A bedroom at around 9pm. It’s quiet, save for the rustle of the leaves in the garden outside.
We’re side by side, each absorbed in a different world. One of us might be in a submarine beneath the arctic ice floe, the other is flitting through the salons of 18th-century Paris. Every so often our toes touch momentarily but without raising notice.
We might briefly stretch a hand to touch the nape of the partner’s neck before turning a page. We can hear our partner very lightly breathing.
There is – blessedly – no need to say anything at all.
And so it goes, for what might be an hour or more.
It’s modest, comfortable and sweet. And it is, of course, a pleasure that our society is almost congenitally prone not to notice or respect.
When we’re invited to picture what a relationship might be for, we imagine typically colourful scenarios: passionate sex up against a wall, a celebration of a triumph at work, heading for the airport for a mini-break, the mutual exploration of one another’s souls.
And yet when the true pleasures of long-term love are assessed, a rather different set of images emerges, far less dramatic, but also far more real and in their own way gratifying: the knowing sideways smile our partner gives us in the presence of a parent who has been tricky in the past, watching a TV drama episode by episode and bantering about the characters and plotlines, sitting on the floor sorting the socks after the wash, the chat we have after the friends who came for lunch have departed, assembling a flat pack bookcase and realising we’ve both got the instructions entirely wrong and that it’s almost rather funny.
© Caleb Drost/Flickr
It’s within such a list of hidden pleasures that we find the joy of reading in bed together. It represents in its own way a major psychological skill. There’s not really anyone else we could do this with. If the world were fairer, we would seek partners not just who can perform spectacular sexual antics and look hot in a bar, but also those with whom we could one day turn pages in silence.
To read together is symbolic of being able to share our true selves without shame, embarrassment or the need to perform. We are, as we lie in bed together, as we so seldom are in the rest of life, simply accepted.
Long-term relationships are, inevitably, deeply complicated enterprises. Two ambitious, independent authentic people cannot hope to join their lives together without a huge amount of friction and pain.
We tend to be so much aware of the troubles, we sometimes take the peaceable moments for granted, failing to appreciate their underlying achievement. It may lack glamour, but being able to read in bed together with someone is a major milestone; and a sign of deep affection. We may be doing better than we think.