Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows, matrimony does,’ Groucho Marx.
Though – even ‘with kids screaming’ or on the eve of a grand slam final – Roger Federer makes it a rule to sleep in the marital bed*, in 2018 a YouGov poll found that as many as 15 per cent of Britons would – if they had the choice – opt to sleep in a different bed to their spouse.
The reasons for this included snoring, restlessness and a partner’s insistence on having a threesome with their phone or tablet. Sleep disturbance from your nearest (and not so dearest) has even been cited in divorce proceedings as a cause of one party’s ‘unreasonable behaviour.’ Though not halitosis, a divorce ground recognised by the Vikings.
Those who have opted for separate beds from their partners – such as Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray** – are probably blissfully unaware they’re emulating the ancient custom of kings and toffs who considered it uncivilised to share a bed. The only exception for them involved the business of begetting.
The philosopher Montaigne defended his right to ‘lie hard and alone, yea and without a woman by me, after the kingly manner’ as unnegotiable, while Scottish sex quack Dr Graham denounced the idea of men and women ‘pigging together.’ Since love was incompatible with wedlock, separate sleeping arrangements were required enabling romance to be pursued elsewhere – a concept borne out by royals even today. Perhaps the most famous recent example is the loveless union between Charles and Diana, from which the present heir to the throne (and his former wife) derived little romantic fulfilment. It was in their extramarital liaisons that they sought love. In such circumstances, separate rooms prove indispensable, providing the occupants with privacy, independence and opportunity to choose an alternative sexual partner.
In the past, those who could not afford the luxury of separate beds fantasised about the prospect. The nineteenth-century tailor Francis Place, who spent the first nine years of his marriage sleeping, living and working in one room with his wife and three children, remarked: ‘Nothing conduces so much to the degradation of a man and a woman in the opinion of each other’ than to sleep together.
In Victorian times, women may have influenced the fashion for separate sleeping areas. It is they, after all, who endured the discomforts and pain of pregnancy and childbirth: for most of the nineteenth century, contraception was not accessible to the middle classes. If that was not enough, women’s tightly-laced dresses may have caused uterine displacement, making intercourse intensely painful. It is therefore no surprise that the decline in fertility rates coincided with the introduction of severe corseting.
If Victorian couples often slept apart – the wife in the marital bed, the husband in the dressing room – by the middle of the twentieth century, normal practice was to sleep in single beds. At the outbreak of the Second World War, though only 25 per cent of the beds bought by American marrieds were twins, by 1950 the figure had increased to a staggering 68 per cent. The upward trend was not without its objectors. In 1946 George C Ebbert published an article in Progress magazine entitled Twin Beds for Divorce arguing that the recent surge in marital break-ups was linked to the rise in twin bed sales. A year later, the Family Relations Institute, announced that the ‘change from a double bed to twin beds’ was ‘often the prelude to a divorce’.
Across the pond, twin beds had been regarded as normal since the introduction of the bedroom suite in the 1920s – a view reinforced by the courts. In a 1950 divorce case it was ruled that marital twin beds are ‘indistinguishable from a bed sawn in half.’ The judge added, ‘I cannot regard twin divan beds in a married couple’s bedroom as being otherwise than the matrimonial bed’.
No one ever produced any evidence for a link between divorce and twin beds, and the theory stood little hope of altering long-standing habits glamourised by the public’s screen idols. In 1946, movie legend Gloria Swanson cited her husband’s refusal to sleep in twin beds as one of the main reasons for ending their 40-day marriage. Marital twin beds featured with increasing regularity at the cinema and on TV. Between the 1930s and the early 1960s a series of censorship regulations known as the Hays Code banned men and women from being shown in the same bed. When sitcoms first appeared, the code was taken further: all bedroom scenes between a husband and his wife had to contain twin beds. On the hit 1950s show I Love Lucy real-life marrieds Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, both dressed in androgynous striped pyjamas, occupied separate beds. Until the late 1950s, beds on TV and in the movies continued to set the precedent for marital bedrooms on both sides of the Atlantic.
It took until the early 1960s for double beds to oust twins from British bedrooms. The Carnaby Street generation embraced their extra terrain with gusto. ‘One blissful new thing about the 1960s’, says the inventor of the mini skirt Mary Quant, ‘was American king-size beds. All English beds were frugal, mean-sized things, but my mother-in-law…gave Alexander and me a king-sized bed.’ A surge in the manufacture of larger beds during the Swinging Sixties accompanied a steep decline in the sale of twins.
Despite the generous proportions of such beds and the luxury now provided in the shape of Egyptian cotton sheets of the highest thread count, married couples still find sharing them a trial. This leads many of them to invest in the endless gadgets and gizmos aimed at toss-and-turners, bed hogs and snorers – one of them, the SmartNora, is marketed as a marriage-saver – which form part of today’s £30 million sleep market.
Alternatively, some resort to the ancient custom of decamping to a separate bed.
Failing which, it’s divorce.
* Shane Watson, The Telegraph, 8 November 2018
** Lionel Shriver, The Guardian, 16 April 2011