Dear Gillian: Do I have to sleep with my lover?
Not that anyone really says "sleep with somebody" anymore, but I literally don't like sleeping with other people. I find it anxiety-inducing and awkward and I never sleep well. On the other hand, I don't want to be rude or sexist. Is sleeping with someone essential to intimacy?
Thanks in advance,
– Awkward in Ann Arbor
The poets say yes: sleep in your lover’s embrace. But the sleep scientists say no: love your lover, but sleep alone, and if you need an embrace, try a pillow.
T.S. Eliot’s “A Dedication to my Wife” celebrates sleeping side by side as an embodiment of love and companionship: “To whom I owe the leaping delight / That quickens my senses in our waking time/And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleeping time, / the breathing in unison.”
Yet scientific sleep studies have shown that bed partners not only breathe in discordant meter, but their body movements, duvet thefts, insomnias, and snores disrupt one another’s sensitive and precious sleep cycles, which may leave couples resentful and wanting to punch one another.
There are probably a number of reasons that “sleeping with someone” came to be a euphemism for intimacy. Not only do they naturally follow one another, but they both find us at our most vulnerable and therefore require deep trust. Visual artists more typically portray a sleeping figure alone. Look at the contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley, who plays with western art historical iconography and Black identity in his piece “Sleep,” drawing from the poses and imagery of both a solitary and graceful sleeping figure like Giorgione's “Sleeping Venus” and a fallen martyr like Carvaggio’s “Deposition and Entombment of Christ.” But when a second figure does share the sleeper’s canvas on occasion, there’s often a nod to voyeurism, discomfort or indignity. A classic example is Botticelli’s “Mars and Venus,” Venus watches alert as Mars slumbers unguarded and exposed.
Their frequent metaphoric link to death is another bond between sleep and intimacy. The French call the latter “le petit mort” and the idea of sleep as a kind of temporary or reversible death is ubiquitous in the history of the arts. How about the final scene in Romeo and Juliet: she’s asleep, he thinks she’s dead, he kills himself, she wakes up, sees him dead and kills herself. Or look at John William Waterhouse’s “Sleep and his Half-brother Death.” Awk, your anxiety about sleep’s vulnerabilities — sleeptalking, or flailing about, or worse — is understandable.
Back in the day, when housing was scarcer, beds fewer and heating more primitive, sharing beds, even with strangers, was not uncommon. Your feelings of awkwardness about it are reflected throughout literature. Think Cassio and Iago in “Othello” getting their legs tangled or the great scene in “Moby Dick” leading up to Ishmael and Queequeg sharing a bed at the Inn. It’s enough to make you leave the flannel robe and teddy bear at home.
One reason sneaking out in the dark hours of the night is considered sleazy, though, is that spending the night bridges the hours between the alluring evening of seduction, revelry and intoxication and the sober daylight of visibility, reality and reflection. George Balanchine’s ballet “La Sonnambula” (“The Sleepwalker”), based on the opera of Vincenzo Bellini, explores the relation between the world of sleep, magic and dance and that of waking life with the pas de deux between The Sleepwalker and The Poet. Dorothy Parker’s Short Story “You Were Perfectly Fine” published in The New Yorker in 1929, captures the abrupt panic of being yanked from one state to the next — recalling one’s drunken behavior the night before with the person next to you in the morning. Besides the obvious issue of consent in a drunken hookup, seeing your lover through to the morning helps dispel or confirm the fear that Parker’s “lovely things” in a supposedly pivotal moment in the romance exist in only one half of the two’s collective memory.
Don’t worry AAA, there are some steps you can take without sacrificing your beauty sleep or having to have a sleepover before you are ready. You can ask your boo to brunch and share the bonding pleasure of coffee and omelets without the prerequisite of sharing a bed beforehand. Or perhaps an afternoon movie at one of your homes where you can practice snuggling, or even a low-stakes siesta as in Jean-François Millet’s “Noonday Rest.” In the meantime, the best way to avoid coming off as rude or sexist is to communicate, explaining exactly why you’re trekking through the snow back to your house at three in the morning instead of staying cozy, even if it sounds like an excuse.
So no, Awky, sleeping with someone is not essential to intimacy; but intimacy, at least the meaningful version, does suggest that you should probably find a way to get comfortable with the sleeping part. Once you get to know your love interest on a few different levels, lit by both the sun and the moon, you might feel more and more at ease with the prospect of spending the night. I wonder if there isn’t some kind of tech fix for your issue. Have you tried something other than dorm-issue twins, like a nice full or queen? How about earplugs? Or I know: one of those Sleep Number beds advertised on TV.
The point is, if you stick around through the dreaming until morning or beyond, who knows ...
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