Actually helpful relationship self-help books, a short list

Actually helpful relationship self-help books, a short list

(1) Relationships from the inside: Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives by Carl Rogers

This readable, enjoyable volume is unique. It isn’t a self-help book, but it will surely help any relationship. The author, American therapist Carl Rogers, had an unparalleled gift of listening. Here he puts it to excellent use in interviewing a number of couples of varying degrees of relationship grown-up-ness. Rogers gets himself out of the way and lets the individual’s voices be heard. The result is a text documentary that’s much more than journalism.  It is an intimate understanding from the inside of what each relationship is like and how change and growth happens for different couples.

Rogers was writing in the 1960s when the structures of up-to-then conventional marriage were starting to loosen. His project was to write about how he thought relationships would develop in the future. Some things have come to pass, many others not. So the the book has a slightly quaint quality. It’s a bit like those 1930’s post-art-deco buildings that boldly stake out a future that never happened and manage to be futuristic and dated at the same time. Despite that, this is a timeless book. Rogers particularly emphasised the power of listening and understanding to move relating past an impasse; for practical help with that, please see the next item.

(2) How to listen, and talk so you are listened to:
Non-violent Communication
by Marshall Rosenberg

Marshall Rosenberg has succeeded in reducing communication to a number of simple schemas and protocols which he teaches in this practical, useful self-help book. This is a great achievement, indeed one of those things “that ought to be taught in schools”.

A couple of mild health warnings. First, as he is talking about all type of communication, Rosenberg misses many things specific to love relationships. Also, the book presents certain schemas and protocol. These are only training wheel. It’s no good to talk like this forever, or conversation gets formulaic and mechanical. The rules are just learning devices.  Nevertheless, an outstanding guide to how to talk to your fellow human beings. Many workshops in NVC are available.

(3) Different is not wrong:
Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types
by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates

Your partner is different from you, and it drives both of you crazy and you fight about it all the time. You are tidy, he or she is not; you plan things, he or she wings it; you spend money as it comes in, she or he saves …  Read this book, learn that “different is not wrong” and never fight again!

I’m not a big fan of personality tests, but this one has value. It’s a version of a famous Jungian-inspired scale called the Myers Briggs, which classifies people on four scales:

  • Introversion-versus-Extroversion
  • iNtuitive-versus-Sensing
  • Thinking-versus-Feeling
  • Perceptive-versus-Judging

and gives you a tag such INTJ (Introverted – iNuitive – Thinking – Judge) or ESFJ (Extraverted – Sensing – Feeling – Judge) and a potted character assessment of your type. The Myers-Briggs itself is copyright. This is an independently-developed scale with the same themes.

It’s pretty accurate. I like it because it’s not at all judgemental or scary to fill in – whatever you find about yourself is good. It’s really useful for you are your partner to both read the book, fill in the scales and find you are different, and, Different is Not Wrong.

A practical note: the  cheaper, secondhand, earlier versions of the book are simpler. They are as good if not better than the later editions for this purpose.

(4) Practical action by the ton:
Stop blaming and start loving
by Bill O’Hanlon and Pat Hudson

If you’ve never read a relationship self-help book before, start here.

This is a treasurehouse of practical, meaningful relationship actions. It’s focussed on the present not retrospective analysis; on discovering what works and doing it more and more; noticing what doesn’t work and resolutely not repeating that; standing back and looking at patterns; and overall finding the way forward that belongs uniquely to the two of you. It is packed with practical wisdom.

Health warning: it is limited in it’s approach. The tone is bright and breezy and can-do, and that’s a virtue but also a limitation. The book lacks depth. There’s no feeling of the journey of the heart, no feeling of the depth of emotion between two lovers. And equally not any feeling of  the depth of meaning that the relationship has for each person on their own individual journey. But take it for what it is and not what it’s not, and it is a really good and useful book.

(5) Emotions and shadow:
Embracing Each Other: How to Make All Your Relationships Work for You
by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone

Every one of us has a multitude of different inner personalities. There’s the competent strong adult we show at job interviews, and the tiny frightened person we become if we lose our job. There’s the affectionate lover we show to our partner, and the person infinitely needy for love we carefully hide from our beloved and equally from ourselves.

When parts of our being are criticised or traumatised as a child we hate or fear those “shadow” parts of our selves.  Strange things happen. The shadow parts get disowned from us and oftentimes hidden inside our partner – this is what is termed “projection.”

Hal and Sidra Stone developed one well-known system, Voice Dialogue, for working with the inner parts and shadow energies. When we don’t realise what is going on, relating becomes a complex mess with hurt inner child reacting emotionally to hurt inner child. This book explains how the inner parts play out in relationships and what to do about it.

This book will often be eye-opening about what’s going on in a relationship. Like non-violent communication, this is essential emotional preparation for the journey of life, basic self-knowledge which everyone ought to have but few do.

(6) Love as a journey:
How to Make Your Relationship Work: Learn How to Love and Be Loved
by Anne Geraghty

This is an advanced book, and if you’ve never read a relationship book before this isn’t my first suggestion – in that case start at the top with Carl Rogers. If however you and your partner feel a commitment to each other and to the process of relating and want to go deeper in intimacy then I can’t think of a better book.

Mild health warning: Anne and her husband Martin have a very intense style of relating and not everyone has to do it like that. But she really, really knows about love and understands how relating carries each partner deeper on the unfoldment of each person’s own individual journey.

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