My Favorite Books and Podcasts for Making (and Keeping) Better Relationships
It may or may not be true that one of my go-to wedding gifts—before I may or may not have heard the gasps and witnessed the expressions of horror by newlyweds upon unwrapping—was the book “What Predicts Divorce.” I mean, hey: If you’re going to be in a successful, until-death-do-us-you-know-what type of relationship, you should want to know the science of divorce, amiright? In my defense, I’m pretty sure I am right about the (unscientific) fact that 80% of the time it’s more important to know what you should not do than what you should do in a situation if you hope to survive. Example? Is that a tasty chanterelle mushroom growing there… or perhaps a Deadly Dapperling? Literally, deadly—hence its name. And, to be fair (more to my defense?): With the divorce book I’d also include a hefty gift card or cash tucked behind front cover with a witty (I thought) set of instructions, something about heading to their favorite café or bar for a cliché date-night to be executed expertly with a ritual of reading about/discussing divorce—so you don’t end up as one. Good luck.
Okay, to be honest: I didn’t actually write “good luck.” Too snarky. But mostly because relationships aren’t luck. They’re work. And as a social scientist who studies these human systems we call marriage, family and friendship, I’m of the mind that we mindfully should arm ourselves with some mind-rich knowledge about how to both make our relationships—all of them, no matter if they’re of the chosen or biological variety—awesome. Okay, at least good. But, hopefully awesomely awesome! One thing we researchers know for sure: relationships are a little bit art and a little bit science. And yes, for sure, you can increase your chances of success by knowing more your own contributions to and choices in them (aka, did the way I just roll my eyes move us a notch closer to divorce, or did it serve as a humor-moment and thus worked in our favor?). To help you with all of that and more, I’ve picked my favorite books and podcasts for making and keeping better relationships. It should be noted: Some have been on my list for a long time, my go-to relationship 911 classics (and now my chosen wedding or engagement gifts). Some are newer to my favorites list because either they’re just newer in publication date and/or (yay) they finally came across my radar—usually thanks to a geeky friend/therapist and/or fellow relationship researcher.
So, if you want better, wiser, and/or more delightful relationships of many varieties, you’re wise to keep these five titles by your bedside:
What Shamu Taught me about Life, Love, Marriage by Amy Sutherland.
Trust me, it’ll change not only your current marriage and/or future marriage, but every encounter with every other human being in every context—as in forever more. ABSOLUTELY. FREAKIN’. BRILLIANT! And practical. And so obviously simple that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of eye-opener about our own and others’ behavior. It’s also one you can read in a couple of hours, although if you’re like me you’ll re-read chapters every few months so refine your thinking and techniques. (Oh, and please don’t tell my kids or husband about the book; I’ve been secretly shamuing them and want to continue the experiment for another year or so before giving each of them a copy in their holiday stocking.)
The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships by John Gottman and Joan DeClaire. Any book by the relationship guru John Gottman is a book you’ll want to read. As I’ve written/said/shouted/preached before and will again now: his longitudinal research on marriage is the gold standard. He and his research team can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy based on just a few key communication behaviors. In this book, he’s applied those observations—in practical, smart, easy-to-apply lessons—to help all of your relationships. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Never loan your copy to someone; you won’t get it back.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. See above comments about Gottman and his landmark work and relationship brilliance. Copy/paste here. Then buy a case of these books and gift to everyone you know—keeping one for yourself and one for your spouse/future spouse/significant other… and maybe a spare in your purse for those my-head-is-about-to-explode-because-he-forgot-to-_____-again moments. You won’t find more credible advice about how to shift, often just slightly, your tone of voice, word choices, or even facial expressions to make your marriage those among the masters (and not the disasters). Oh, and if you suddenly become obsessed with how the principles are changing your relationship, you might take it to the next level with the Gottman’s “DIY marriage repair” kit: The Art and Science of Love: Home Couples Workshop DVD box set. It’s a little pricey at $175, but trust me: priceless! And about .02% the cost of divorce court. And they even have done research on the effectiveness of their workshops. Spoiler alert: for many couples, it’s proven as or more effective than therapy.
I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to your Parent, Partners, Kids and Sibs When You’re all Adults by Deborah Tannen. This is one of my all-time favorites. Okay, almost all of Tannen’s in her series are faves, including the first “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” and its offspring, born a few years later: “That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.” Why so much Tannen-love? She’s a Georgetown Professor of Sociolinguistics who has been able to—with her witty writing and rich, profound examples—explain exactly how it’s almost always how we say something, not what we say, that will make or break our relationships. It’s possible you’ll garner the concern of everyone around you while reading; most of us nod like bobble-heads as we consume her examples and explanations. These are the perfect companion pieces to Gottman’s books.
If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together by James Sexton. Just out, this has become a new favorite! So much so, it might be making its way into future wedding gift boxes. Many who know me would say “really?” Are you promoting the advice of a divorce lawyer? Here’s what I like and why I highly recommend: Sexton reverse engineers marriage success. He’s seen the worst of the worst (the unthinkable WORST and then some) of couples—literally a thousand and then some of them. And after being on the front lines of those marriage disasters, he’s been able to capture here—with sharp writing, hard-hitting advice and heart-warming clarity—exactly what the relationship researchers are suggesting. And, he does so in a way that I think will resonate with a lot of people in a way that we (ugh, it’s hard to admit) researchers and professorly-types sometimes don’t. As such, I give this book my stamp of credible-relationship-self-help approval.
Maybe you’re not an avid reader? I’ve got you covered—and so does the world of podcasters. (Remind me: what did we do before the invention of the podcast? Seriously.) If you want better, wiser, and/or more delightful relationships of many varieties, you’d be wise to subscribe to these four of my fave relationship-enhancing podcasts:
Where Should We Begin? Hosted by Esther Perel. Wow. WOW. Wowwowowo. Someone said it better than I ever could: “This podcast is free therapy.” Yes, Perel is a brilliant couples therapist. And yes, she essentially—in funny, heartwarming, powerful and heart-opening ways—invites us into her therapy sessions to (and these are her words) “learn, explore, and experience alongside the couples who have been gracious enough to let us in.” Begin your next hour with a listen to “Where should we begin?” If you don’t learn something and think about your own intimacy and relationship in a new way, you weren’t actually paying attention.
Dear Sugars hosted by Cherly Strayed and Steve Almond. If I had added a sixth book to my five-favorites above it would have been “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” by Strayed. No one does radical empathy about life and relationships better than Strayed. Together with Steve Almond—growing out of their advice column that gave way to Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful book—their Dear Sugars Podcast brings to your ears and heart that same fundamental and formidable logic found in the book and in their earlier advice columns: that of making raw sense of human emotion and our often nonsensical, illogical, complex relationship experiences. You. Will. LOVE. And learn. And their advice will seep into your consciousness—often when you least expect it.
Modern Love, a weekly Podcast based on the weekly and crazy-popular New York Times column by the same name. I mean, of course, this is one of my faves. And I’ll be surprised if it isn’t one of yours soon too. These are “Stories of love, loss and redemption,” and while hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Daniel Jones don’t know it yet, I consider them friends. Because they’re with me as I fold laundry, drive between the two states I currently call homes, and even as I bathe. I mean who doesn’t want to listen to, for example (recent episodes): “Single Woman Seeking Manwich,” “When Mothers Bully Back,” and “GPS For my Lost Identity.” You do. And you will keep coming back for next week’s episode once you binge-listen to all in the archives.
Hidden Brain, an NPR Podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. Yes, this is a less obvious choice. But holy moly, I cannot stop listening to Hidden Brain, I once listened to more than a dozen episodes back-to-back on an overseas flight. The intersection of neuroscience and social science is not only absolutely fascinating, I find that every episode teaches me something—if not immediately obvious—about human relationships. In their own words, this is a Podcast using a combination of “science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.” I mean, hey: who doesn’t want to know more about that?! #RelationshipGeeksUnite
BONUS recommendation: A DOCUMENTARY So, maybe you’re neither a podcast nor book-lover. I’m here for you too. How about an award-winning, lighthearted documentary about the “crazy concept” of marriage? The 2017 documentary “I Do?” is one that I found so fascinating and insightful—with no easy answers and no stock advice, just an intimate look at the question “when we say ‘I Do’, what exactly do we say ‘yes’ to?”—I hosted this documentary shortly after its launch at the university where I taught. The post-viewing discussion with the producer/director and a panel of marriage and family therapists was so robust and interesting we struggled to get everyone out of the auditorium; they wanted to know/discuss more! My Rx to you and yours: no matter if you’re newly dating or been married 58 years, watch it together and talk about what marriage and commitment and the long-haul means (and doesn’t) to you. I guarantee you’ll have a LOT to talk about. And that’s really the goal, because even the research shows that when couples even watch a fictional movie about relationship dynamics and then discuss it, it has positive benefits for their own relationship. If you don’t want to have a book-club-date-night with your partner, then please do make some popcorn, turn off those damn phones, and watch this film: I Do? Documentary – A Lighthearted Documentary About the “Crazy” Concept of Marriage
Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies and writes about relationships, is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals, and is preparing her best happy-dance for empty-nest-time next year (but shhhh—don’t tell her kids because they think she’s going to be all weepy). Check out her research, books and sewing/design shenanigans over at carolbruess.com.