How a change in sleeping routines improved my marriage
By Regina Landor
A quarter of the way into Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia, my son paused the movie and got up to make popcorn. It was Family Movie Night and my husband and I, and our two teen boys, were all sitting on the big sectional in the lower level. I looked over at my husband Billy as our son walked upstairs and said, “You can hear the Christian theme in this movie, right?”
He looked over at me from the other end of the couch and said in a tone that was snarky and challenging, “No, I can’t.”
Billy’s response to me hit a nerve. When I was a kid, my dad read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in the Chronicles, to me and my brother, and C.S. Lewis was practically a household name in our home. I knew a thing or two about the themes of his books.
But I didn’t want to respond to Billy and spoil the mood for our family. I could feel an argument rising, so I remained silent as the four of us ate our popcorn and continued watching the movie.
Of course, Aslan dies at the end of the movie so that others can live. I’m sorry—I just couldn’t help myself.
“You can’t see that Aslan represents the Christ figure?” I said to Billy.
All three of them groaned. I probably should have, but I couldn’t let it go. “You guys,” I practically shouted, “It’s an allegory! Look, can I show you?” I grabbed my computer and did a quick C.S. Lewis Wikipedia search and read them a short excerpt on the book slash movie.
I wanted to cry. I wanted Billy to say, “Hm. I see your point. You’re right. Now I get it.” But he didn’t come anywhere close to saying those words. Instead, he raised his voice and said, “What’s ironic is that it sounds like you’re proselytizing. Just like a Christian would!” He’s an atheist so proselytizing doesn’t go over well.
“Oh, come on,” I yelled back. I was hardly trying to teach the lessons of Christ here. There was more yelling as the kids left the room to let Billy and I go at it. I just wanted to have a normal, intellectual conversation. Billy just wanted to watch a movie and be entertained.
More shouting ensued and I think that’s when I said I couldn’t possibly sleep in the same bed with him that night.
He was completely on board with this plan. He cleared out. He took his pillow, his dressing stand, his bedside table, and his lamp and moved into the bedroom on the lower level.
The next morning, we calmly greeted each other in the kitchen. “We should talk,” I said.
“You’re probably right,” he sighed. Billy conceded that he could see how the movie has a Christian theme, but what annoyed him was, from his perspective, my tone of arrogance, that I assumed that the theme was obvious. I can see it now. I can see the layers, too, and the misplaced emotions of wanting to rekindle the memories of my father around this book. I struggled seeing the arrogance at the time, but I apologized anyway. And he did, too. “I probably should have just let you talk instead of shutting you down,” he said. Thank you. Yes. Relief. That is what I wanted. I felt shut down, and he finally saw that. We agreed that our argument had more to do with how we said things, rather than what was being said.
And then we moved on. At bedtime we went to our own space, as if sleeping separately was as normal as pancakes for breakfast, and I didn’t say anything about him coming back to our bed.
That night, I missed him a little. It was weird, knowing he was sleeping in the house but not with me. The next night, and the night after that, I missed him a little bit less.
Before our new arrangement, Billy went to bed earlier than me while I stayed up reading in the living room. I’d tiptoe back into our bedroom and fumble around in the dark looking for my pajamas. But during that first week of sleeping separately, I sat up in bed with the lamp on reading my book longer and later than usual, no tiptoeing or fumbling involved. It was wonderful.
This all took place during the pandemic, and like millions of other people around the world, we went for days with our family of four being the only people we ever saw. Tensions arose, and I couldn’t remember if bedtime routines were always that way, or if the pandemic caused them to intensify.
At bedtime, quarreling began when we told our teenage boys to hand over their devices. And then it moved on to general hygiene. My husband was incredulous that our teenagers needed reminding to brush their teeth and take a shower, as if they were still toddlers and not the tall, pimply teens they’d become. And I agreed it was crazy that I still told them to do these simple tasks. But I guess I cared less that I was telling them and more that I just wanted them done. When my husband switched to the lower level at bedtime, he didn’t hear the routine. No more heavy sighs and a lot less tension.
The train whistle of my husband’s snoring vanished in a long, dark tunnel along with the wheezing of the C-Pap machine. During that first week, I slept longer and better.
When the weekend arrived, I heard him in the kitchen in the early morning. I lay in bed, eyelids slightly parted, wondering, now what? It was only when I heard the grinding of my coffee beans that I smiled to myself and closed my eyes again. He was still going to bring me my weekend coffee tray, the French press, the little, white pitcher of cream, the sugar bowl with a spoon, and my favorite coffee mug. Sure enough, the door gently cracked open and in the dark of the bedroom he placed the tray on the bed. A few minutes later, he joined me with his Earl Gray tea and multiple copies of back-issues of The New Yorker. A few minutes after that we were rolling around on the bed, like he’d just snuck into my college dorm room.
During this week of sleeping separately, a gnawing question festered in the back of my mind. What does sleeping separately say about our marriage? My own parents had separate bedrooms all throughout my growing up, but my father also moved out multiple times. (And sadly, he never brought my mother a weekend coffee tray.) I kept wondering all week if sleeping in separate bedrooms was normal. I kept wondering if there was something wrong with me, with him, with us.
Then I checked in with my sister who counsels individuals and couples. Her response to my question hit a chord. I pressed the phone to my ear, sitting up alone in bed late one night and absorbed her words. “As a couple,” she said, “you can do whatever you need to do to keep your marriage contract alive.” Then she asked me to consider this: “Do you want to guide your life by what society tells you marriage is supposed to look like, or what works for your marriage?”
During week two of separate bedrooms, life was moving along swimmingly. I was sitting at the kitchen table in the morning writing on my computer. Billy was in the living room reading on the couch and I heard him ask our son if he had homework.
Our son erupted. “It’s the weekend!” he shouted. But still we knew homework was piling up.
I was listening to the bickering that started in their conversation, trying to concentrate on my own work, when I yelled from the kitchen, “Would you stop already?”
Exasperated, Billy shot back, “Are you yelling at me?”
My voice raised a pitch, “No! I’m telling him!” Then I stopped. Are we at it again? Please let’s not be at it again.
I apologized for raising my voice. Silence from the couch. I could feel us both silently willing the spell of peace to reenter the room and continue working its magic. One beat. Two beats. Did it work? He wasn’t saying anything. Moments later, I went over to the couch and sat next to him and put my hand out to him. He looked up at me, sighed heavily, but then gracefully put his hand in mine.
Other days—like many days in the life of a marriage—the magic doesn’t come back, stuck as it is inside some cauldron of oil and water. And we wait—for hours, days even—for the invisible wand, some word of kindness or a glimmer of a smile, for our chemistry to congeal again. Sometimes the only way this happens is when humor unexpectedly comes knocking at the door, like some third member of our marriage that shows up in the nick of time to rescue us.
I remember a dinner-time conversation during this time that started off badly. I’d made fresh fish tacos, guacamole, white garlic sauce, cabbage slaw, home-fries—home everything except the corn tortillas—and it all lay in a display of bounty on the table as the family sat down to eat. No one said anything. They just started to eat. After all these years, I’m still bothered by this behavior. I grew up in a highly expressive family. We thanked my mom for dinner every night. We were moaners, really. And I am to this day. But when Billy eats something he likes, he may say, “It’s good.” If he really likes something he’ll say, “It’s really good.” I’m learning to let go of expecting more verbal expression, but it’s still irksome. On this particular night, my family started eating and no one said a word.
“Hey family. How about a thank you?” I said. Billy apologized; he thanked me, the boys thanked me. I stayed silent, in my own thoughts. But I didn’t want to shut out the boys.
So, I said, “Anyone have a girlfriend yet?”
Our younger son looked at me deadpan. “Mom. We’ve been in our bedrooms for the past nine months.”
Billy said, “You guys aren’t going to know what to do when you see an actual girl again.” In a very flat voice he said, “Hello Females.” We all cracked up. The tension slipped out the backdoor, the conversation turned lively, and the boys teased each other about how once school begins again the girls will start to line up.
“Pick a number,” our youngest said. Humor saved us.
My husband and I have shared a bedroom every night for the past 18 years, and we now sleep separately. I tell myself it may not always be this way, and maybe we’ll go back to the old way soon enough. I do miss the moment when I crawl under the covers and wrap my cold feet around his warm legs and his chuckle when I tell him his legs are so hot.
But right now, when I go to bed, sometimes I’m reminded of the time I went on a work trip by myself to a foreign city without my husband or kids and had a hotel room all to myself. I opened the door to my room, saw one bed and bathroom all for me and felt positively giddy. I laid out my toiletries in the bathroom and I claimed my space. No sharing. I don’t think I realized before that weekend how much I needed time to myself, lingering over my meal in a restaurant for as long as I wanted (still moaning over my food, but quietly), wandering down an unknown side-street because it beckoned to me. I relished being alone. But at the end of that weekend, I was ready to go home. I wanted to go home. I needed to see my family again. Similarly, I need time alone now. My bedroom, with a bed of my own, beckons to me.
Was it bad that I was done sharing? I don’t know. But I do know that tension eased in our tightly spaced home, things felt more relaxing, more peaceful, and sometimes even more sexy. Our new arrangement let some hot air out of the tiny bubble of our lives. Our marriage is a living, breathing, non-static entity that keeps growing and changing. We learned how to cope in the pandemic and I learned that changing a habit may even help keep our vows afloat.
I remember feeling good about the new arrangement, but wondered, was he? I checked in with him one Sunday morning, me lying in our bed, him standing by the window looking out at the snow. “Are you still OK with sleeping downstairs?” I asked him.
He thoughtfully paused, still looking out the window. He said he thinks he is. He said he’s glad he’s not constantly waking me up anymore.
I told him I loved him.
He turned his attention away from the window and back to me. “I love you,” he said, placing the emphasis on the word you, and raising his eyebrows, the way that he does.
Since shifting to separate bedrooms, maybe the tectonic plates of our marriage are also shifting, toward better understanding of each other’s needs, and a deeper love. And for now, after long, nocturnal hours of time apart, we’re more willing to come home to each other again.
About the author:
Regina Landor, preschool teacher, lives in Rockville, Maryland. She and her husband raised their children overseas in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. She wrote a book called Forever Traveling Home about life in the Foreign Service and moving overseas with toddlers. Her second book, Marry Me Stop, is about her mother’s life, and how she lived with them in Bangladesh during her lapse into dementia. Regina likes Maryland, but misses the monkeys in Dhaka.