression of the couple identity; a symbol of togetherness, located in a culture of togetherness. Participants’ negative attitudes to sleeping apart reflect a strong underlying togetherness culture in society and a stigmatisation of behaviour which challenges this norm. They speak of a perceived correlation between sleeping apart and relationship problems, particularly for younger couples:

It is not something people tend to do, is it? You don’t hear about people sleeping in separate beds unless, of course, they are not happy together or when they get older. You hear of a lot of grandparents who sleep in separate beds. But it’s just something that if you did sleep in separate beds, people would think there was something wrong with your marriage, wouldn’t they? 23F(I) (author’s emphasis)

5.11 The suggestion in the above quotation of an association between age and sleeping apart, highlights the changing dynamics of the couple relationship over time. In their study of sleep in older women, Hislop and Arber (2006) found a significant increase in the number of couples who chose to sleep apart in the quest for a better night’s sleep, particularly after the age of 60. However, although age may act as a liberator in sleeping arrangements for some older couples, reflecting the ability of the relationship to adapt pragmatically to changing needs over time, there remains a strong resistance to behaviour which challenges social ‘norms’ and risks social disapproval (see Hislop, 2004). This resistance is particularly strong among younger couples. To sleep together is not only an expectation of most young couples, but a socially approved and conditioned arrangement, synonymous not only with commitment but with the maintenance of an intimate relationship.


‘There are enablements and risks inherent in co-bodily presence’ (Goffman, 1983: 4)
6.1 Sharing the intimate space of the bedroom lies at the heart of the couple relationship. Sleeping with a partner can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the couple relationship; a ‘bed of roses’ offering opportunities not only for physical and sexual closeness but for security, comfort and the sharing of confidences. Yet at the same time the meeting of composite selves within the couple relationship can be a source of conflict; a ‘bed of thorns’ as couples negotiate their respective sleep preferences and biological need for sleep within the context of shared space. Given the differences in preferences, needs, expectations, behaviour and roles during the night, the propensity for disruption and embarrassment is high. In reality, intimate space, while being central to the couple identity and the development of the relationship, is often the site of conflict and vulnerability rather than a place of tranquillity and repose.

6.2 Underlying the complexity of the sleep relationship is the tension which exists between the interplay of back and front stage roles in the bedroom. Removed from the public sphere of everyday life with its pressures and concerns, the bedroom can be seen as a sanctified space; a ‘behind the scenes’ world and a place of rest and relaxation. Yet simultaneously, the bedroom is a place of interaction in which partners play out their most intimate moments, adhering to a set of rules of behaviour which facilitate the sharing of a confined space while defining the couple identity. Despite the promise of a good night’s sleep in a bed of one’s own, couples remain bound by societal convention which dictates that sharing a bed is a sign of a healthy sexual relationship and a symbol of a committed relationship. To sleep apart is to challenge custom, undermine expectations of social order and risk moral censure. Constructing and managing the intimate space of the double bed is thus key to maintaining social order. It relies to a large extent on co-operation and consideration; a willingness to compromise and deprioritise a personally ideal sleeping environment for the well-being of the relationship.

6.3 From a broader perspective, the negotiation of sleeping space and behaviour can reflect and reinforce the gendered roles, identities and power dynamics inherent in the couple relationship and in society in general. Yet while men appear to ‘lose out’ in the allocation of bed-sides and women sublimate their own sleep needs in the service of others, in reality, the construction and management of intimate space is more subtle. It is part of a deeper process of negotiation and give-and-take which characterises the couple relationship. For the couples in this study, the desire to work towards the mutual goal of good sleep despite the potential for disruption is indicative of their commitment to maintaining the relationship.

6.4 Much of the fabric of couples’ lives takes place behind closed doors, often inaccessible to the researcher. This study has opened the door a fraction to look in on the private, sanctified world of sleep as a means of unveiling the complexity of intimate aspects of couples’ lives. It reveals the tensions which characterise relationships, and explores the ways in which shared space is negotiated, reformulated and managed in response to social constraints and changing dynamics across the course of a relationship.


1 The Sleep in Ageing Women project was funded by the European Union, grant no. QLK6-CT-2000-00499.

2 The Negotiating Sleep: Gender, Age and Social Relationships project was funded by the ESRC, grant no. RES-000-23-0268.


The author acknowledges the contribution of the Sociology of Sleep group at University of Surrey, in particular Sara Arber, as Principal Investigator on the ESRC and EU sleep projects, and Rob Meadows and Sue Venn, my colleagues on the ESRC project.


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