Why Do Married Couples Sleep in the Same Bed? October 17, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
T.S. Eliot to his wife ‘To whom I owe the leaping delight/ That quickens my senses in our wakingtime/ And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,/ The breathing in unison ‘
Why do married couples sleep together? This might seem a stupid question, but really why? Is it a biological imperative dating back to the time when partners snuggled with kids together for heat in hunter-gatherer caves? Or is it instead culturally determined, in other words couples sleep together in some cultures and yet do not in others?
Evidence on this is hard to gather, in part because bed archaeology is not well established: how many ancient Egyptian wooden four posters come down to us? And, in part, because of the predictable prudery that crops up whenever beds are described, we have relatively few textual references even for recent times: how many scenes in Victorian novels take place in boudoirs?
However, even with the little material that we do there have clearly been many periods in history when couples did sleep apart. Medieval and early modern European aristocrats, for example, for whom we have excellent sources, had their own quarters: in fact, there are still tens of stately homes from Wales to Hungary where you can visit the husband’s room and the wife’s room.
For these dukes and duchesses (and their equivalents of lesser and greater rank) marital relations were typically planned and the wife would receive a note from her husband (carried by a red-faced butler) asking for the pleasure of her company. Even then it is not clear whether the wife actually slept with her husband through the night. It is a great pity that no one has studied this question: perhaps unbeknownst to this blogger…
Of course, in poorer households men and women did not have the luxury (?) of having their own separate beds. They had to sleep in the same place because of constraints on space and sometimes they slept in the same bed as their children: think those hellish industrial slums of the mid-late nineteenth century. Sexual relations in these more numerous households will have been planned around not being seen rather than the right wing of the house at the right time.
That division between wealthy and not wealthy may usually work. But does it always work? Have there been poorer groups that always slept apart, say, as a matter of ritual. Or for that matter wealthy householders who would have been horrified not to sleep together or who, at least, would not have let the neighbours know? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
An obvious instance are modern western marital customs. Most married couples in France or Finland would be embarrassed for it to be known that they do not sleep together; yet in the west most married couples are wealthy enough to live in a house with a master and a mistress bedroom. So where does our modern penchant for sleeping together comes from? Beach has no idea because even after messing around on the internet for an hour he has not been able to find a good clue as to when bourgeois sleeping together really began. Was it a fossilized working class attitude that rose up the social scales as artisans and entrepreneurs escaped from poverty in the early twentieth century? Or was it, instead, a Dr Spock lovey-feeley-we-are-now-in-the-1960s thing and ‘Reginald, the Jones are doing it too!’ Also, are we, horrors, drifting away again from a sleeping together culture…
25 Oct 2013: SM writes in: Beach you’ve skipped a crucial point. On TV and films from before the war couples often slept apart because they could not be show to be together. Morality would not allow a double bed on the screen. A classic instance of sources being skewed. KMH writes: your question seems as if it may be one which your children asked. Cultures/religions which permit only one spouse at a time are most likely to have couples always sleeping together. Otherwise, there could be too much of a temptation to sneak in a mistress between the covers while the real wife sleeps separately. Separate sleeping arrangements may in fact imply acceptance of the mistress function. Miriam meanwhile has been doing some research: An article in Salon dated Aug. 13, 2012. This article is an excerpt from this book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep”. I cannot believe I passed over the Salon article at least three times while searching. I thought it would probably be too frivolous to contain anything pertinent. I think I need to get out more. Thanks KMH, Miriam and SM!