This piece was originally published in Slate on Oct. 10, 2016.
A couple can convince themselves that anything is normal. With time, even the most objectively eccentric private traditions can lose their true valence. Eventually you forget you’re both kind of weird for eating open-faced sandwiches upside down, for shouting “you’re invited!” at the dog when you’re getting ready to take him out, or for whining “it’s not fair” like Jane from Louie when even mildly annoyed. With intimacy comes a loss of perspective. Honestly, it’s part of the fun of being in love.
I say all this because, prior to getting this assignment, I sincerely had no idea whether my wife and I are “normal” when it comes to our bedtime routine. Do all couples divide the night up into hour-long chunks and take turns staying awake in order to watch for danger? Are we the only ones who brush one another’s teeth … using nothing but our bare hands?
Just kidding. What I really wanted to find out was whether our habit of going to bed at the same time—something we’ve always done naturally, without ever deciding it’s what we should be doing—is considered a universal feature of married life. For all I knew, the approach to bedtime that I have always taken for granted wasn’t quite as inevitable as I’d been assuming. Maybe, I thought to myself, it was something that enough of our friends don’t do that I could plausibly propose, just theoretically speaking, that we don’t have to do it every night.
The benefits of going to bed simultaneously are obvious enough. The quiet time you and your partner spend beforehand can be emotionally nourishing as well as fun—you can talk, watch a television show, “snuggle,” do sex stuff if you’re into sex stuff. Plus, there’s the intangible advantage of just being together in your most vulnerable, unguarded moments—surrendering to the siren song of sleep at the same time, and wondering, as your brains slow to a low hum, if you will appear in each other’s dreams.
I refuse to bore you with the insights of romance experts, social workers, and psychologists, all of whom obviously say it’s good for your relationship to go to bed at the same time. If you must know, there have been some science-y studies, and yes, they “prove” exactly what you’d expect them to: Couples with “sleep onset concordance” tend to get along better and spend more time together and, duh, have sex more often. But the question here is not what is good; the question is what’s normal, and also whether it might be OK if sometimes, not too often, one of us—me, for example—stayed up and did his or her own thing.
You might be thinking: Dude, why don’t you love your wife? Well, don’t be dumb. I love my wife more than you probably love your wife. But I can’t help fantasizing about all the things I could be doing while she’s asleep. For instance, I could sit in the living room and watch movies she doesn’t really want to watch or has already seen. Or I could sit at my desk, puffing on an e-cig and “journaling” (a practice my wife endorses but a word she won’t let me say). I could learn about Soviet history, or study the Bible, or even read all the Elena Ferrante books. (Psych! I would never read those now that I know they were written by a woman.)
The truth, of course, is that no one’s stopping me from doing any of that stuff. While part of me does want the life of an after-dark scholar, it tends not to show up at the moment when I’m deciding whether I’m going to follow my wife to bed or not. I pretty much always do—and it’s not just because of inertia, or because I’m lazy, or because I’d rather be unconscious than exerting myself intellectually. It’s because spending time together in the stillness of the dark and whispering half-formed thoughts back and forth as you prepare to fall asleep is one of the very best things about having a partner. Maybe even more importantly, not doing it can leave both parties feeling abandoned and alone in the world. The handful of times in recent memory when I have been forced to do work while my wife has gone to bed, I have caught myself feeling an almost absurd sense of loss, like the person I normally share a consciousness with has suddenly fallen off the face of the earth. When the shoe has been on the other foot, I’ve flapped around in bed like a fish out of water and scrolled through Instagram feeds of poodle owners and mid-level fashion models.
After asking around within my very limited social network—and deciding to ignore this one random Daily Mail poll—I can confidently declare that this is normal. While there were a few respondents who said this aspect of bedtime practice didn’t seem like a big deal either way, most talked about the time they spend together before falling asleep as precious and soft, a time when they are acutely aware of each other’s needs and feelings. Even the people who told me they don’t often go to bed at the same time as their partners—whether because of conflicting professional schedules or energy levels or problems with insomnia—indicated that they’d like to if they could, and do when they can. The handful of people who said they sometimes sneak out of bed after their partner falls asleep described it as a loving gesture meant to protect, not deceive.
The most important insight I gleaned from my little survey is that it’s very common to yearn, as I do, for a measure of independence at bedtime, but to achieve it through activities—like reading, jotting down notes, and sexting with strangers—that can be done in bed while your loved one dozes nearby. It turns out it’s possible to enjoy this kind of end-of-day alone time without sentencing yourself or your partner to any actual solitude. Maybe that’s obvious to everyone but me. But that’s what makes it normal.
Read more from Normal, Slate’s pop-up blog about how you’re supposed to do it.