When I spoke at the first annual I Am Mom Summit last year, my husband Andrew and I had just come up with our two-person book club idea. I was about six months into a book club with girlfriends and loved reading alongside people I’d known for years and felt I knew well, yet found myself constantly learning more about through the discussions of the books we read together. It dawned on me that a book club could be a great way to build in regular bonding with my husband that was outside the dinner-and-a-movie, Netflixing, housekeeping, kid-raising, living-parallel-lives box. I wanted to see my husband with fresh eyes, as an interesting person with a fascinating mind to continue to get to know – someone who might surprise me. Plus, the English major in me nerded out over the idea of ANOTHER book club (!).
So we committed at the end of 2017 to start that January. At the beginning of the month, we began reading our first book together. Then in the middle of the month, I gave my I Am Mom session, recommending a book club for two to all my viewers. That might seem a bit premature since we’d just barely started the process ourselves, but I was confident in the idea, and here’s why:
- First, every single successful couple I’ve worked with in therapy reads together as part of their work. Period.
- Reading together helps create new bonds between couples.
- It was already working. Putting my clinical observations and the research aside, anecdotally? It was already, only a couple weeks in, bringing us closer.
That last point is what I want to dig into: What it has been like for me to read with my husband. We’d read the same book or two about marriage before, had certainly passed along books we’d liked and thought the other person would like as well, and we’ve both read some of the same religious texts at different points in our lives. But we’d never read the same thing at the same time, discussing it as we went along.
A little background: Andrew is the quiet one in our marriage. He’s stoic and thoughtful, very smart and quick-witted, but even quicker to hold his tongue. I am more vocal (okay, fine: I’m the loud one). I’m quick to speak my mind and more prone to interrupt. When I have a new idea or recurring thought, my first instinct is to tell someone.
As you may have guessed, or have experienced in your own marriage, I have historically had a hard time figuring out what Andrew really thinks or how he really feels. Early in our relationship, I depended on guesses and assumptions to inform my view of him. There have been times when I’ve been angry with him for not talking to me, not telling me how he really felt, not opening up. At the worst of it, his natural tendency to withdraw felt personal and relationship-threatening. None of this – the guessing, assuming, anger, personalization – was exactly helpful. And it certainly wasn’t bonding.
In recent years, as I’ve come to understand myself better, I’ve been able to understand Andrew better. Well, maybe more accurately, I had come to understand his type better. The mantra I adopted is, ironically, something that Andrew did actually say out loud to me: We are different people. Four little words that, once I really let them sink in, gave me more insight into him than maybe anything else. While I’d spent much of our relationship running circles in my head trying to make meaning out of his behavior or what he wasn’t saying, he’d simply chalked my behavior up to the fact that we’re different. No judgment, no panic, no trying to make sense of it: We’re just different.
So I started telling myself this: We are different people. I’m the type that likes to talk about every detail of the day while he’s happy to listen. He’s the type that loves being still and seeing what happens while I love to go, go, go and plan, plan, plan. I’m the type that spins webs in my head and he’s the type that shrugs things off. He’s the type that loves gummy candy while I’m the type that prefers chocolate.
The shift in focus was helpful – enormously helpful, actually. I felt soothed, and I found much more confidence in our relationship, a relationship between two people, two very different people, who loved each other very much. And then we started reading.
Since the book club was my idea, and I tend to control when given the chance, I offered to Andrew that he pick the first book we read. So, in January 2018, we began Magellan. Not a book I’d have ever chosen, especially since I’d never even heard of it. I vaguely knew who Magellan was (mostly, I’d heard of the Strait of Magellan) and was not in the habit of reading biographies or historical nonfiction. And yet, I read it, and it was wonderful. The story is fascinating and the writing is excellent. But the real wonder of it had nothing to do with the book itself; the real wonder came from the conversations I had with my husband along the way.
We spoke about Magellan’s background, the political and social forces at work in 16th century Europe, the magnitude (over 42,000 miles by ship) and the drama (betrayal! murder! scandal!) of the expedition itself. As impressive as the titular man’s life was, I was much more drawn to the man with whom I was sharing a life. The sections I remembered and the quotes I underlined were different than Andrew’s. The plot points I wanted to talk to him about didn’t stand out to him, and I often didn’t recall the details he brought up. What I do remember? How exciting it was to hear from my husband. How interesting it was to get his perspective. How fun it was to go on Magellan’s journey simultaneously, to be affected by it at the same time, to live through this book together as well as the day-to-day that we already shared.
A year later, I don’t remember much about the book, not much more than a few facts and bits of geography (and I’m afraid I’ll always have to double-check how to even spell Magellan’s name). What I’ll never forget is the feeling of seeing my husband as, yes, the type of guy who is quiet and stoic and kind and measured, but, even more so, seeing him as a fascinating individual. Seeing him as Andrew.
As you can imagine, our book club for two only got better from there. We alternated choosing books; some we both loved, others we agreed we could go without. Most we’d recommend, some very highly. But, and I think you already know this, it wasn’t about the books. Discovering a new favorite read or even adopting a life-changing perspective were happy by-products of the real reward: getting to know my husband, and letting him get to know me, on a level we’d never tried before.
I hesitate to give a step-by-step for how to create your own successful book club for two for fear that it falsely simplifies what is, and is intended to be, a complex process. Two people, likely very different, reading a dozen different books and processing them through their own lenses then trying to understand the other’s perspective is a feat and a complicated one at that. Disclaimer aside, a few things to keep in mind as you embark on your own book club for two:
- It’s not about the books. Don’t spend too much time deciding what to read. When it’s your turn to choose, pick a book you’ve had on your list for a while or been hearing about lately. It doesn’t matter what you read, just that you’re reading the same thing at the same time.
- Talk along the way. Originally, I’d envisioned a single, extended conversation with Andrew at the end of every month about the book we’d just finished, likely over a candlelit meal. Ha. At first, we waited until the end of the month to really dig into the book, but quickly found it was much more lively, bonding, and interesting to talk to each other as we read. Because we read at different paces, we found ourselves alternating between excitedly anticipating the other’s catching up and hurriedly reading to find out what all the fuss from the other person was about. It is so fun to hear, in real time, Andrew’s reaction to something I also just read and am still reacting to.
- This is not a big deal. The bonding, fun, excitement – that can be a big deal. But the book club itself is not a big deal. When Andrew and I found ourselves both behind in our reading this summer, we just gave ourselves more time. It happened again in the fall, and then again at the end of the year. All in all, we read nine books instead of the intended twelve, but you know what? We don’t care. We aimed for the moon and landed in the stars, and got where we are as we will stay: together.