I am frequently asked for titles of books for marital improvement. Sometimes I admittedly become discouraged with the flood of information and want to disconnect from it all myself, because there are so many opinions in the media.
In general, despite my personal opinions and recommendations, if a couple reads a book and feels inspired to be more proactive, intentional and hopeful in their marital relationship, then there is some usefulness in that resource. I can never predict with accuracy which specific resources will impact couples, but I can guide the consumer to something important to consider when sifting through the plethora of existing information.
In short, when considering a marriage book, be aware of the book’s “Lover.” Who is advancing the book? Is it someone with a solid background in research and/or clinical practice? Know the distinction between researcher, clinician and entrepreneur/marketer.
There are some excellent marriage books based on what the research demonstrates in the field of couples therapy. Typically, these trade books will include references based on either original research which is outlined in detail, or on research from peer-reviewed academic journals, which are easy to spot in the references for each chapter. Some books are written by clinicians, and may provide some usefulness from an anecdotal professional standpoint, but may not be entirely empirically grounded. Something else to know is that depending on where clinicians are trained, they have varying backgrounds in research literacy which informs their practices. Like anything else, authors may be advancing particular agendas for gain.
There are many popular marriage books whose authors’ successes seem to be based on their public relations and marketing abilities, which are often distinct from clinical and/or research abilities. A good example of this is the comparison between John Gottman, known as a “gold standard,” researcher, and John Gray, known in some circles as a “gold earner,” alluding to the fact that John Gottman’s efforts have focused on solid research, and John Gray’s empire of gender-based planets with false dichotomies are not entirely grounded in research, but offer common enough broad generalizations to be entertaining. A Psychology Today article from 1997, entitled, “Gottman and Gray: The Two Johns,” which can be accessed here compared the two gurus across a variety of dimensions, demonstrating how pop psychology often outperforms more solid scientific information. In the last category, “What the Johns say about each other,” the writer humorously adds that John Gottman said, “I envy his financial success,” and John Gray said, “John who?” The joke here is implying that the scientist (Gottman) is familiar with the literature predominating the field, including Gray’s popularly published works, but that Gray is unfamiliar with the solid research.
Many of the “experts,” in the media are more marketers and entrepreneurs than therapists or researchers. Everyone has 24 hours in a day, and often, the best clinicians and researchers are simply not going to spend their time in building therapy empires. Nobody initially chooses to become a therapist to “get rich,” because it’s not known for being one of the top lucrative professions. Some excellent researchers and clinicians do build successful businesses after establishing themselves first as professionals, but it’s not something that can just be assumed. This is something to keep in mind when going to a source for information.
The quality of a marriage book, in my professional opinion, isn’t necessarily correlated with popularity. Recently someone asked me about an enormously popular book describing categories through which couples can give or receive love. Many couples come to therapy having already read the book. I have read the book. There can be some usefulness to the book. It is not one I ever recommend. Here’s why: When books advise a particular set of behaviors, couples will too often use the information to hurt each other. Couples are very sensitive to each other and if someone senses that a partner is expressing love through a behavior, but they really “don’t mean it,” the behavior will usually be useless. Also, couples will tattle, “He/she knows I receive love though (x, y or z) but refuses to do it.” The book is used too often to control each other. My observation and experience is that often the prescribed behaviors in this book become too constricting and can be mistrusted and misused. It’s also not based on empirical findings.
It may offer an interesting way to think about various expressions of love, and may be helpful in expanding already functional relationships, but couples who have strong marriages aren’t that narrow or restrictive in how they give or receive love…healthy couples tend to be adaptive and flexible in their reciprocations. Marriages in which people are tracking outward expressions of love are often marriages in distress. In this case, the popularity of the book just doesn’t provide enough usefulness to me as a clinician with a research background to want to recommend it (unless a couple has already heard about it and wants to read it).
Know the background of the person recommending a relationship book. Remember that a book’s popularity doesn’t mean it’s based on solid research or clinical utility. Above all, realize that a book is not a substitute for therapy. Some people read books and when it doesn’t fix the marriage, they think the situation is hopeless. Not so. Books don’t provide the personal attention to your unique situation offered by therapy.
That being said, here are some of the marriage books to which I routinely refer people in therapy and classroom settings, in large part because of the experts (“lovers” in my blog title) who also recommend these books:
Anything by John Gottman (e.g. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work)
Anything by Susan M. Johnson (e.g. Love Sense or Hold Me Tight)
Anything by William J. Doherty (e.g. Take Back Your Marriage)
Anything by Barry McCarthy (e.g. Rekindling Desire)
This is not an exhaustive list, but provides solid authors, and is a safe place to start.