For as long as sofas have been big enough to sleep on (late 1600s, France) it’s safe to assume somebody in a relationship was sent there to tough it out after a fight. Cut to today, and a recent survey of nearly 3,000 British people found that on average, 66 nights of a marriage are spent with one member of the couple sleeping on the couch. The notion that two months of married life are spent sleeping apart is a little troubling — but who’s doing all this couch sleeping, and why?
Though no research has nailed down a clear picture of the gender couch divide, recent data tells us that some 15.4 percent of the nearly one-quarter of couples who sleep apart (on the couch, or in a spare bedroom) do so due to fighting (the rest do so because of snoring, medical issues, children, or conflicting sleep preferences).
Pop culture tells us that couch-sleeper is overwhelmingly male. That depiction has held strong for decades in family sitcoms ranging from All in the Family, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction to The Jeffersons and Roseanne, and more recently, The Simpsons. In an episode from the 2005–2006 season, Homer asks “Oh, why did women invent sleeping on the couch?” after an argument with Marge about whether women are really mentally inferior to men. “Well, I won’t be lonely,” he concludes. “I can always cuddle with the dog.”
The site TV Tropes, which documents the hundreds of recurring themes in TV shows, calls this trope “exiled to the couch,” defining it as “a common scenario amongst married and other live-in couples. Husband and wife are in an argument. Argument escalates. Husband/wife makes a stupid comment that really angers husband/wife. Cue the other: ‘That’s it! You’re sleeping on the couch tonight!’” They note that it’s usually the wife who is doing the exiling.
Online, it’s an ongoing source of investigation. In 2014, a Quora user asked “Why are men commonly ‘in the doghouse’ (sent to sleep on the couch, etc.) but women aren’t?” The answers on display offer a range of theories. Men are more likely to retreat from an emotionally volatile situation, someone posits. Men let go of their anger faster than women, another user suggests, but because women don’t, “at bedtime, we’re still mad, wanting to ‘punish him.’” Another answered, “I think that it is a fiction derived from American sitcoms.”
Some research supports the idea that it may be more fiction than fact. Paul Rosenblatt, a professor of Family and Social Science at the University of Minnesota, who wrote Two In a Bed: the Social System of Couple Bed Sharing in 2007, told me that in his interviews, which were admittedly small and consisted of about 50 couples, he found no significant difference between genders in who left for the couch or another bedroom if there was a fight. “But more women than men went to sleep elsewhere,” he noted to me in an email.
The reason was about gendered differences in approaching conflict. “Part of it was that men more than women would say their angry things, and then kind of have it out of their system and be ready to sleep,” he wrote. “But women were more likely to keep on stewing about things and not feel close enough to the man to want to be in the same bed with him.”
On Reddit, a user asks skeptically whether the whole men sleeping on the couch is even a real thing. “That shtick you see on a lot of marriage and family sitcoms about the man doing something bad and the wife forcing him to sleep on the couch as a punishment has always baffled me,” they wrote. “Unless you cheated on her or did something that completely trashed the relationship and you’re just waiting until you can move out or get divorced I don’t get why any man would agree to sleep on the couch.”
“Never known of anyone who did it out of anger,” someone responded. “Parents of a friend did that because the dad snored.” And that overwhelmingly the responses — that it makes sense because of snoring or discomfort, or different work schedules.
Rosenblatt cited similar reasons in his research for couples sleeping apart — menopause, a veteran with PTSD who thrashed about wildly in bed, and a woman whose husband threw his arms around in bed too much after he’d been drinking, so she slept elsewhere. As on Reddit, rarely did couples indicate that it happened because one spouse was so pissed at the other that they decamped to the couch.
Another user on Reddit asked last year whether anyone did, in fact, take to the couch if their significant other demanded it after a fight. Most said their partner would never ask—and that they wouldn’t do it if a partner did ask. “She doesn’t do that and I wouldn’t do it if she did,” one said. “When she tries doing it herself, I go out and fix the problem before going to bed so we sleep in the same bed.”
“My boyfriend will occasionally end a fight by declaring he’s sleeping on the couch,” someone else wrote. “I usually give him 10 or so minutes to cool off and then do basically what you did. It’s surprisingly effective, and a few minutes pause will give both of us a chance to see that we’re being ridiculous and move on or discuss things productively. It’s been working well for us for 13 years!”
I put the question of just how common sending men to the couch out of anger was to Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of sociology at the SUNY Brockport, who studies gendered spaces with a focus on man caves. Bridges told me that there wasn’t any research into the phenomenon of couch sleeping or how common it really is that he was aware of, but he had some ideas about what might be at play here. He said the image we have of the man being sent to sleep on the couch is certainly traceable back to the early American family sitcom, where you have a traditional heterosexual couple, and the man is a patriarch of the family and the woman is a stay-at-home mom. In these depictions, the idea of being in the doghouse or a woman saying “go sleep on the couch,” is “a symbolic show of power for women in heterosexual couples.”
“It’s not a real form of power, it’s just a form of denying someone something they might want,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of anti-feminist and really sexist portrayals of women as gatekeepers of intimacy in marriage. The trope really plays on that. ‘You’ve misbehaved, you don’t get to lie next to me tonight.’ It doesn’t have to even mean sex — intimacy can mean a lot of different things — but it’s a symbolic denial of that intimacy. It repositions women as in charge of intimacy in families and relationships. To put someone on the couch is to say ‘I’m the one who makes intimacy in this relationship, and you don’t have access to it.’”
Bridges has researched the idea of architecturally isolating spaces in the home, and says they may shed some light here. “In elaborate Victorian houses, a woman’s closet was the boudoir, which translates to sulking room,” he said. “It was a space where women went when they were having emotions men didn’t want to experience. They also had fainting rooms with fainting couches because they wore corsets, and sending a woman there said, essentially, ‘She can’t get it together, so let’s send her out of the room so she doesn’t bother the other people.’ Men had a smoking room, for things women were not welcome to participate in. I wonder if something similar is going on here with couches, that it’s both isolating him, while playing on this grand historical achievement of isolating women, too, when they are struggling.”
There may also be a bit of chivalry built into men sleeping on the couch, he speculates. “There’s a whole discourse of men laying down their coat over the puddle,” he said. “If something is uncomfortable, the man endures it to collect all the other privileges he gains in a heterosexual marriage.”
Michelle Janning, a sociology professor at Whitman College whose upcoming book The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives, is due out May in this year, has researched the couch as a transitional object in terms of the family home. She says that even though about 25 percent of couples sleep apart, that it’s why they sleep apart that matters most.
“Sleeping spaces can signify relationship status,” Janning tells me by phone. “If someone is relegated to the couch, it matters whether they are relegated there or choose to be there, if they were pushed out or pulled themselves onto the couch matters. If they are not allowed to sleep in the couple’s bed, it signifies that they aren’t fully in this relationship.”
New research also suggests that while there are plenty of harmless reasons couples might sleep apart, going to bed angry and apart is not a great idea, and may make it a lot harder to get past the bad feelings later on.
And many people say they try to avoid sleeping apart to deal with a fight—and some do whatever it takes to resolve a fight before hitting the sack, wherever the sack may be. Like this one man on the Reddit thread about going to the couch, who described a fairly clever tactic he employed in such situations. “When my wife and I start getting into a heated argument, screaming match, I literally just stop yelling, and pull my pants down, including my boxers,” he wrote. “Dong bounces out and starts flopping around. Then I just stare at her…. five seconds until she bursts out laughing. I then pound her in the butt. Totally serious. Works every time.”
While we at MEL applaud trying novel approaches to avoid sleeping apart, we really, really hope he’s joking.