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I recently summoned a trusted ex to a bar. I wanted to ask him a question, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. It took me one round of drinks to get to it. “Have I ever done anything . . . weird? Or gross? Like, in bed? But not, like, in bed,” I added. “Like, sleeping.” He pretended to think about it, but I could tell he already had something in mind. Finally, he began to speak. I drained my whiskey ginger. He told me the story of a night right out of Paranormal Activity. A story that laid bare the true evil that I’ve always suspected exists within me. I won’t repeat it here, because I am a lady/because my parents read Men’s Health.
I bought the next round and tried to forget.
For a few days, I’d been badgering male acquaintances about the sleep habits of the women in their lives. By the time I confronted my ex, I’d heard enough stories of drooling and sleep-talking to know that everyone does something. I have my own encyclopedia of nighttime horror stories. I once watched a man sleepwalk across my bedroom, pee in
and around my wastebasket, and then sleepwalk out of the room. I was too spooked to follow him, so I don’t know where else in my home he peed that night. When I mentioned it, he laughed and said that it’s “just something that happens when I drink whiskey.”
We’ve reevaluated so many things about dating. We’ve changed our tune on how we meet (Tinder!) and how we ask for consent (often!), and I move that we change the rules of sleepovers, too. Nobody sleeps well with a new partner, and some of us even have trouble sleeping with people we’ve been with for a long, long time. I used to think that if I didn’t sleep with someone after we had sex, the sex would be somehow cheapened, but curling up together for half an hour after sex can be just as pleasant a capstone as spending the night together, and you won’t spend the next day feeling destroyed, resenting your partner for disrupting your sleep cycle. But before you barrel out of your lover’s apartment under the banner of enlightenment, it can help to understand some of the anxieties at play here.
I, for example, have always harbored a fear that I’ll unknowingly do something unattractive in slumber. When I’m on a date, I may appear charming and relaxed—even smooth, if I’m on my third drink—but actually every organ is engaged in an effort not to do anything ugly. When I’m lying next to someone, as much as I want to fall asleep, I’m also battling the temptation to remain awake and totally in control of my faculties. Maybe the Thanksgiving-dinner-level fatigue men get after they ejaculate overwhelms these concerns, or maybe I’m just extra self-conscious. When you regard it as a sex act, sleeping next to someone is as intimate as it gets. My body might betray me in any number of ways, or my mate might study me in the dead of night—drooling, hair akimbo—and decide that I am hideous. We like to believe in a social contract that prevents us from judging each other for things we do while we’re sleeping, but I did judge the sleep-pisser. And even if my ex didn’t judge me per se, the incident clearly carries an outsize weight in his memory of our time together.
On the other hand, I was relieved to learn that my worst sleep infraction, horrifying as it was, was an isolated occurrence (or so I hope). A much greater fear is that I habitually do something that disrupts the sleep of my bedfellows: If my ex had told me I snored, I would have spiraled. Like many women, I often struggle to balance my own needs with my pathological courtesy. (One time on a plane, a man asked me if he could sit in my aisle seat, because his legs were “too long for the middle”—they weren’t—and I said yes, even though I’d paid extra to sit on the aisle.) The thought of someone else losing sleep on my behalf literally keeps me up at night. When I said as much to a light-sleeping friend, she nodded somberly. “I haven’t slept well in two weeks because I feel bad kicking out the guy I’m dating,” she said. “He lives an hour away, and I don’t want to inconvenience him.” A martyr for the ages: She would rather subject herself to six hours locked in sleepless torment than subject a man to one hour on public transit.
Especially early on, there’s a good chance that your mate will be secretly relieved if you don’t stay over, but you still have to be delicate about leaving (and even more delicate about asking someone to leave). Because of the stigma rom-com culture has placed on leaving after sex, broaching the subject deserves a larger discussion. Be specific, honest, and, ideally, self-deprecating about why you don’t want to sleep over. Saying, “I snore and I don’t want to keep you up, so I probably won’t stay over” makes you seem respectful and responsible, whereas saying, “I have to get up really early tomorrow” as you’re putting on your clothes makes you seem like a jerk. Even if you really do have to get up early tomorrow, the context makes it feel like a rejection. If there’s a window, deploy your excuse earlier, precoital, when you’re on your way up to her apartment or your apartment—when, in short, you’re sure it’s on. When you move to leave later, it won’t feel like a slap in the face. It will feel like the plan.
Then, when you’re starfished in your own bed, don’t lose any sleep over it: She’s starfished in her bed, thinking not of the dumb face you make while you’re sleeping but rather of your six-pack and lumberjack arms.