Difficulties in intimate love relationships are one of the most common reasons that new clients come to therapy. If not the primary reason, it’s often secondary.
Most problems that are serious enough to bring people to therapy aren’t resolved in the first session. They aren’t fully resolved in the second session either, typically. Realistically, it can take several months to make the needed improvements to significantly reduce both partners’ anxiety. To expedite the process, I highly recommend that clients do their own homework between sessions, and reading what the top world experts have written (the result of their lives’ works) is possibly the lowest hanging fruit to multiply progress and odds of successfully saving / improving their relationships.
I like to suggest that couples read these books together, possibly out loud to each other, because of the intimacy this can create. Being read to out loud can remind us of tender and loving times being cared for my our parents, which is often exactly what is missing / needed when couples are distressed and disconnected.
However, often it’s the case that the couple is so conflicted that even reading books together can be a source of strain. For example, they might use the books to identify unhelpful behaviors on the part of their partner and use the study opportunity to…eh, help. It’s probably much better to keep that … feedback, to yourself. If anything, it would be okay to point out your own mistakes as you identify them, but better to let your partner find their own, in their own time. So, if reading together just causes problems, it’s perfectly fine to read separately.
Often it’s the case that one partner, for any of several reasons, is motivated to read/study and the other isn’t. They may have more time, like reading more, be more motivated to fix things, or be more open to feedback in general. While it’s ideal if both partners study, it can still be helpful if either partner studies. A couple is a dynamic system in which a change in one half can make a change in the other half, and in the space between them. For the same reason that one partner getting individual therapy can improve a relationship, one partner reading can as well. Whoever I’m working with, I try to help them see their own areas of improvement and work on those, simply because trying to change another person invariably backfires. It’s fine to see your partner’s problems, but each partner in a couple has their best chance at improving the relationship when they focus on changing their own stuff.
Before investing in any of these books, I would recommend also looking at the description and some reviews online, to make sure you feel that it applies to your situation.
Audiobook versions of most of these are available.
So, in order of priority, here’s my go-to list for couples trying to save or improve their intimate relationship.
Books for doing couples work
Hold Me Tight (Sue Johnson)
Johnson created Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy, probably the most utilized theory of couples therapy today. This book is written for the layperson, not for therapists. It is based in attachment theory, which is crucial for anyone to understand if they are struggling with a romantic relationship. It helps couples understand the 2 basic insecure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant), what is making each partner feel insecure (it’s different for each partner), and what will increase security in the relationship.
Getting The Love You Want (Harville Hendrix)
A tie for 1st place (with Hold Me Tight) of my favorite books for couples. This book focuses a lot on childhood emotional wounding, how we bring that into our love relationships, our unconscious hidden agendas (wanting our partner to heal us), moving from power struggles into mature love, and how to communicate these things effectively. I find it to be a validating book by normalizing the progression of couples difficulties and framing them as a journey of mutual healing with great rewards on the way.
Undefended Love (Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons)
This isn’t exactly a book for couples or for single people… actually it’s for both. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to know why they have trouble connecting with their partners, why they still feel scared and lonely even when they do, why so much pain arises in relationships and how to lean into that pain rather than avoid it or change our partner, and overall how to grow spiritually in relationships.
Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships (John Welwood)
This is similar in message to Undefended Love. It could also be very useful to someone who is single or recently heartbroken. It addresses why intimate relationships so often disappoint us after they start out so promising, and a psychospiritual approach to filling in the gaps that any real human partner cannot provide. The “perfect love” is not the love we obtain from a partner, but the state of consciousness we can access, within or outside of a love relationship. The perfect love he refers to is love itself, which is always available in the present moment, even when great pain is present, in times of despair, isolation, and loneliness. Sometimes that love shines through from our partner, which helps it emerge in us, and that’s a beautiful thing. When it isn’t however, we can still access it.
Conscious Relationships (John Welwood)
This audiobook is a short series of workshop lectures on enjoying relationships for spiritual growth, which often comes when our needs are thwarted and then we use those disappointments and hurts to explore our own past wounds. Paradoxically, relationships tend to improve when we take this approach to being disappointed by a partner, because it gives them grace and informs them in a gentle way of what we’d like and that we (and our relationship) will be okay regardless, which tends to create a secure attachment from which needs are more often (but not always) met.
The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work (John Gottman)
Another book of concepts and techniques for people already in a relationship or marriage. While I would start with Hold Me Tight and Getting The Love You Want, Gottman’s book is worth a mention as a good overall guide for successful couples’ relationships. In particular his research on what successful vs unsuccessful couples do is helpful, by informing us how to emulate the successful behaviors and avoid the damaging ones.
Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg)
This is not a book directed at couples, but I think that since healthy and loving communication is so important in making any relationship work, I’m including it on this list. This is a fantastic classic on how to communicate with both truth and gentleness. It’s a tough combination sometimes to do both. The author focuses on how people use communication to try to get their needs met, and why and how to focus on needs and feelings for better results.
Mating in Captivity (Esther Perel)
Especially for longer-term relationships, partners often find themselves struggling with holding on to both of what Perel calls, the erotic and the domestic. We often start with sexual erotic desire, which can fade as comfort, longevity, and domesticity (e.g. parenting) grow. Perel explains why this is so common and human, with validating and insightful vignettes, and gives some advice on “bringing lust home.”
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love (Levine et al)
A book specifically on attachment theory, which is, to my mind, the most powerful way to conceptualize the difficulties and solutions for couples. However, if you read Hold Me Tight (above), you will probably get the necessary understanding of attachment theory.
The State of Affairs (Esther Perel)
As the title suggests, this book is on affairs, which can be very challenging for a relationship or marriage. I think Perel does an excellent job of treating this topic with objectivity and nuance. It describes how both parties are affected by affairs in a non-judgmental way, and offers various perspectives and insights that could be comforting and validating to both sides.
Nonviolent Communication presentation by Marshall Rosenberg
The book Nonviolent Communication is helpful for any kind of relationship, including romantic/intimate relationships. It focuses on communicating needs and feelings as well as specific requests, without judgement, diagnoses, or evaluation. In this video, the author of the book (who passed away in 2015) presents the main ideas in a concise and engaging presentation.
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt – Talk on Imago Therapy
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the couple that pioneered Imago Couples Therapy, talk about their approach and demonstrate their structured reflective listening practice (which they call the Imago dialogue). I wrote a summary of Imago Therapy here.
Sue Johnson is the creator of EFT (Emotion-Focused Therapy) for couples, which is probably the most popular and applied form of couples therapy today. She has a YouTube channel that has and abundance of helpful content for healing relationships. Here is one of her most popular videos/talks, explaining some of the fundamental ideas of her theory and practice:
A video that shows clearly the emotional experiences of disconnection and repair, and how they are connected through primal attachment systems that we have throughout our lives, from infancy through adulthood:
Ester Perel is a prolific voice in the world of intimate / sexual relationships. She has a YouTube channel and podcast with abundant content. In this video, she shares the main ideas of her popular book, Mating In Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. I would recommend this video (and the book if you want more) for anyone who is yearning for more “eros” / passion in a long term relationship, or anyone who has noticed in their relationship pattern that passion and desire tend to fade as stability, committment, and comfort grow.
This talk is on infidelity, and draws from Perel’s book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Among her ideas is a recognition that infidelity is a nuanced and subjective experience that is complicated by various factors of modern life and technology. I think she offers some helpful and wise perspective for couples and partners who feel that some degree or another of infidelity has ruptured or wounded their bond. She also gives recommendations for how to take steps toward healing, and even moving forward into a renewed and improved relationship in which both partners become closer and more fulfilled as a result of evolving from the ordeal of an infidelity.
Another important name in the world of marriage and relationships is John Gottman. His book (above) covers much of his work. This talk covers major concepts including “the four horsemen” (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling), the needed ratio of positive to negative interactions, and ways to repair conflict.
Eckhart Tolle talking about the “pain body”
One of the most challenging parts of relationships is how we show up at our worst when we’re vulnerable and taken over by our past, painful conditioning and trauma. Eckhart Tolle has a useful conceptualization of this that he calls “the pain body”. Here are a couple of videos of him talking about it:
If you have found a resource for couples that has helped you, please feel free to leave it in the comments section.