Donald and Melania Trump reportedly lead very separate lives within the White House — so much so that the couple do not share a bedroom within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, according to a recent profile of the first lady in the Washington Post.
But just how unusual is it for first couples to have separate sleeping quarters? Presidential experts tell PEOPLE it’s an arrangement the country hasn’t seen in more than forty years.
First lady scholar Annette Dunlap, author of a biography on President Grover Cleveland’s wife, tells PEOPLE the White House hasn’t seen first couples occupy separate bedrooms since the days of Patricia and Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. But prior to modern presidential times, separate bedrooms weren’t “all that unusual,” since the arrangement had long been a sign of affluence and privilege.
“It was kind of a European thing,” Dunlap says. “The idea of sleeping in the same bed together in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century was a symbol of poverty, because you couldn’t afford your own bed or your own bedroom.”
In more modern times, however, separate bedrooms often stoke rumors about the state of a marriage. And with Donald dogged by allegations he’s had multiple affairs — and Melania famously swatting away Donald’s hand on numerous occasions — the revelation that the first couple sleeps in separate rooms has fueled speculation their marriage is on shaky ground.
President John F. Kennedy, known for his serial cheating, had a separate bedroom from his wife, Jacqueline. But they were far different from the Trumps, says first lady expert Kate Andersen Brower, author of the upcoming First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power.
“Even when the Kennedys stayed in separate bedrooms, there were great stories about Jackie Kennedy running into her husband’s bedroom or him back to her bedroom,” Brower tells PEOPLE.
“I think it’s pretty unusual now to have a separate room from your husband,” she continues. “I think that speaks volumes [about the Trumps].”
President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, slept separately due to Lyndon’s philandering, which had him bedding “more women than John Kennedy did, which is hard to believe,” Dunlap says.
The Nixons also slept separately as wife Patricia was pushed out of her husband’s inner circle once he won the presidency, according to Dunlap.
During the Clinton presidency, Hillary temporarily kicked her husband out of their shared bedroom following the revelation that Bill was having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, a former butler told Brower for her 2015 book, The Residence.
“For three or four months in 1998, the president slept on a sofa in a private study attached to their bedroom on the second floor,” Brower wrote. “Most of the women on the residence staff thought he got what he deserved.”
Neither Dunlap or Brower could think of an example in presidential history quite like Melania swatting away her husband’s hand in public.
The closest Brower could come was the image of Chelsea Clinton standing between Hillary and Bill Clinton and holding hands with her parents on the South Lawn in 1998, days after Bill confessed to having an affair with Lewinsky.
“Clearly Hillary didn’t want to hold Bill’s hand and their daughter was bridging the divide between them,” Brower says. “First ladies usually take great pains to stand beside their husbands and not do things like that.”
Brower thinks the Trumps “have a different view of marriage, very old fashioned in some ways. She takes care of Barron — he’s been quoted that he’s never changed a diaper — and they lead separate lives, which I believe they led in New York.”
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Indeed, Melania told PEOPLE in 2016 that she intended to continue keeping a separate bathroom from her husband at the White House, what she calls “the key” to a healthy marriage.
Melania’s independence stands out to Dunlap, such as her not moving to Washington, D.C. immediately after the inauguration but waiting until Barron finished the school year.
“Mrs. Trump has been very determined to chart her own course,” says Dunlap. “I think we are overlooking how independent she really is.”
Dunlap hesitated to comment further on the state of the Trumps’ marriage. “Being married nearly 38 years myself,” she says, “no one truly understands the inside of any marriage.”