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Are Separate Bedrooms Becoming a Thing?

Yellow bedroom with twin beds.

Podcast Version

So, in the ole contiguous 48, there is an incredibly high demand for two-bedroom apartments now. Both sales and rentals.

There are several factors behind this, such as young families seeking out affordable housing because they can’t afford to buy a traditional single-family home (or don’t think it’s worth it). Single homeowners, or sole renters, who also work at home are on the rise, and it would rule so hard to have a separate room for an office. The demand has grown so high that rents have risen 13% over the past five years in Suffolk County (eastern Long Island, to non-New Yorkers reading this). Major towns like Mineola and Farmingdale are seeing rents as high as $3,000 a month, which absolutely defeats the purpose of leaving the damn city to pursue affordable housing.

It’s not just happening on Long Island, either. Rent in Chicago for two-bedroom units rose 5.6% in the past year, compared to 3.1% for studios and one-bedroom units.

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Turns out that there’s a less-discussed demographic aside from young families and platonic roommates who can’t afford their own studios or one-bedrooms: married couples who live together but want to sleep in separate bedrooms.

Interestingly, it’s specifically separate bedrooms and not just sleeping in separate beds in the same room like we saw on old TV shows. Does that sound amazing or like a terrifyingly devoid marriage? Let’s dig deeper.

The Primary Bedroom Wasn’t Always Like Old Entertainment Says It Was

Vintage image of a couple in twin beds.

Several Americans past a certain age see couples sleeping in separate beds as this cheesy blip of empty nostalgia from 1950s TV, most notably I Love Lucy, which had real-life couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz also play a couple on the show. So stringent was the Hayes Code and early networks not wanting to cause a stir that when Ball was actually pregnant in real life and the birth of the couple’s child got written into the show, no one could actually utter the word “pregnant”.

People then often think of The Brady Bunch as the first occurrence of a TV couple sleeping in the same bed, but it was actually a more obscure show from the super early days of the medium in which no physical media exists anymore: The Johnny and Mary Kay Show which the Dumont network produced live in 1947, starring another actor couple, Johnny and Mary Kay Stearns. They played a couple living in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment, so it only makes sense that one double bed was dragged to the sound stage.

But much of the media we see preserved from the 1950s was like a Disney-fied version of how life was before public policy and the media began to push certain ideals in that age of post-war prosperity. I mean, it was the era that brought us things like a carpet in the bathroom solely because you COULD and not necessarily because you should

It turns out that sleeping in separate twin beds was actually quite common in the Gilded Age. And it was the equivalent of being polyamorous or living together but not married: people looked at you strangely if they found out, but it was considered pretty ahead of its time.

As with Johnny and Mary Kay, couples often slept in the same bed together if not out of intimacy reasons, then because there just wasn’t enough space for more than one bed. The recurring trope about “being sent to the doghouse” usually meant the couch, if there actually was one. New York apartments are notoriously tiny, I’m surprised I actually have a damn couch. It’s an IKEA Ektorp that has probably only held up because it’s rarely sat on. But people sharing the same bed was pretty common, until the 1920s or so when two twin beds first became adopted out of hygiene concerns but then because they symbolized a husband and wife having autonomous existence: that you could push the two beds together when you need to be intimate, whereas a double bed forces you to stay that way and potentially get bored of each other.

Hotel room with twin beds.

Plus, two twin beds were a lot easier to move in and out of small apartments and houses, especially if that apartment was a fifth-floor walk-up, than those gigantic Victorian beds that pre-dated California Kings. This was long before we had knock-together furniture from IKEA and West Elm with the help of assembly and moving services, so couples wanted to keep it simple.

By the time World War II came around, men got drafted and their girlfriends or wives wondered if they’d ever see them again. Even though slut-shaming existed in spades, you were considered a heroic rebel for wanting to make the most of your time together if you were worried you might not see your boyfriend or husband again. Beds were pushed together and stayed that way, especially if you pined for your husband who was away and hoped he’d make it back. 

Then once the war ended and post-war prosperity hit? Sleeping in separate beds was considered a sign of trouble in paradise! Middle class and even some poorer couples could now afford modest single-family homes or larger apartments which made moving double beds more feasible.

Aerial view of Levittown, NY in 1953.

Little ranchers dotting Long Island that are probably selling for $700,000 now. But hey, they fit a queen-size bed while that dumpy walk-up on Essex Street made two twin beds like stuffing a turkey.

So, the whole idea of married couples sleeping in separate twin beds became associated with the 1950s, even though it was more common 30 years prior. Separate twin beds were used in early TV and some movies because this imagery conveyed modesty in case children were watching. After all, watching TV was a more momentous event before the advent of VCRs then being able to stream your entertainment on virtually any device.

But as that Twitter post I linked says, sleeping in separate beds or even separate rooms is pretty common in Japan and many other countries. Despite how the trend came and went in the first half of the 20th century, that postwar mentality stuck with most Americans in that 75 years later, people still think sleeping in separate beds or rooms is a sign that a divorce is impending. Even when I was looking up images of “couples in separate beds” to use for this piece? Almost EVERY photo I found was of couples looking hurt or angry while being apart from each other in the same bed! Hey, they’re just paid models for staged shoots, but this pervasiveness is important to point out in people’s perception of this matter and how that translates to the way that people use the space they inhabit.

Platonic roommates, work-at-homes, and young families aside, those two-bedroom apartment statistics seem to indicate that the 2020s could be repeating the 1920s, huge stock market crash and all. Except that instead of separate beds in the same room, it’s sleeping in an entirely different room altogether, especially if you’ve got two incomes that can get you more house than you could on your own.

Advantages of Having Two Separate Bedrooms

Old couple in a jumpshot.

Harkening back to the 1920s, there were practical and emotional reasons for sleeping in two twin beds. The practical being the whole dragging a huge-ass Victorian bed from one tiny home to another was difficult, and the emotional reason was that sleeping separately helped couples retain their individual autonomy while also fostering more intimacy.

Couples of today seem to be focused more on the practical aspect, and medical and sociological researchers are backing them up by recommending a “sleep divorce”.

Think about it. If you have a more autonomous schedule while your partner has a more rigid structure, or you get up for a 9-5 job while they have to work nights, you’re both probably cranky from interrupting each other’s sleep constantly. Even if your schedules are similar, you could have a habit that really annoys your partner like taking the phone into bed and shitposting well into the night, while they have to get up to use the bathroom a lot more.

And maybe those couples from the last century had a point with sleeping separately ironically fostering stronger intimacy than always sleeping in the same bed together. You can still have time together, but then sleeping apart can also give you more time alone with your own thoughts.

Young woman sleeping on a bed.

You can decorate the room however you want! The rest of the home is still both of yours, but you both have individual private space where it can be as neat or messy as you want. Paint the walls some batshit color your partner doesn’t like but you adore. Get that weird-looking ottoman from an estate sale. You might compromise on the living room furniture, but you can go wild with your own room.

Plus, if you take trips together, it can make sleeping together feel like something special instead of more of this “Oh, I get this at home all the time.” Then you can go back to your incongruent sleep habits not lining up at home, so you resume the detente by sleeping in separate rooms.

Hell, luckier and more affluent couples even maintain separate residences like Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter infamously did for 13 years. Given the average income and area median rents or home prices for your typical American couple in their mid-thirties these days, and two separate bedrooms in a house or apartment seem like luxury worthy of MBS. But like I mentioned in that piece about why being single shouldn’t necessarily stop you from buying a place if you can, sometimes fate can work out this way where you both bought and don’t live too far from each other. (And it’s not a long, strange trip of a home like one supposedly modeled after Tim Burton’s work.) You could end up maintaining separate residences for a while due to needing time to adjust, being unable to sell a co-op or any number of reasons. Then some couples decide they like having a life together but living apart. It can feel like perpetually dating in your thirties or forties, which understandably frustrates the living hell out of some people, but can also make that intimacy stronger when you’re not forced to be around each other.

Burton and Bonham Carter might be a bad reference since they wound up splitting, even though it was apparently amicable. But given that the average marriage that ends in divorce in the US lasts 7 years, all while people retain that postwar panic that sleeping in separate bedrooms or beds is signed divorce papers are coming? Hey, they still lasted almost twice that average, they parted friends, and divorce itself isn’t totally monolithic.


So, it’ll be interesting watching how this real estate trend turns out along with changing social attitudes throughout the Roaring Twenties, Take Two. But if your partner’s snoring has been making you lose sleep, or you just want the bed to yourself again, it could be worth examining the pros and cons of this rising trend in separate bedrooms.

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