Earlier this month on Instagram, I shared a little about the journey Ivan and I have been on to strengthen our relationship. We’ve always taken a very growth-oriented approach to our marriage, but losing a pregnancy in late 2018 inspired us to go deeper with the work we’d been doing on ourselves as individuals and as a couple. I received tons of requests for more information on our process and results—and I thought a great place to start would be with sharing my best relationship books for gaining insights and advice on improving interpersonal skills!
This list of the best relationship books is by no means groundbreaking, as the books on it are staples in the world of emotional intelligence and personal growth. But I’ve consumed a ton of volumes in this genre, and these are the ones that rose to the top for me in terms of being enjoyable to read, easy to absorb, and efficacious to apply long after I put them down. Below I’ve included a quick synopsis of each book’s message as well as what I personally found most helpful for Ivan and me. Consider me as having having dug through a lot of coal to find the diamonds, so you don’t have to!
1. The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner.
The Gist: Through personal stories and case studies from her counseling practice, celebrated relationships authority Dr. Harriet Lerner offers tools and techniques for identifying what we most need to say in order to speak our truth, and how we can communicate it so others listen.
My Main Takeaways: As a longtime fan of Dr. Lerner, I’ve read most of her books. And though I’ve loved them all, I found The Dance of Connection to be the most actionable. I gained some concrete skills and valuable perspectives for better navigating conflict! As well, The Dance of Connection is a terrific one to read with your partner, so you can get on the same page as to how you’ll approach sticky situations moving forward.
2. Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt.
The Gist: One of the best relationship books for 30 years and counting, Getting the Love You Want explores how our childhood experiences impact our choice of a mate, and outlines the subsequent dysfunction that can result. Once its theoretical groundwork is laid, the book presents a practical roadmap for healing both the relationship and the self.
My Main Takeaways: This book is the ultimate kick in the pants to get you out of victim mode and into personal accountability. Once I recognized the many ways in which I was interpreting Ivan’s quirks and foibles as validations of my own limiting patterns, I was able to see how these issues were “me problems” and not “Ivan problems”. So much power lies in identifying what we can change about ourselves—because truly, in relationships, our own beliefs and actions are the only things we really can change!
3. Co-Dependent No More by Melody Beattie.
The Gist: Co-dependent is a major buzzword these days, but what does it mean exactly? Co-Dependent No More breaks down the intricacies of co-dependency, then provides guidance on such sticky topics as setting and maintaining boundaries.
My Main Takeaways: Spoiler alert! Regardless of whether we ascribe to the label of “co-dependent” in our relationship, we can all likely point to co-dependent habits that are undermining our harmony. For example, Ivan has a tendency to put his needs on the back-burner; I have a tendency to steamroll him with mine; and we both have a tendency to get in huge fights about it! Co-Dependent No More helped me see the small yet insidious ways I subconsciously blame people for my own feelings and circumstances, so that I can more clearly operate from a place of respect for others and responsibility for myself.
4. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.
The Gist: Don’t let the woo-woo title fool you, Nonviolent Communication is a time-tested approach to nonjudgemental, productive dialogue that has been used in war zones around the world since the 1960’s. Hone skills for speaking and listening from a place of compassion, for a deeper understanding of yourself and everyone you interact with.
My Main Takeaways: Every argument we’ve ever had has essentially stemmed from Ivan and I making the other person wrong so that we can be right. Right about our own opinions and grievances, and right about the others’ faults. Nonviolent Communication provided us with a template for stepping away from that commitment to being right, and towards an ability to appreciate the other’s feelings and perspective. Our therapist’s goal for our relationship is to “get judgement and criticism down to zero”, and Nonviolent Communication is the script for doing exactly that.
5. Intimate Communion: Awakening Your Sexual Essence by David Deida.
The Gist: Another woo-woo sounding title, and this one with a racy cover to boot! But Intimate Communion isn’t about sex. Rather, it’s about understanding and harnessing the two opposing energy modes of masculine and feminine—modes that we express to varying degrees, regardless of our gender identification. The energy modes that we and our partners inhabit can either result in a relationship that feels full of “spark”, or flat and lifeless. Change the energy to change the relationship!
My Main Takeaways: This is one of the best relationship books because it was a major wakeup call for me. I realized that I exist primarily in a masculine energy mode: unidirectional and goal-oriented. That serves me well professionally, and indeed many women and men operate from this place in the world of work. But in relationship with Ivan, I’d get frustrated with what I saw as his lack of initiative and action—until I realized that I wasn’t allowing space for him to inhabit his own masculine polarity, because I was so extremely in my own. I’ve been working on exploring a more feminine energy (patient, expansive, intuitive) not only because it opens the door for him to grow, but because it’s essential for my creative satisfaction both at work and at home! (Really important note: Don’t get caught up in the words “masculine” and “feminine” here. This book isn’t about solidifying conventional gender roles. Rather, it’s about breaking them apart by taking the useful qualities of both and putting them to work for us. But to really get it, you’ve gotta read the book!)
6. Becoming Attached by Dr. Robert Karen.
The Gist: Attachment theory is the model of psychology that seeks to understand the hows and whys of our interpersonal dynamics. In Becoming Attached, Dr. Karen not only breaks down the impact of the infant-parent bond on an individual’s ability to form healthy relationships later in life, but also provides a detailed history of the development of the theory itself.
My Main Takeaways: This book veers more towards serious textbook than armchair self-help, but it’s so worth the read if you’re looking for a truly rich understanding of your own patterns in relationships. I found a lot of freedom in Becoming Attached. Knowing more about why I react the way I do when conflict arises helps me to judge myself less—to see my past habits as neutral, so that I can leave them behind and form new ones.
7. Mindset by Carol Dweck.
The Gist: One of the best relationship books that isn’t a relationship book, per se, Mindset builds on the research of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck to suggest that the perspective with which we approach our growth will determine the extent of that growth. When we find value in the journey rather than expecting ourselves to be perfect from the outset, there’s much more room for us to evolve into our true potential!
My Main Takeaways: As someone who was raised with the belief that I either had to be good at something right away or I shouldn’t bother trying, this book represented a significant shift for me. Healthy relationship skills aren’t innate. They require practice! Thanks to Mindset, whenever I catch myself feeling down for not having “mastered” this whole marriage thing, I have a model for supportive self-talk. I remind myself that I’m learning, that no one is perfect, and that being willing to show up with an open mind is the most important marriage skill of all.