Since having our twins 18 months ago, my partner Andrew and I have discovered the terrible secret known to most parents: having children can sound the death knell for your relationship. No quality time together, little energy for sex, the endless bickering that goes with vying for time and constantly juggling work and home life – the list of relationship perils is long and depressing. But can a couples' reading service really help to reignite the spark?
The idea that reading books together can help couples in need might seem far-fetched, but not according to bibliotherapists. "Couple's bibliotherapy" is just one of the many cultural treats on offer at the School of Life in Bloomsbury, London. "One of the joys is that you discover new aspects of each other, or you may rediscover a connection you had at the beginning but have lost as life gradually takes over," says Ella Berthoud, one of the bibliotherapists. "It can also help couples communicate and understand each other better, as well as show new ways to share leisure time."
As Andrew and I are both booklovers, who paradoxically rarely find time to read, I am intrigued. Could rekindling our love for books magically rekindle our relationship? Yes, says Berthoud. In the 18 months since the service began, it has helped a range of couples, from the newly wedded to the newly knackered parent, she says.
Well, we certainly fit the latter description, which was how we came to find ourselves fighting over a glass of wine and arguing over which book to choose first. If this wasn't conflict-rousing enough, there were other challenges ahead. As part of our bibliotherapy "prescription", a list of books especially selected to help us in our current challenges and preoccupations, we had been instructed to read together out loud, keep a notebook detailing each book, and, the funniest bit, each write a haiku. All of which were sure to test our relationship much more than bringing up three little children had tested it already.
Couples bibliotherapy comes in three stages: the first is the questionnaire, where we were quizzed about our reading habits. (Did we grow up with books? What were our favourites? Where did we read? What were our passions and preoccupations?). The second stage is the actual session where, individually and together, we talk in more detail about what we would like to get out of our reading list. Finally comes the prescription, or "literary fix": the recommended books for each of us and a list of books to read together as a couple.
It soon transpires that, even at the questionnaire stage, the process is throwing up some interesting insights: while Andrew's answers are mostly about practical things, such as (ouch) paying off debts, mine are embarrassingly flighty ("I love the freedom to explore!"). It strikes me that it might be hard work to be in a relationship with someone as whimsical as me.
Such insights are typical of bibliotherapy, says Berthoud: "We began the couples service partly because it became apparent during one-to-one sessions that the dynamic between partners is very important. If you never share your interest in reading, you miss out on a whole area of communication. Your subconscious and your feelings will be a mystery to each other."
This is when the reading aloud to each other comes in: "When the children are young and you feel constantly knackered, it may feel like the last thing you want to do, but it's lovely," says Berthoud. "It is a way of sharing something that is so much better than vegging out in front of the television. It takes you to a different place."
All of which may lead you to conclude that couples bibliotherapy is therapy-lite, a type of relationship counselling for book lovers. Thankfully, that isn't the case: there are no embarrassing questions probing our sex lives, no "relationship milestones" or yucky personal "love maps". "We don't go down the route of discussing intimate problems, because a huge amount is revealed through reading habits," says Berthoud. "We feel we can address many common issues through finding the right fiction, but we are not therapists or counsellors."
We do briefly touch on the relentless life that we have as parents of three young children (18-month-old twins and a four-and-a-half-year-old). "That's pretty hardcore," says Berthoud, and she knows, having three children herself. This sense of shared experience reassures me throughout the session; I know she understands how demanding it is to parent three wee nippers. Babysitting? Natch. Time together? In front of the TV in the evenings, although we do spend it in the same room. Which is a start. "So when did you last go out as a couple?"
"Er, can't remember," I say.
There are some flashpoints, too: I correctly guess that Andrew would categorically not want to read poetry with me (which I know, because I've tried); and when Berthoud asks him if he would like to try science fiction, he bridles, while I pipe up: "Yes, yes! We could definitely try!" When we each have to name the last book the other has read, we both draw a blank (we would be rubbish on Mr and Mrs). Andrew has no idea and just randomly mentions some novels he knows I have thumbed through at some point in my life. I incorrectly guess Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, and then mumble about a history book set in "er, China, or India, or somewhere in Asia", which turns out to be Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I'm fairly pleased with myself, though Berthoud and Andrew seem a little less impressed.
It is also a bit mortifying to admit that (whisper it) these days we don't actually read books that much. Since having the twins, novel-gazing has been one of the first pleasures to go. When my first child was born I spent the first year breastfeeding with a book balanced on her head; now, though, it's impossible to find the time, or at least it was to start with. Berthoud has persuaded me not only that I do have the time, but that it would be hugely restorative to lose myself in some fiction. I realised she's right. Of course she's right. Everyone knows books are relaxing, one of the best antidotes to stress we have.
It's just hard to switch off when you're so used to being on autopilot. This, she says, is where bibliotherapy can really help: "It's great for couples who have just had babies. Their reading habits may have radically changed, and they may need advice on how to cope with having less time together. They also have more time awake in the middle of the night, which is a perfect reading opportunity, and they can listen to audio books, or read to each other, while she breastfeeds or he bottlefeeds, et cetera."
Four days later and the "prescription" arrives: six recommended books each, and nine to share together (all of which we will order from the library to save pennies). No surprise that the first book is about a mother, The Last Samurai by Helen de Witt. But I'm not sure I want to read about motherhood. Aren't books supposed to be about escapism? "We try to take you out of the realms of your usual reading, to 'stretch' you in new directions," she says. She's certainly managed that. Interestingly, the books that most enthuse me are those listed on our joint prescription. I'm tremendously excited by How To Be An Explorer of the World by Kerri Smith, and on my list there's a tempting but slightly shaming Jilly Cooper ("the literary equivalent of a hot chocolate," says Berthoud) while some Saul Bellow and The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna also hit the spot.
Then come the "reading exercises". Reading aloud is a key part of the couples bibliotherapy experience, but, for us at least, it's potentially the most problematic. The only things we recite to each other are shopping lists and television schedules. If there is one thing guaranteed to get us stomping off to separate rooms, it is this. It turns out we needn't have worried. We have a lovely evening, amazingly reading Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds (what on earth was she trying to tell us?) and The Classic Tradition of the Haiku to each other, and while we don't exactly rhapsodise, we don't exactly argue either. For both of us, it's been a revelation: there is something surprisingly soothing about focusing on nothing more than the sound of each other's voice. And writing rude haikus over a glass or two of wine? It was the most we've laughed in ages.
Couples Bibliotherapy costs £100 for a remote session or £120 for a session in person at the School of Life ( www.theschooloflife.com).
How books can make a difference
Make reading dates, times when you will turn off the TV and spend quality bookish time together, snuggled up in bed or in front of an open fire.
Share your literary experiences: make time to discuss what you have read, perhaps over a glass of wine or an intimate dinner. People often want to share their experiences reading with someone but don't have the opportunity. Couples' bibliotherapy can give you new worlds to delve into together.
Keep a notebook, noting down a few sentences each time you finish a book on what you thought and felt. Even two or three sentences will help crystallise it in your mind and make it easier for you to talk about it together later, especially if one isn't going to read it for a few months.
Read aloud to each other. It takes you to a different place.
Find new ways of slipping books into your life, especially if you are hard-pressed for time. Whether it's listening to audio books on your iPod while making dinner or doing the washing, or reading on the train, we often have more reading opportunities than we think.
Visit a bookshop together and choose a book you would both like to read. If you share a favourite, see if you can find an event or signing with the author which you can both attend. The idea is to find ways of making the books come alive and help you to bond as a couple.