Couples and separate bedrooms: a property issue

Australians are doing something taboo in their bedrooms. They’re not always sleeping with their partner. Sometimes they’re sleeping alone. Lisa Davis did some digging.

Throughout history, the number of bedrooms (and beds) that a family used has mostly been an economical decision. It was not uncommon in times past for a husband and wife who could afford it to have separate bedrooms if they wanted them. Versailles, for example, famously has a queen’s bedchamber and a king’s bedchamber. A poor family of six living in a hovel in nearby Paris, by way of contrast, would have often all slept in the one bedroom.

It all came down to how many square feet you could afford.

Yet now, even though Australians are building bigger and bigger houses with plenty of room for extra bedrooms, couples sleeping apart is seen as some sort of fatal flaw in their relationship. There is a definite stigma associated with it. In fact, it’s so invisible and untalked-of that there isn’t even much official Australian research into the topic, whereas studies indicate that more than a third of couples in Japan report not sleeping in the same bed as their significant other, compared to 11 per cent of people from the UK (including the Queen and Prince Philip).

I ended up having to just ask around, in the end. It transpired that many of my friends and co-workers do not always sleep in the same bed as their partner. And rather than indicating marital problems, the arrangements actually sounded like the couple were just being considerate of one another’s needs. Shiftworkers, for instance, might sleep some nights in the spare room so as not to disturb their partner with their odd hours. Husbands or wives who planned to be home late after going out with their friends would make up the sofa bed so as not to drunkenly disturb anyone. Often a life event was involved, like a new baby or recovery from surgery.

I came across stories of elderly couples maintaining separate bedrooms for most of their lives, because of the terrible nightmares the husband developed after World War II. And sometimes couples just can’t sleep in the same room if one of them has a sleep problem such as snoring.

All of these arrangements, however, are dependent on being able to afford a house big enough for a spare room or at least a lounge room big enough for a sofabed (sleeping on the actual couch is not really viable in the long term). The median price of a four-bedroom house in one of Melbourne’s middle-ring suburbs is $1,181,000 compared to $840,000 for three bedrooms, according to the REIV’s 2018 December quarter figures. The same data places an inner-city four-bedroom house around $1,925,000 compared to $1,370,000 for a three-bedroom one.

While that $341,000 or $555,000 difference might seem like quite the indulgence, if it means everyone gets a good night’s sleep, that’s the price you might have to put on functioning properly during the day and maintaining good family relationships; and if you have an unused spare room or study anyway, then you’re actually just getting your money’s worth from it.

Living together after separation or divorce

One definite reason that you might want to have a separate bedroom from your partner is if they are no longer, in fact, your partner.

Divorce is one of the three Ds (along with debt and death) of property sales. But with property prices what they are, as well as high fixed utility costs and the fees associated with selling and moving, a small number of former couples are deciding to stay living together. It’s not widespread in Australia but it is happening, and more often with couples who have children. In those cases, keeping a $1,181,000 middle-ring four-bedroom house rather than selling it to buy two $840,000 three-bedroom houses (to stick with the example from above) is clearly cheaper, particularly since you can also avoid paying stamp duty and moving costs as well as continuing to share bills, maintenance costs and domestic labour. It’s also a way for the children to be able to continue in the stability of their family home, and for both parents to continue participating in their lives every day.

Emotionally, this is not going to work for everyone. If you want to scream at your ex every time you see them, this is not an option for you; and circumstances such as abuse or an ongoing extramarital affair would make this impossible. But continuing to live in the same family home after separation offers multiple benefits, if you can bear it.

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