There are tons of self-help books on relationships out there. My wife and I chose five that have proved helpful to us and in the office. If you go to her website, Journey to Inner Wisdom, you can find the links to her podcast and YouTube video of the two of us discussing these five books.
The Five Books on Relationships
1. Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix & Helen LaKelly Hunt
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt is my primary resource. They wrote the first edition of Getting the Love You Want in 1988. Since then they have sold 4 million copies of the book and trained over three thousand Imago therapists in 61 countries. I am biased, of course, but I believe it is the best understanding we have of relationships in today’s world. They have developed a whole system around their key insight – the Imago (the Latin word for image) plays a central role in mate selection.
Children form an unconscious image of “the person who loves me, who takes care of me, who meets all my needs” from their observation of their early caregivers, and you know how observant young children are. Now because parents aren’t perfect, inevitably that image or imprint holds both positive and negative characteristics. When a person, later in life, starts the search for an intimate partner, guess what? That imprint they already have in their brain of the “person who loves me, who takes care of me, who meets all my needs” plays a critical role in mate selection.
If couples can understand this key insight, troubling aspects of their relationship just make more sense. For example, iIf my wife, for example, didn’t get certain needs met growing up and then marries me, who also can’t meet those needs, as long as it remains unconscious, it will be a source of conflict. If, however, we can reframe that reality and become more conscious, we really have married our healers. As I stretch to meet her very legitimate needs, I not only meet her needs but start healing a part of me that was stunted growing up.
2. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
In his book The Five Love Languages, Chapman likens the way we give and receive love, to languages. If I am speaking English, but you speak French, German, Italian, or Russian it would be harder to communicate. Not impossible, but more difficult. The love languages he identifies are Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service. If two people are unaware of the love language of their partner they might be miscommunicating.
A great example of this in the office a year or so ago was a man who was building a new house for the family, renovating the old house to sell, as well as working a full-time job. He was working so hard to show his wife and family how much he loved them. His primary love language was Acts of Service. What was the primary love language of his wife? Quality time. Obviously, they were miscommunicating.
Once they realized their different love languages they were better able to meet each other’s needs. She didn’t want him to stop working on the houses but needed him to give her some quality time too, which he was only too happy to do, once he realized they had, in fact, been speaking opposite love languages.
3. Loving Bravely by Alexandra Solomon
“Loving Bravely offers twenty powerful lessons to help you explore and commit to your own emotional and psychological well-being so you can be ready, resilient, and confident in love. By understanding your history and past relationships, cultivating an unshakable sense of who you are, and determining what it is you really want in a romantic partner, you’ll be prepared to create the healthy, lasting love your heart truly desires” (back cover).
Her key insight is that we need to develop “relational self-awareness” if we want to have a great relationship. Rather than look for the “perfect” person, she says: “I believe that your bravest and best work is to look at yourself, understand yourself, and grow yourself so that you can BE THAT SPECIAL SOMEONE”. (p.3)
4. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
Gottman is the founder and director of the Gottman Institute, a laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, where “for sixteen years I spearheaded the most extensive and innovative research ever into marriage and divorce.” (P.1) In studying hundreds of couples over the years Gottman distilled the seven principles he shares in the book about what makes a marriage work. The principles he outlines are:
- Enhance your love maps
- Nurture your fondness and admiration
- Turn toward each other instead of away
- Let your partner influence you
- Solve your solvable problems
- Overcome gridlock
- Create shared meaning
What caught my attention was his assertion that there are two kinds of marital conflict. “We have found that all marital conflicts, ranging from mundane annoyances to all-out wars, really fall into one of two categories: either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever in some form or another.” (p.137) He then goes on to outline the steps to take to resolve the solvable conflicts. Re: the perpetual problems, he says: “Remember that you don’t have to solve the problem to get past gridlock. The goal is to be able to acknowledge and discuss the issue without hurting each other.
5. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
Attachment theory is a vast and complex field of research that originated in the field of child development and parenting. Levine and Heller extend attachment theory to romantic attachment and romantic relationships. They identify three attachment styles that are similar to the attachment styles of children:
- The Anxious Attachment Style (Living with a sixth sense for danger)
- The Avoidant Attachment Style (Keeping love at arm’s length)
- The Secure Attachment Style (Getting comfortably close)
- Where these attachment styles can differ and can cause problems are:
- Their view of intimacy and togetherness
- The way they deal with conflict
- Their attitude toward sex
- Their ability to communicate their wishes and needs
- Their expectations from their partner and the relationship
Their research suggests that: “Just over 50 percent (of relationships) are secure, around 20 percent are anxious, 25 percent are avoidant, and the remaining 3 to 5 percent fall into the fourth, less common category (combination anxious and avoidant). (P. 8-9)
For me, the most important piece of the puzzle was how to get folks with differing attachment styles to resolve conflict when it arises (and it surely will). Their suggestions include:
- Show basic concern for the other person’s well-being.
- Maintain focus on the problem at hand.
- Refrain from generalizing the conflict.
- Be willing to engage.
- Effectively communicate feelings and needs.
So there you have it. Five books on relationships that would help anyone in an intimate relationship to understand themselves and their partner better. In writing this, what struck me in all five books, is the importance of communication. Going back to Hendrix and Imago Relationship Therapy, the key skill which all couples need to learn is the safe communication process: to talk without criticizing, listen without judging, and connecting through differences.