“Same Bed, Different Dreams”

A man and woman have been married for over a decade. The wife seems happy, and she feels happy, or happy enough, in her marriage. The husband seems happy. He seems that way to outsiders and to his wife, and there hasn’t been conversation or behavior to make her suspect otherwise. Daily life is filled with household maintenance and chores, anyway—shuttling the children to events, and work. But that’s modern life, the wife thinks, and sees nothing wrong with it.


Then one day, “out of the blue,” the husband pronounces that he wants a divorce. He’s not been happy, and doesn’t intend to live this way forever. There isn’t another lover involved. No particular crisis provokes this epiphany.

“I never saw it coming,” the wife tells her friends-- devastated, heartbroken, and blindsided. “We had a good marriage. I was happy.”  

There’s a Chinese adage for this kind of story: “same bed, different dreams.” David Lampton, who writes on foreign relations, titles his book after this phrase, and explains its meaning: it’s an “expression that describes a relationship of two people whose lives are intimately intertwined, but who do not fundamentally communicate with each other.” A Japanese equivalent means, “even those who share the same bed will have different dreams.”  

Marriages are often trompe l’oeils to outsiders. However, I’m more curious about the marriage that’s an enigma to itself—the marriage with intimacy but without a basic connection, or a shared worldview.  What the one spouse sees as a success, the other sees as a failure. Same bed, different dreams.

This condition must be even more common at a time when expectations for marriage are so much in flux. Some are diehard romantics—a new study finds lingering fairy tale expectations for a “perfect marriage.” But others are embattled realists. They’ve got sensible shoes aspirations, informed by their experiences with parents from the “Divorce Generation,” or by the loud cultural backbeat today that Marriage Takes Hard Work.

We don’t have a consensus about what the marriage dream is anymore—or if there is one, since we’re becoming a post-marriage nation. We’re not always even measuring our marriages by the same yardsticks.

A visual metaphor of same bed, different dreams is the illustration that, seen one way, is two people talking and, seen another, is a vase.

Here’s a schematic of opposite views of the same marriage:

HE THINKS…

SHE THINKS…

I love my marriage because it’s an anchor.  It stabilizes me.

I hate my marriage because it’s an anchor. It weighs me down.

I want to stay in my marriage because it grounds me.

I want to leave my marriage because it grounds me.

Marriage rocks, because nothing too surprising ever happens.

Marriage stinks, because nothing too surprising ever happens

My marriage holds me up in life—in the sense that it sustains me.

My marriage holds me up in life—in the sense that it impedes me.

I’m settled.

I’m stuck.

It’s interesting that so many of the “autoantonym” words in the English language—one word that has two opposite meanings—describe the state of attachment, and the ties that bind.

Cleave means to stick to closely and cloyingly, or to cut apart.

Bound means to be restrained--or to spring forward energetically, and free.

Splice means to join together—and to cut in two.

Fast means to move quickly, or to hold something very firmly in place, to “hold it fast” to yourself, and to “fasten.”

Bolt, as a verb, means securing in place—and it also means to run away, just as fast as you possibly can.  

Buckle means to fasten, or to collapse and give way—to “buckle” under the pressure. 

Clip means to tie or join together, and it means to cut apart, as in, “to clip your wings.”

Left means to depart from or leave—as well as what remains, and stays.

Root means to remove, and it means to firmly plant.

Set can mean fixing in place, or flowing and moving on.

Resign means to end a relationship, and to resign, again, to renew a relationship, usually by contract.

Even in our language, we gravitate toward the paradoxes of attachment. We embed in one word the means to forge and dissolve bonds, to move and to stay put, to be tied down and to cut loose.

It’s the soul of a same bed, different dreams relationship: The most entangled intimacies accommodate the most elementally opposite meanings. Differences in the husband’s and wife’s perceptions aren’t always about the partners being oblivious, in denial, deceitful, treacherous, or naïve. Sometimes, the spouses are just living with two different meanings of the same word and the same life.

As for the marriage I described, it ended in divorce.

There wasn’t much to say, or to forgive, I guess, and no real problem that could be resolved, laboriously communicated about, or worked on, given such a basic perceptual gap of an otherwise amiable marriage. A wife sees a vase; a husband sees two people talking.

She never felt it coming. He never felt it could go any other way.

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