For his son’s first birthday, John Pawlowski bought himself a couch from JC Penney. It’s light brown with green stripes and has only one arm — it’s part of a sectional. Because of that, it looks like the sofa has suddenly stopped, forgotten what it’s supposed to be.
Pawlowski’s son is now 22. And while a lot has changed in his life over the past two decades, his unwavering dedication to that couch has not. Not only does Pawlowski still own the section of a sectional, he also sleeps on it almost every night.
Pawlowski, 54, has taken his 40 winks on the sofa ever since his divorce six years ago. Though he has three functional beds in his home in Barnegat, NJ, the field service engineer finds his 21-year-old couch more comfortable than any of them. Even when he was married, he retreated to the couch whenever his ex-wife’s snoring kept him up. “I got the couch,” he said, “but not the pets.”
In his current setup, Pawlowski surrounds his body with both bed and couch pillows and curls up under a series of blankets; his phones and TV remotes remain on the floor, pulled in close. It’s his “own little cocoon,” he says. By the morning, though, the cushions have been kicked to the ground and his body has contorted itself into unnatural positions. Pawlowski acknowledges that “no normal person sleeps like this,” but says he wakes up feeling stiff and unrested every time he makes an attempt at bed-sleeping. Back to the couch he goes.
While the couch has long been the place where banished partners sleep after an argument, a lot of dudes make it their resting spot of choice. Nikki Volpicelli’s boyfriend, for instance, falls asleep on the couch most nights while they’re watching TV. If it weren’t for her waking him up to go to bed, he’d likely stay there all night. “I don’t take it personally,” she said. “He’s usually super stoned.”
Is there any hard data depicting couch-sleeping as a gendered habit? No — or none that I could find, at least. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. My male friends and acquaintances always seem to have recent accounts of (solo) couch slumber parties. Surely, there are women who regularly fall asleep on the couch, too. But, from what I can tell, men are more likely to make it a thing.
“The couch is relaxing and easy,” according to Timothy Roehrs, director of research at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center of Henry Ford Health System. “It’s conducive to falling asleep when you are sleepy.”
It’s possible that health plays a role in the male sofa exodus. Couch-sleeping, Roehrs says, might signify a sleep disorder like insomnia or sleep apnea, which is diagnosed far more frequently in men than women and contributes to excessive daytime fatigue. A core symptom of sleep apnea is snoring. And since sleeping in a semi-recumbent position can help alleviate snoring, Roehrs explained, sleep apnea sufferers might find it easier to fall asleep on a couch, where they’re propped up a bit.
Of course, that’s just one explanation. For 38-year-old college radio station general manager Derek Jones, the couch became a place where he could sleep comfortably without pain. Over the course of training for a 10-mile race in Philadelphia, Jones developed an achy knee that kept him up at night. One evening, he migrated to his brown leather couch and found it more comfortable than his bed. On top of that, his knee pain subsided. So he continued to make the couch his nest — where all his devices could charge within arm’s reach — even after his training wrapped up and his knee healed. “I felt better when I was doing it,” Jones said. “I slept better. I was happier at work. I was in a much better mental state.”
That doesn’t mean Jones logs high-quality shuteye on the couch, though. “All other things being equal, no sleep disorders or whatever,” said Roehrs, “I doubt that [someone] would get better sleep on a couch as opposed to a bed.”
But if all you do in your bed is count sheep and wonder if you’re immune to the effects of sedatives, then even the crappiest night of couch sleep will feel refreshing by comparison. And when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, psychological comfort can be as important as physical comfort. If your bedroom becomes a place you learn to associate with not being able to sleep, Roehers says, then you might have more success hitting the sack virtually anywhere else.
Kevin Doran relates to this air of bedroom frustration. When he was a teen, he’d stay up late watching TV in his room, waiting for fatigue to hit. Now 32 and working odd shifts as a bartender in Philadelphia, he frequently fluctuates between high-energy and bone-tired. Even if he thinks it’s time for bed, he might stay up tossing and turning: “I have this Homer Simpson-type thing: A lazy dad dozing off watching TV instead of going to bed.”
Mischa, 30, who asked to be identified by first name only, says his longtime couch affair began similarly: He didn’t have a TV in his room as a kid, so he seized any opportunity to stay up late and watch shows on the couch. By age 10, the couch was his preferred destination for rest.
At this point, Mischa acknowledges that he’s “the couch guy.” He lives alone in a 1,000 square-foot apartment in West Philadelphia, where his couch collection includes a brown leather sectional that sits eight, a few love seats, and a chaise lounge. For the most part, he’s the only one who uses them.
Sometimes, Mischa admits, he’ll dig his face into the backs of couch cushions — the claustrophobia of it all is comforting. Even when he lived with a long-term girlfriend, he’d slip away to the couch on a semi-regular basis, a tendency that put a strain on his relationships. “You fall asleep in bed with your partner and you wake up and they’re asleep on the couch, Mischa said. “It’s easy to misinterpret what that is.”
He treats couch-sleeping like dessert — something to enjoy in moderation — and only lets himself fall asleep there two or three nights a week. “The bed is where you’re supposed to sleep, and sleep is something that you have to do so your body doesn’t break down,” Mischa said. “Couch sleep is a luxury.”