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Relationships are the backbone of a healthy, fulfilling life. Be they with our family, friends, or work associates, strong relationships are what bring joy and connection to life.
And yet, there’s no such thing as a “perfect relationship.” Anytime you bring two people of differing beliefs, backgrounds, interests, and personalities together there will be conflict. There will be disagreement. And there will be times when you just can’t stand the other person.
And that’s okay.
In fact, that’s normal. It’s perfectly alright to argue, get angry, feel hurt, get terribly annoyed, or otherwise be human in your relationships. And the best news is, according to decades of research from experts like John Gottman, all of that can be part of a happy, healthy, long-lasting relationship.
And yet, all relationships take work. We as humans are always learning; always looking for a way to do things better. To be better connected. To have more compassion for others—or to have more compassion for ourselves.
The following five books are among my most recommended, for their insights, practical advice, and general ability to bring greater awareness and satisfaction into your day-to-day relationships.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Written by the aforementioned John Gottman, Ph. D, this book is an excellent summary of over 40 years of detailed research into what actually makes marriage work. Gottman and his colleagues challenge traditional techniques recommended by marriage therapists and offer up seven distinct (and proven) techniques in their place.
What’s even more incredible, however, is that by observing a couple for a mere 15 minutes, Dr. Gottman can apparently predict whether they’ll be happily married or divorced years down the line. With 94% certainty. That’s a man I’ll take marriage advice from. (Amazon)
If you ever struggle with saying “no;” if you’re always covering for an irresponsible child/sibling/friend/coworker/spouse; if you feel like you’re being treated unfairly; if you feel unappreciated or unacknowledged despite always trying to make other people happy…this book by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend is a must-read.
Boundaries teaches a powerful truth that most of us are never formally taught: that we are responsible for our own happiness—and only our own happiness. In other words, it’s not your responsibility to make up for other people’s shortcomings, to make them happy, or to even “be okay” when someone violates your trust, takes advantage of you, or otherwise doesn’t show up in truth.
The great irony of codependency is that, when we give someone a pass or cover for them when they’re being irresponsible or dishonest, we actually add to their problem. Without boundaries, people acting irresponsibly or inappropriately have no reason to change! They have no problem, because we’ve taken their problem—the natural consequences of their actions—upon ourselves. What results are feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration on our end, and a newfound confidence in the other person that they can keep doing what they’re doing without concern for others on their end. A true must-read. (Amazon)
Codependent No More
A long-time favorite of therapists around the globe, Melody Beattie’s work on a principle known as codependency has changed the lives of millions. Codependency is a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity. Essentially, it means feeling like you have to act a certain way, say certain things, or do certain things, in order to maintain the love and respect of another individual.
Codependency is almost guaranteed to be present in relationships where one partner is struggling with an addiction, because the partner or family members often feel like they can get the addict to stop if they would just be more understanding, supportive, better dressed, patient, etc. Yet codependent tendencies rule the lives of most people in today’s society, whether married to an addict or not.
Have you ever stuck around for a sales pitch simply because you felt bad walking away or hanging up the phone? Have you ever thrown your weekend plans out the door because your sibling calls you last-minute, asking for help moving? Do you regularly clean up after your roommate, let your mother-in-law tell you how to parent, or cover for your co-worker’s lack of preparation just so you can avoid conflict? That’s not a great (or honest) way to live.
Once you learn to recognize codependent tendencies, and learn how to set and enforce healthy boundaries, you will be amazed at the freedom, confidence, and happiness that returns to your life. I speak from experience. (Amazon)
Loving What Is
While not a traditional “relationship book,” the principles this teaches are powerful. I opted for the audiobook version and, while I it took me 30-40 minutes to get into it, the principles the author talks about are truly eye-opening. Byron Katie was in a bad place in her life—divorce, depression, suicidal obsessions…on and off for nearly 10 years, when she woke up one morning in the attic of a halfway house, suddenly filled with immense joy, peace, and happiness.
The book centers around what she now calls The Work—four simple questions you can use to let go of any pain, frustration, resentment, etc. you may experience in life. I know, it sounds way too easy and way too good to be true, but look at the reviews! They felt almost too fake or vague to me, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. I listened to it twice during one vacation. I’m not suddenly enlightened or whatever, but I can say that “The Work” actually…works. It’s kinda crazy, actually, but I have been able to gain freedom from dozens of thoughts and obsessions that used to drive me crazy.
Mating in Captivity
I first found Esther Perel—the now-world-renowned sex therapist—on Audible’s Where Should We Begin series and was immediately intrigued. Her approach to counseling couples was so intriguing and insightful, that when Amazon served up a recommendation for her book, Mating in Captivity, I decided to snag a copy. And boy am I glad that I did.
Perel is refreshingly direct (without being obscene or crass) in her discussion of sex and emotional intimacy, and she brings a unique perspective as to why so many relationships are starved for passion and romance. I found it particularly valuable as a Christian, because it helped balance out some of the shameful (and in my opinion, unhealthy) views of sex that can be perpetuated by well-meaning—but misguided—leaders. I highly recommend. (Amazon)
Extra Credit: I Hear You
The previous five books have had a profound impact on my life, and are my first recommendations whenever someone asks for recommended relationship books. And while my own ego kept me from including a plug for my own book when I first drafted this post, I’ve since included it.
Pretentious? Perhaps. But I’ve decided to include it here not simply because I wrote it, but because the skills and principles it contains have truly have changed my life. It was literally the reason I wrote it in the first place. So while I’ll never recommend my own book when someone asks for reading recommendations, the skills and principles the book teaches are among the most valuable insights I possess. If I truly felt that way, how could I leave it out? (Amazon)
What must-reads are not on this list? Post your favorites in the comments below.