Whether you’re a newly engaged couple or have been together for 20 years, you can never assume that your relationship is going to be the one that lasts.
Most of us have relationship battle scars, from lessons learned about ourselves and our ability to truly love another human being. Unfortunately, sometimes these lessons come at the cost of the relationship ending.
In my relationship of 14 years, I have learned my fair share of lessons the hard way, but I also managed to luck out and gain some significant insights from a few books. My tribe can attest to the fact that I refer to these books over and over again – they are simply that profound!
If you are in a relationship with a non-reader like I am, I would still suggest reading these books on your own – they make great date night conversation. If you are single and feeling a little gun-shy from the pain of a previous relationship, these books will give you confidence in making good choices in your next relationship.
Here are the books, from beginner to advanced:
1. The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Why you should read it: You think you know how to love your significant other, but you probably don’t.
The take-away: We all interpret love slightly differently. The five basic ways we are made to feel loved are physical affection, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service and receiving gifts. Chapman explains that in the early stages of love, we accidentally hit on our partner’s love language – simply because we are trying to woo them using all the different expressions of love. As the relationship progresses, we settle into our own primary love language. If you need quality time together to feel loved but your partner is giving you gifts instead, this will lead to significant friction within the relationship.
No time to read it? Take Dr. Chapman’s online quiz here.
2. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
Why you should read it: Deal with you own sh*t before you point fingers to your partner or the relationship.
The take-away: Brené Brown describes love as “when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known… we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
She explains that our own feelings of unworthiness and shame, or “the fear of being unlovable,” also block our ability to accept the love of others. Besides carefully guiding the reader through acceptance of your flawed self, Brown also teaches how to practice self-compassion. She also warns that when we judge ourselves harshly, it is going to spill over into judgement of the people we care the most about:
Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplace with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families.
No time to read it? Watch her TED talk here.
3. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, PhD & Nan Silver
Why you should read it: Due to decades of research, Gottman can predict with 91% accuracy if a relationship will last, sometimes in under 15 minutes.
The take-away: Of course, the seven principles outlined in this book are extremely valuable, but what I found most fascinating was how John and Nan predict divorce:
- Harsh start-up in discussions
- The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling)
- Flooding with negativity
- Body language
- Failed repair attempts
- Bad memories
There is a lot of research data to back up what is taught in this book, and this is an excellent book for a post-mortem on a failed relationship.
No time to read it? Summary of this book can be found here.
4. Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Why you should read it: Most people don’t realize that too much “we” kills the passion in a romantic relationship.
The take-away: This book helped me to understand just how crucial independence is for the survival of a long term relationship. Perel argues that when we fail to give each other space to be individuals, we end up suffocating the spark of passion. She cautions that, “In our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish.”
She explains the necessity of “shadow of the third,” which is a wee bit controversial for our North American sensibilities. Basically, if we do not acknowledge that either we or our partner can be attracted to another person, we are inclined to keep secrets. The key is to take the mystery and excitement from this attraction and explore it within your own relationship, not with the person you are attracted to:
Rather than inhibiting a couple’s sexuality, recognizing the third has a tendency to add spice, not least because it reminds us that we do not own our partners. We should not take them for grants. In uncertainty lies the seed of wanting.
No time to read it? Watch her TEDx talk here.
5. The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte
Why you should read it: We all start out in a relationship with goals and dreams, but these often change as time passes. What we should be focused on is how we want to FEEL.
The take-away: Let’s imagine you are a couple who is buying a house. You talk with your realtor about your must haves and your wish list, but my guess is that very few would describe that they would like their house to feel “abundant” or “calm” or “inspiring.”
In this book, LaPorte walks you through the process of identifying your Core Desired Feelings, which then provides a road map for pretty much every choice you need to make. Once both people in a relationship know how they want to feel (which does not have to be the same, by the way), you have an amazing benchmark and dialogue tool to help you make crucial decisions as a couple – and to understand where any disconnect might be coming from.
It’s okay if your partner is not as excited as you are about these books.
It can be frustrating if you have a breakthrough moment from a book you read, and when you go to share with your partner, their response is “that’s nice.”
We all grow and evolve at different rates. You may feel frustrated by your partner’s lack of enthusiasm, but keep in mind that there are many things they are passionate about that you cannot relate to (like my husband’s love for Star Wars LEGO – hi honey!). Consider this an opportunity to exercise compassion towards your significant other, as Brown teaches us to be compassionate towards ourselves in The Gifts of Imperfection.
Try to give your significant other some space to learn at their own pace. If it’s seriously affecting your quality of life, consider seeking professional help.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the books on this list, and I’d love to hear any other titles that have had a profound influence on your romantic relationships! You can tweet me at @2ndhandtherapy or connect with me at secondhandtherapy.com for more free resources to become your best self.