This kind of experimentation is necessary, because the human brain is brilliant at mounting defense systems and then clinging to them for dear life. A strong relationship with a good therapist may be the best predictor of therapeutic success, but even so, we all tend to make the same self-sabotaging mistakes over and over (and over). Even our therapeutic successes are usually subtle and not particularly satisfying. Real change is extremely difficult, especially when the balance between two imperfect people is disturbed, as in couples therapy. It is impossible for anyone trying to help us to know in advance what insight, story, analogy, or phrase might slip through to help us grow.
For this reason, there is no right relationship book, period, for everyone. But what can sometimes be the case is that right now there is the right one for you. It can be in the form of chapters here and there. It may not be anything you can use right now, but a single phrase that settles in your brain and then quietly germinates for months or years before finally blossoming when the conditions are right. None is the answer to all your problems, but the best one offers ideas, language, metaphors and stories that can be useful.
I wish I could give you a simple algorithm for which book or author is most likely to help you, but I can’t. I don’t know you as my clients, and neither do these books. The following books, however, are the ones that have helped me in my practice:
Psychologist Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” focuses on two ideas. One is that most of us have the same arguments, over and over again, and most of these arguments follow a few basic universal patterns. Another idea is that beneath the explicit content of those fights – money, sex, in-laws, jealousy, not lowering the toilet seat – dances of wounded or failed attachment are hidden. We fight because we depend deeply on the safety, security and care of our partner, and it is difficult for us to admit this to ourselves and ask for it with love.
The premise of Gary Chapman’s “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts” is that while most of us try, most of the time, to give and receive love from one another, all too often we emit and receive fundamentally different frequencies. “Your emotional love language and that of your spouse can be as different as Chinese from English,” he writes. “No matter how hard you try to express love in English, if your husband only understands Chinese, you will never understand how to love.” We will never be native speakers of our partner’s language, but with hard work and compassion, we can achieve enough knowledge to make a marriage flourish.
For therapist Terrence Real, author of “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” we flourish in relationships only when we act relationally, as an interdependent “we.” When there is conflict, and there always will be, the question in a well-functioning relationship cannot be who is right or wrong, or what is the truth. It is: What is best for a relationship? Almost everything else, including the notions of truth and objective reality, is unimportant and unnecessary. “Functional relationship actions are moves that empower your partner to help you,” he writes. “Dysfunctional actions are those that paralyze your partner.”
This, of course, is easier said than done, and most of the advice in these books is intended to gradually reduce and eliminate the reactive tendencies that take over most of us when we are in conflict with our partner. Real, for example, spends a lot of time in both “Us” and his previous book, “The New Rules of Marriage,” trying to help readers imagine how they might constructively raise issues with their partner. He recommends using a “feedback wheel,” which is a highly structured series of steps to turn what might be a destructive venting of complaint into a pragmatic, loving request for current or future action.
John Gottman, the godfather of modern couples therapy research, tends to focus more on draining conflict of its destructive energy by changing the context in which it occurs, specifically by building our reservoirs of love and positive attachment. The more we can put into our “emotional bank account,” he argues, the less our relationships will be governed by how we (inevitably) disappoint each other. To that end, Gottman writes in “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” it’s essential that we enrich our “love maps,” our detailed and intimate knowledge of our partners—their hopes, dreams, fears, favorite foods, most powerful childhood memories, feelings to friends and family, favorite movies, etc. “Without such a love map,” Gottman writes, “you cannot truly know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them?”
In books like “Wired for Love” and “In Each Other’s Care,” psychologist Stan Tatkin is especially good at evoking the terrifying intensity of what it feels like to be triggered by our partners, the sudden neural cascades of fear, anger, and hurt that can suddenly to pull out of our mature selves and place our psyche somewhere between early childhood and primal animality. The goal when it comes to couples, for Tatkin, is to push our brains to the point where we can share a healthy “couple bubble…a mutually constructed membrane, cocoon, or womb that holds the couple together and protects each partner from the elements.” Many of the exercises he prescribes—like developing a customized “bubble trouble meter” to help identify when your bubble is starting to pop—are aimed at better aligning the body and brain with each other, bringing them into neurobiological harmony that strengthens a pair of bubbles.
Two things are simultaneously true of all these relationship books. These are humane texts, full of wisdom and insight into contemporary relationships. And they are very difficult to integrate, because (as mentioned) they are very difficult to change. If you spent the next year carefully reading each of these relationship books and in good faith practicing the exercises they recommend, it would have a hugely positive impact on your relationship. But let’s be honest. It’s very likely that you wouldn’t be able to follow the entire program for one of these books, much less all of them. My husband and I didn’t make it on our own, and I’m an experienced couples therapist. We’re even writing a book together about relationships and couples therapy.
The very act of reading one of these books, however, and trying to implement the changes she recommends, is a way of prioritizing your relationship, taking responsibility for taking better care of your partner, and committing to your own emotional growth in a way that is not selfish. There are no guarantees that it will save or even improve your relationship. But it is an honorable endeavor. And what else to do?
Jessica Grogan is a couples therapist in Austin and author of “Meeting America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self.”
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