TOPIX. On Separate Bedrooms.

TOPIX. On Separate Bedrooms.

. 13 min read

Being post 50 has always been that point when we begin to realize that life is getting short. Too short to worry about what other people think. A turning point where people begin to craft the kind of friendships and romantic relationships that actually work for them, inside the lines (or out). TOPIX is our way of getting opinionated, courageous conversations started on what living and loving really looks like at this stage.

A Bedroom of My Own, Next to His. By Dish Stanley

Separate Bedrooms Allowed My Boyfriend & Me to Feel More Like Romantic Partners Than Roommates

Dish, your favorite jeans on me - the ones you say hug my ass perfectly - they are still in the dryer. Should I come over now — in a less ass-hugging pair — or wait for your favorites to dry? Regardless, I’ll want you to want my ass you sexpot, so … your choice. Please get back to me immediately on this obviously urgent matter. X, Hungry Buns.”

The above was typical for a voicemail (or text) from my boyfriend Franklin during our first year of dating. That year we lived 20 minutes across town from each other — him with his fabulous son, a senior in high school headed to NYU — and me with my two wonderful dogs Ricky and Lola.

Then we moved in together. 

But let’s back up. A couple weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the benefits of couples maintaining separate bedrooms. A few intimate friends forwarded it to me, unsurprisingly. I’ve been a fan of separate bedrooms for a number of years, but in my case it was not primarily driven by the reason presented in the WSJ article: sleep. For one thing back then I didn’t realize how important sleep is to your overall health. To me the magic of separate bedrooms, especially for those of us who have moved in with somebody at a later stage in life, is that they offer the perfect balance between closeness and independence. A balance that is necessary to spark sustained romance.

It was Esther Perel who first gave me the idea that Franklin and I should consider moving from a shared bedroom into separate ones. Franklin’s son had just left for NYU and he had moved into my place. It was 2017, about six months into our cohabitation, and she was going to be speaking at the upcoming Boston Book Festival. I was re-reading Mating In Captivity in anticipation of her talk.

The transition from living separately to living together had been a pretty seamless one overall. The best part — by a long shot — was the daily giving and receiving of casual, intimate, affectionate gestures. Franklin and I are both affectionate by nature. I’m talking here specifically about random kisses or strokes on the back when passing by the other, discreet, quick squeezes of the hand while standing in front of the stove, light strokes on the arm while watching t.v. — gestures that were fulfilling in and of themselves, that didn’t need to lead to sex — gestures appreciated more for that reason. They were statements unto themselves, not requests (not that I don’t love such a request). His touch, any lover’s touch, is at once comforting, reassuring and sensually pleasurable. And such an under-appreciated, powerful way to maintain intimacy, not to mention a cheap, easy, drug-free way to elevate your mood. Being touched in such a casually loving way every day brought me such happiness.

The second best thing about moving in together was doing away with the often cold New England winter drive back home from his place late at night to mine.

But there were many other benefits to living with Franklin from the get-go. He was excellent company, interesting and fun to be around, and easy as a roommate - considerate and neat, pleasant and generous. I remember one evening early in our cohabitation when I was pulling together dinner and realized we had no milk. It was already 7:30 pm. I called Franklin. “Hey honey, we have no milk for our coffee tomorrow and I’m just starting dinner. I can run out, but if I do there’s no chance we’ll eat  before 9 pm. Might you want to pick some up?” “Oh sure,” he said. And voila! We had milk. 

But - magically! - other groceries just appeared in the fridge. Not to mention turning into the driveway to see that the trash had already been put out. The dogs had been walked. The dishwasher had been emptied. Dinner was on the table. I could go on, but after years of living alone I couldn’t believe how much easier day-to-day life was. I was so appreciative of everything he did. And almost all of it happened without my asking because he had lived alone for years, too, and well understood how quickly chores pile up without somebody to split them with.

I loved everything about living with Franklin except, it turned out, sharing a bedroom.

First off, it’s true that there was the factor discussed in the WSJ article: sleep. We were both night owls by nature, which set up perfectly for his work and terribly for mine. I had to hit the day running early – by 7am on my way into the office I was already on a series of often intense work calls. In Franklin’s world nobody was reachable until noon. As a light sleeper with a natural clock that ran late I couldn’t fall asleep while Franklin was reading, which he easily did in bed next to me until 1 or 2 am. Once he fell asleep, he didn’t move, while I toss and turn, which woke him up. To avoid that I endured the excruciating stare at the ceiling, frozen. We hadn’t noticed our sleep misalignment while dating because we mostly slept over each other’s places only on weekends when poor sleep was mitigated by sleeping in late the next day (or some afternoon delight, followed by a nap). Once he moved in, living in a state of constant fatigue became a new norm.

And while sleep was becoming a not insignificant issue, another one arose. There wasn’t enough closet space in our shared bedroom for both our clothes. I had moved a lot of mine into the empty bedroom next door to make room for his, but everything was still jammed in. Or left hanging over chairs and railings. What started as a petty annoyance became increasingly irritating as I ran between the closets in two bedrooms to race to get ready for work. Our one bathroom counter was overstocked with products that didn’t fit into the cabinets, and then we were tripping over bottles in the shower. 

And there was no reason for it. My place was capacious, even for two people. It was a loft with over 3,000 square feet. The entry floor was an open floor plan with all the “public space” - the kitchen, living room and dining area. Up a flight of stairs were the “private quarters” - two side-by-side bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and ample space for an office/desk. Every inch of the loft felt airy, calm and orderly, except our bedroom. It was cramped and always a little messy. It started to feel ridiculous having so much space broadly speaking, yet squishing our tired selves and all our personal belongings into one bedroom. I remember walking by the empty bedroom next to ours one night and sighing longingly as I glanced at its relative state of peacefulness.

And then there was the biggest issue for me, for us, by far, and that was the loss of a certain type of exciting romantic repartee after we moved in together. We were, after all, romantic partners. I don’t mean a loss of excitement with lovemaking itself, that remained delightful. I mean it in the sense of engaging in the kind of flirtatious, sexy, romantic gestures that wrap you and a partner up in a special bubble unlike what you share with others who you love, your friends and family. The excitement of being in the particular presence of your partner, as opposed to, say, taking their company for granted.

The thing is, Franklin and I are both romantics. As a lot of couples do, we had developed what I’ll describe as our own romantic language. As just one example, when we lived apart for even the most casual date night it was common for us to engage in some build up, which often manifested in teasing each other about what we were going to wear, respectively. Each of us put a lot of care into our appearance, and we loved that the other one did too. It had morphed into a flirtatious back-and-forth where we flirted, taunted (or begged or ‘demanded’) the other by text of voice message leading up to the date. I might leave him a message imitating Kathleen Turner’s smoky voice as Jessica Rabbit, after watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? “If you promise to do right I’ll wear [your favorite outfit].” Or he might present me with the “jeans dilemma” outlined in his quote above: “Come over in a less ass-hugging pair … ?”

An expression of our excitement at seeing each other, these texts and voice messages were at times goofy, at times hilarious, at times smart, at times dumb, at times provocative, at times sweet, but also many times just a plain vanilla replay of something exactly like what we’d already done so many times before. Often (because we had busy lives) they fell completely flat. But whatever they were content-wise, they always felt intimate and fun and a repartee that was uniquely ours. They communicated, and created, excitement around seeing each other.

So, back in “living apart land,” when the date “finally” arrived and we first laid eyes on each other - even if we had seen each other two nights earlier and very likely in the very same pair of jeans - it actually was exciting. Wherever I happened to be when he arrived, I would get up, bound toward the door and act as if it was a surprise and a delight to see what he had on. “Oh my god, my favorite jeans! Your ass! Your ass in my favorite jeans! I’m so glad they’re here. I mean, that you’re here.” Or, as I entered his place, him saying “I’m going to try to hold off as long as I can from checking out whether those are tassels under your blouse …”

I mean, is there anything better on date night than that moment when you first lay eyes on your crush? No, there isn’t. And our repartee exploited that very moment.

Once we moved in, all that changed. When you share a bedroom and your partner’s clothes are mingled with yours and they’re getting dressed next to you, possibly by picking up the once-worn pair of jeans from over the chair, well, there’s no point to that particular type of build-up. And I don’t know whether it was also the familiarity of hearing (or witnessing) all of each other’s daily ministrations in the bathroom and the consequent loss of mystery, but really, all the types of foreplay we engaged in leading up to a date that made each of us feel like being in the other’s presence was something to anticipate, to appreciate, to long for, to celebrate, just sort of stopped. We started taking each other’s company for granted.

It felt like a really big loss.

About six months into living together, on one of the nights when we were reading next to each other in our shared bedroom I was deep in Perel’s Mating In Captivity when I got the idea. In fact, I had read precisely this: “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side ...” While my disappointment was not over our sex life itself but rather, the loss of our sexy repartee, the words “no one to visit on the other side” rang through my mind. I remember looking over at Franklin and thinking “Oh my god. That’s it! We’re squished on top of each other in this bedroom. There’s no one to visit on the other side …” And then I looked at the wall. That would be the wall between our bedroom and the empty bedroom on the other side of it.

It took me a week to pull my thoughts together, but then I gently suggested my idea to Franklin. “What if,” I pondered aloud to him, “We each claimed one of the side-by-side bedrooms?” I leaned heavily on the sleep factors since it seemed like the most sensitive way to approach it. Sleep issues, I’ve decided, are like the gateway drug to floating the idea of separate bedrooms. Separate bedrooms, though, offer a couple so much more than just a good night’s sleep. And eventually, as we continued our discussion over the next few days, we got to those other potential benefits.

I proposed to Franklin that we could start by only using the separate bedrooms for “work nights,” which we could still begin by reading side-by-side or watching t.v. together (as we had been, downstairs). When we were ready for bed we’d go upstairs, and continue to read side-by-side or watch t.v. together. Then one of us would slip out to their own room just as I needed to fall asleep. (I always fell asleep first.) We’d still sleep together on weekends, I suggested.

Franklin was reluctant at first, wanted to mull it over. But a week later he started moving his clothes into his new bedroom, right next door.

I think it helped a lot initially, in getting comfortable with the idea, that the bedrooms were so close, and on our own private floor. And, on the other hand, it was also crucial to reiterate that we both genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, so it didn’t feel - to either of us - like this was some kind of remedial step toward an end. But rather, a regrouping on what was working well (or not as well).

While most nights started together downstairs, we started talking through how it would work for various scenarios, the most common one being when one person got home much later, and the other had already gone to bed. We landed on some signals we could give each other that revolved around the door. “Wide Open” meant an invitation; the other person was welcome to come in for anything - “I am up for talking or probably fooling around or whatever.” “Slightly Ajar” meant the other one was welcome to slip in to read or watch t.v. It said: “I’d love your company but I’m basically spent from the day and need to unwind; not up for anything active.” “Closed Door” meant “I’m sick or totally spent or on a bunch of calls with my kids or with work or I just need time alone (for whatever reason).”

Certain other things were also made explicit from the start, like if either was feeling ill or just completely rundown, etc., it would always be okay to leave the door closed, but that it wouldn’t be okay with either of us for the other to do that too often (like more than twice a week) and it would NEVER be okay to do that if we were in the process of working through a difficult issue, or after a fight. In that case, we agreed that we sort of had to leave our doors ajar to give ourselves the love language of physical closeness, even if we weren’t up for talking that night about whatever it was that we needed to eventually discuss. In other words, there would be no shutting the person out completely during a rough patch. 

And while all the explicit talk around how the separate bedrooms would work was great for establishing channels of communication that we would lean on repeatedly in our relationship, there were also certain patterns that emerged without talking. Just from being considerate and observant and thoughtful toward the other. For instance, whenever either of us was going to close the door we ended up leaving a note with an explanation downstairs on the kitchen table, so there was no chance of misunderstanding. “Horrible, awful, rotten day at work. Wiped out and have to be up by 5. Will miss snuggling.” We usually left our doors ajar during the week and the other slipped in for t.v. or reading next to each other. The first one up in the morning always brought coffee to the other in bed, even if the door was closed. Working through all this was pretty relaxed and happened leisurely over months, and we got into a nice, easy rhythm.

But the true gift of the new sleeping arrangement became apparent right away. It turns out, it wasn’t sleep. Or a whole host of other things that were quite nice byproducts of the separate rooms. Like the ability to pile books and papers up on a desk, or to drop clothes on the floor when you were tired without worrying about the inconsiderate mess. Or having a room of one’s own for unwinding, or for listening to the music the other one didn’t enjoy. Or not being forced to overhear the other on the toilet, for that matter.

The best thing was that separate bedrooms gave us just enough space to long for the other. As Perel says, “[S]eparateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.” The feeling I had, we had, that one’s presence might be taken for granted subsided. Our appreciation and excitement for each other increased.

The romantic gestures that had previously made each of us feel wanted, invited and appreciated returned as soon as we moved to separate bedrooms. On our first night under our new arrangement, after I snuggled into my sheets, my phone pinged. A text from Franklin.

Franklin: I happened to notice your door is wide open … I’m wondering what we’d be doing with each other *right now* if we were in the same bed.

Me: Quickie?

Franklin: Your bed or mine?

Me: Mine. *Right now*.

Franklin: So far this is working out really well.

The next night I left a formal invitation card in my monogrammed stationery on the kitchen counter for him when he got home from work. “Dear Franklin, You’re probably hungry for dinner. I’m ravenous for you. I’d like to invite you to join me in my boudoir. I have nothing on but the [… ] you so enjoy slipping off me. Love, Your Dish.

When I got up the next morning Franklin had written a note back. “Dish, if you’re reading this then you survived a night of ravishment. You‘re probably hungry for breakfast. Wake me up and I’ll make pancakes.”

And bang! We were at it again. The texts, the voice messages and then, the handwritten notes. The flirtations, the creativity, the playfulness. The invitations. All back. Not all the time, but unexpectedly, periodically. Often enough to keep things hot, fun and appreciative.

I’d love your thoughts and comments. Do you have anything to add to a discussion about separate bedrooms? Have you ever tried separate bedrooms with a romantic partner you lived with? How hard would it be to bring up the topic of separate bedrooms if you’ve already been living together for many years?

The Crush Letter
The Crush Letter is a weekly newsletter from Dish Stanley curating articles & intelligence on everything love & connection - friendship, romance, self-love, sex. If you’d like to take a look at some of our best stories go to Read Us. Want the Dish?


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