reading lists

The 6 Best Books for a Healthy Relationship, According to Authors and Psychiatrists

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Listen: we’re not suggesting you buy your significant other a book on how to achieve a healthier relationship for Valentine’s Day. Chocolates or flowers will likely yield better results. But in case the holiday has you taking stock of the state of things, we’ve assembled a list of books that’ll help you and your partner better discuss frustrations, improve your sex lives, and work through big fights. We consulted a bevy of relationship savants, including Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology and the co-author of Modern Romance; Guy Winch, the author of How to Fix a Broken Heart; Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of Stumbling on Happiness; Neil Rosenthal, therapist and the author of Love, Sex and Staying Warm; Susan Gadoua, the co-author of The New I Do; Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher and the co-author of Eight Dates; Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author of Bad Boys; Peter Fraenkel, psychiatrist and author of Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage; Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense; Esther Perel, therapist and host of relationship podcast Where Should We Begin?; Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving, Laurie Watson, sex therapist and author of Wanting Sex Again; Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages; Ellen Wachtel, a psychologist and author of We Love Each Other, But …; Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and co-author of Loving Bravely; Ty Tashiro, the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. As always, we’ve only included books on our list if they’ve been recommended by at least two of our experts.

Six of our experts cited The All-or-Nothing Marriage, by Eli Finkel — which combines a historical overview of marriage from 1620 to the present with practical hacks to improve communication and responsiveness — as one of their favorite books on improving romantic relationships. Esther Perel put it in her top five, as did Dr. John Gottman, Dr. Alexandra Solomon, Eric Klinenberg, Susan Gadoua, and Daniel Gilbert. “Experimental psychologist Eli Finkel is the nation’s preeminent scholar of relationships,” says Gilbert. “His book explains how marriage has evolved over centuries, why the best marriages today are better than those of the past, and what people can do to increase the odds that their marriage will be one of them. No one knows more about this topic than Finkel, and his data-based prescriptions are both important and provocative.” Says Gottman: “The book surprises us with the history of relationships, and helps us see how they have evolved today. The new challenge is to be able to support our partner’s dreams.”

Five of our experts — Laurie Watson, Jeanne Safer, Peter Fraenkel, Alexandra Solomon, and Guy Winch — recommended Perel’s Mating in Captivity. Perel, a New York City therapist (and the host of the popular relationship podcast Where Should We Begin?) analyzes the (paradoxical) relationship between domesticity and sexual desire, and gives helpful advice on how to create more exciting sex in long-term relationships. “This book is mandatory reading for lovers! Esther has a brilliant mind and she’s a beautiful writer. This book will help you cultivate both closeness and passion with your partner,” says Dr. Solomon. “Perel’s first book brings much-needed nuance and complexity to understanding the factors that lead to sexual boredom and how to overcome it,” says Frankel: “How to sustain creativity and passion in a relationship, particularly in the couple’s sexual relationship.”

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Dr. Carole Lieberman and Guy Winch both recommend Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. The book — a practical, step-by-step manual — helps people figure out which of five “love languages” (affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, and physical touch) their partner speaks, and how to use that knowledge to better communicate with them. Says Gadoua: “This book has proven invaluable as a tool for clients in understanding that we all have different ways of feeling loved. One partner may give kind words because that’s what he needs in order to feel loved, but his partner may need quality time instead. Giving what your mate needs rather than what you need increases your chances of feeling connected.” “This book is a perennial best seller and has been for decades,” says Winch. “ And for good reason. It’s simple, short, and effective.”

Julie Gottman and Dr. Sue Johnson both recommended Come As You Are, by women’s sexuality instructor (and Ph.D.) Emily Nagoski. The book explores why and how women’s sexuality works, based on research and brain science. “This book is down-to-earth and encourages women to define their own version of their sexuality,” says Dr. Johnson. Gottman adds: “Nagoski, aided by the best available scientific data, unravels what women really need in their relationship to heat up sexual desire. Hint: It is not female Viagra.”

Three of our experts recommended titles by John Gottman and Julie Gottman, psychologists and founders of the Gottman Method for Healthy Relationships, a form of couples therapy based on the couple’s 40 years of research. Esther Perel recommended The Man’s Guide to Women, a so-called “definitive guide for men” that explains how men should approach a woman, how he should build a relationship with her, how he can satisfy her in bed, and how he can ensure the relationship is on track. Peter Fraenkel recommended The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, saying, “Gottman is the pioneer of empirical study of what predicts relationship success and distress and divorce, and the book contains research-supported techniques for strengthening positive factors and decreasing negative factors.” And Guy Winch recommended their Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which prompts couples to have eight conversations, each about a fundamental issue (trust, conflict, sex, money, family, adventure, spirituality, and dreams).

Three of our experts recommended titles by Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist who developed Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, in which the therapist and the clients examine patterns in the couple’s relationship and take steps to create a more secure bond and develop more trust to move the relationship in a healthier direction. Laurie Watson recommends her Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which gives couples exercises to help them work their way through to secure attachment. “Johnson, the mother of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT), generously shares her extensive work, so that couples can ‘earn security’ through the hard work of resolving their toxic cycle of criticizing-withdrawing,” she says. And Dr. Solomon and Dr. Gottman recommend her Love Sense, which covers the three stages of a relationship and how to best weather them; the intelligence of emotions and the logic of love; and the physical and psychological benefits of secure love. “It’s a fantastic read, by a great master therapist and intellectual leader,” says Dr. Gottman. “It explains what we long for in a secure attachment in love, and the wrong turns we often take.” Adds Dr. Solomon: “She encourages us to let go of this whole ‘stand on your own two feet’ idea and to just accept the fact that loving someone and needing them go hand in hand. Intimate relationships are about interdependence — letting someone in and allowing them to matter deeply to you. This book blends research findings, clinical wisdom, and application to help you lean into all of what it takes to love and be loved.”

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The 6 Best Books for a Healthy Relationship