Reading recommendations for someone who wants healthier relationships?
November 20, 2014 5:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm a big fan of learning things by reading; reading about cognitive-behavioural therapy has been helpful in combating depression, and reading about creative conflict resolution has been helpful in relationships with family and workmates. I'd like some reading recommendations for building healthy romantic relationships, since it's something I'm ignorant about.

I've been learning about healthy relationships the way that most people who grew up without a good example to follow do, which is trial and error. Hurt someone, or violate a boundary: try to avoid doing that again. Get hurt, or have boundaries violated: try to avoid getting into that situation again. (Learn what boundaries are: Say, "Ahhhh, that explains some things.")

I'm gradually getting better at it - or I hope I am, anyway - but it's a slow, painful, inefficient process. The trial-and-error process is also dominated by "don't do that again" lessons, with very few "here's what you should do instead" lessons.

I'm a couple of years away from 40, and I'm tired of only having trial and error to go on.

Many of the mistakes I've made could probably be placed within the classic Nice Guy(TM) stereotype, as embarrassing as that is to admit. Being too shy to approach (for years in some cases when I was younger); building up a fantasy image of a woman I was attracted to; getting bad advice from the Internet; dating people I wasn't very attracted to because it was easier; falling rapidly for someone I hardly knew; letting myself get walked over to the point where I had been isolated from almost all my family and friends; digging up relationship history on someone I was miserably waiting to dump me in order to try to understand why it was happening; using intentionally cruel words after breaking up with someone; using unintentionally cruel words after breaking up with someone; letting great sex blind me to serious mental health issues; completely failing to contact someone I was dating for a couple of weeks. (Not in that order.)

Most of my mistakes have been driven by cluelessness or fear; I can only remember one that was driven by malice or anger. I've had friendly post-breakup reconnections with most of my exes; that part usually (though not always) comes easier for me. Not that any of that makes my relationships any more successful, mind you; the actions that fear proposes sometimes aren't that different from the actions that malice would propose.

After each mistake, I did some research afterwards and learned that, yes, it is universally agreed that this latest mistake was a bad thing to do. I've mostly been able to avoid making the same mistake twice, but I'm sure I have plenty of additional mistakes to make in the future. My ignorance is vast. All of my relationships have been less than a year.

Given all that, what reading would you recommend for me? A book or books would be great. So would a summary of the relationship lessons you've learned, if you think they'd be helpful for me. I'm looking for both "here are mistakes to avoid" and "here's what you should do." Especially "here's what you should do", since that's where my area of ignorance is vastest.

Thanks in advance.
posted by clawsoon to Human Relations (44 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Perennial favorite Feeling Good has chapters on 'love addiction' and 'approval addiction'. I personally think the word addiction is a bit strong, but it could be worth a look. The general idea of the book is about breaking negative thought patterns and replacing them with healthier ones. (It's not about not needing love and approval; it's about not letting the desire for love and approval rule you.)

I got a surprising lot out of that book.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:46 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How to be an Adult in Relationships gave me an excellent understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like. Highly recommended.

You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation
is also very good on communication issues.
posted by susanvance at 5:54 AM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations so far. I could probably also use something even more basic that discusses healthy relationship nuts-and-bolts.
posted by clawsoon at 6:49 AM on November 20, 2014

Read Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray — and then do the exact opposite of what the protagonists of these books do.
posted by starbreaker at 7:04 AM on November 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: John Gottman will probably be helpful. He writes about marriage, rather than dating, but I'm pretty sure the principles translate pretty seamlessly: respect, honesty, communication.

Looking at your linked comment, are you looking more for "how to date" books? Because in my experience those tend to be pretty shitty and gender-as-destiny, as a category.
posted by jaguar at 7:08 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Running on Empty: Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect (trust me, there's more to the book than just "bad parenting" --- even if your parents are amazing people, I recommend reading it; second time I've recommended this book on Mefi this week!)

The Sociopath Next Door (helpful for understanding red flags and how subtle they can often be -- and recognizing these within yourself as well).

I know these seem tangential to the query at hand, but understanding emotional nuance and learning empathy (both of which these books address) is a key part of healthy relationships.

How are you with maintaining non-romantic relationships? I.e., how are your friendships with other men? If they're good/strong, what do you do in those relationships that you don't do in your romantic life?
posted by melissasaurus at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sorry, better Gottman link. The Gottman Institute has a blog, too.
posted by jaguar at 7:10 AM on November 20, 2014

No More Mr. Nice Guy - I found this to be very helpful, especially when it came to understanding how to set healthy boundaries.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 7:15 AM on November 20, 2014

You may also like the blog Dr. Nerd Love.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As it so happens, I teach marriage and relationship skills to married and engaged couples. We just got done teaching the material from How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Stephen Stosny and Pat Love. I love this particular book because it starts with science of gender and neurology, giving a scientific basis for how to approach relationships with men and women.

Stosny and Love's advice is spot on. When I teach I sense the effectiveness of the material by noticing the number of elbow nudges the couples share when we cover a topic. (Elbow nudges are body language, in my experience, for "see, that's what I've been telling you!) In many relationship classes, the female-to-male nudges are more numerous because they start with communication, which tends to be the females' stronger suit. But with this book, there was parity between the the male-to-female and female-to- male nudges. It is the most gender-balanced relationship book I've ever seen. And among the most effective.

Other favorites we've taught are John Gottman's Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work and Markman & Stanley's Fighting For Your Marriage. Both started with longitudinal studies and lab research and ended up with complementary theories. They both identified four behaviors that will kill a relationship no matter how much romance and sizzle you try to douse it with. Gottman calls them "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and Markman & Stanley call them "The Four Danger Signs." As you might guess, Gottman is the more entertaining read. But both of them are chock full of practical relationship tools that I not only teach, but use in my own 27 year marriage.

And there is a world of other great stuff out there. Check out Smartmarriages for a lot more. These resources are aimed at marriage, but are generally applicable to all romantic relationships between women and men.
posted by cross_impact at 7:25 AM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This might be well outside the range of what you're comfortable with, but I thought that The Ethical Slut, which is primarily about polyamory, actually had a wealth of wonderful information about how to maintain your sense of self in a relationship, how to deal with jealousy like an adult, and how to communicate in healthy and productive ways.

Also, for the record, since you're going to run into it a lot in many of the dating books: anything you read that claims that men and women work differently in relationships because their brains are biologically different and when we were cavemen blah blah blah is unscientific nonsense. There may be a biological foundation for some gender differences (which is a spectrum and not a binary anyway), but we're nowhere near understanding that scientifically, and culture plays a massive and i think dominant role in determining how men and women and other folks on the gender spectrum interact. Yes, there is definitely work for you to do in terms of understanding how women are socialized to behave and interact, but remember that underneath everything they're just people. People like you. Humans you can interact and connect with like actual humans.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, for the record, since you're going to run into it a lot in many of the dating books: anything you read that claims that men and women work different in relationships because their brains are biologically different and when we were cavemen blah blah blah is unscientific nonsense.

Yes, this is a huge problem in many dating/relationship books. Because even if there are general neurological differences by gender (which is debatable; there's generally shown to be more overlap than difference), you're not dating "the average woman," you're dating an individual. Make sure that any advice you seek out or follow keeps that in mind, because it's a basic piece of respect that the PUA stuff you mentioned ignores.
posted by jaguar at 7:33 AM on November 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: jaguar: Looking at your linked comment, are you looking more for "how to date" books? Because in my experience those tend to be pretty shitty and gender-as-destiny, as a category.

On days like today, I think I need full spectrum help. :-) Everything from how to think about the kind of person I'd like to be with, how to find people like that, how to date in a way that's positive for both people, how to manage feelings that are taking me for a ride (both positive and negative), how to figure out if a dating relationship would make for a good long-term relationship, how to have a good long-term relationship.

I've read some John Gottman, but... hmm... I guess that clarifies the question for me:

Before I get to a healthy relationship, I guess I need to focus on healthy dating.

melissasaurus: How are you with maintaining non-romantic relationships? I.e., how are your friendships with other men? If they're good/strong, what do you do in those relationships that you don't do in your romantic life?

Friendly, but not that strong. There's a guy I've worked with for five years who I'll occasionally talk with about personal stuff, but we never meet outside of work; there are guys I play soccer with, but nothing else; some friendly folks at biology workshops that I see a couple of times a month; a mailing list I've been on for a decade and a half. One very good, long-term female friend; no romantic potential there, but we've helped each other through some difficult bumps over the past decade.

I was never great at making or maintaining strong friendships, and the time-suck of being a single parent while working full time for the past eight years hasn't helped. Most of the time it doesn't seem all that important, and I'm content with friendly acquaintances and coworkers.
posted by clawsoon at 7:48 AM on November 20, 2014

Response by poster: Setec Astronomy: No More Mr. Nice Guy - I found this to be very helpful, especially when it came to understanding how to set healthy boundaries.

That may be a great book, but the title is ringing too many PUA bells in my brain. Does the author use the phrase "Average Frustrated Chump" anywhere in the book?

you're a kitty!: This might be well outside the range of what you're comfortable with, but I thought that The Ethical Slut, which is primarily about polyamory, actually had a wealth of wonderful information about how to maintain your sense of self in a relationship, how to deal with jealousy like an adult, and how to communicate in healthy and productive ways.

Some of the most sensible-sounding advice I've seen so far on Metafilter has come from self-identified polyamorists, which I find interesting.
posted by clawsoon at 8:03 AM on November 20, 2014

Some of the most sensible-sounding advice I've seen so far on Metafilter has come from self-identified polyamorists, which I find interesting.

I suspect that anytime you can't rely on the standard social patterns and unthinking expectations, you have to do a whole bunch of extra thinking about how we structure relationships.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:14 AM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: showbiz_liz: Perennial favorite Feeling Good has chapters on 'love addiction' and 'approval addiction'.

One of the Amazon reviews of "No More Mr. Nice Guy" mentions another book by the author of "Feeling Good", called Intimate Connections. I wonder if the information would be more focused and just as useful.
posted by clawsoon at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2014

Ha ha, *you* brought up the Nice Guy(tm) idea. :) (No, it's got nothing to do with A.F.C.s)

I'm pretty much the same age as you and the Nice Guy Syndrome is something that has bedeviled many in our generation, myself included. NMMNG deals with that specific issue head-on.

It also addresses the inability for men to emotionally bond with one another, something you tangentially referenced in your other response. If we cannot form emotional bonds with other men then we're dependent upon women as our sole outlet for it, which leads to problems - codependency, Nice Guy Syndrome, etc.

If you want something a little 'fluffier', check out The Five Love Languages. It's non-gender specific but I found the ability to categorize my 'relationship needs' very helpful. I was in many a 'round peg, square hole' type of relationship for years where I found that not knowing what I needed meant that I was unable to see that I wasn't getting what I needed. (Take the quiz! It's a great introduction to 5LL even before you read the book.)

More than anything else - introspection helped me. Know thyself.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding introspection. I don't know if this is true for anyone else here, but I find that hanging out with other couples helps me get a sense of how healthy relationships work (or don't work), especially if they have been your friends for a long time.
posted by skippingcharades at 8:25 AM on November 20, 2014

Response by poster: skippingcharades: I find that hanging out with other couples helps me get a sense of how healthy relationships work

Maybe I should make some healthy-couple friends. Hmm. Most of my friends are as romantically fucked-up as I am.
posted by clawsoon at 8:57 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of this is focused on sex rather than finding a partner, but Dating Tips for Feminist Men has some good solid advice on communication, honesty, respect, and self-awareness even at the early stages of dating. (Ignore the parts about self-identifying as feminist if you don't. The advice is still good.)
posted by jaguar at 9:03 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Especially "here's what you should do", since that's where my area of ignorance is vastest.

(Sorry for the serial posting.) I think part of the issue is that there's not one path of "what you should do." There are basic skills you can learn (communication, compromise, emotional identification and regulation) and beliefs you can develop (respecting others, respecting yourself, trusting others, trusting yourself), but a healthy relationship is based on individual needs, strengths, histories, goals, and preferences.

One of the reasons that PUA stuff (and much of the women's magazine stuff) is so toxic is because it presents a picture of "Just act like someone you're not, and treat everyone of the opposite sex as if they are interchangeable pod people, and you'll get sex!" I would be extremely wary of anyone or anything that said "Here's what you should do," unless it's focused entirely on how to grow emotionally enough to be genuinely open with other people.
posted by jaguar at 9:11 AM on November 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate it all, Jaguar.
posted by clawsoon at 9:23 AM on November 20, 2014

Earlier MetaFilter discussion on that Dating Tips article, which has some good discussion, too.
posted by jaguar at 9:27 AM on November 20, 2014

Best answer: Most of the time it doesn't seem all that important

This is pretty huge. If you feel most of the time like maintaining your friendships isn't important, then it almost doesn't matter what you do or don't do--that message is eventually going to come across, regardless. People will either meet you at that level, and keep you in an arms-length friendship. Or they won't want to be friends after a while.

And it goes double for romantic relationships. Even if you're constantly doing "all the right things," whatever that means, but x% of the time, it just feels unimportant to you; the other person is eventually going to hit their personal tipping point and decide the relationship isn't worth it to them, since they don't feel valued. It may be difficult indeed to find someone whose tipping point of how much they can tolerate feeling that the relationship is unimportant to their partner is x% or higher.

Since you asked for a book, I'd suggest The Journal of Best Practices, not so you can crib the writer's list of best practices necessarily, but as a technique you might think about for using in any kind of relationship you'd like to deepen. It's weirdly formal to ask for a performance review and take copious notes, but some of my most socially skilled friends kind of create their own journal of best practices, just informally and verbally, when they say "do you take cream and sugar?" and make an effort to remember my answer from then on, or they say "hey, are we ok? Did it bother you when...?" and make a mental note not to do that again around me (maybe #notallwomen would feel the same), or they say "it feels like we haven't talked in a while. Do you want to make sure we check in with each other at least once a week?" I promise you there are some women (#notallwomen) who like to have relationship rules and personal preferences all spelled out and nailed down like this; it's not just you. I think if you ask what the other person prefers, and pay attention to their answer, and remember it and adjust your behavior even when it feels unimportant, that is a way to demonstrate that the relationship actually is important to you.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:40 AM on November 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I strongly recommend, Intimate Connections: The Clinically Proven Program for Making Close Friends and Finding a Loving Partner, by David Burns, MD. The book is just wonderful.
posted by alex1965 at 9:45 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Funnily enough, the first thing that came to mind for me was Shakespeare. Lots of interesting personality studies there.

"a brother noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none"

This line from King Lear always gets me because it used to describe me to a tee. I fell for the manipulations of all sorts of shady people simply because I was so good and "pure" that the idea that someone would want to harm or manipulate another person that never harmed them wouldn't even enter my mind.

But you probably don't feel like reading the Bard for this issue which is more than understandable. There are loads of books on Amazon about relationships and about the types of persons to avoid, but in the end the only thing that really helps is personal experience. I wasn't encouraged to have social relationships growing up so there are things I learned the hard way that most people seem to already know by the time they are adults.

1) Don't make excuses for people who are nice to you in private, but then when someone else comes into the room all of a sudden they start putting you down or exposing things about you that make you look bad. They ARE doing it on purpose. They simply want the benefits of your friendship in private without the expectations of actually being a friend in return. Take and no give. Do not spend any time with these people and do not let them think they can get away with this behavior.

2) Do not give disloyal people second chances. Ok, maybe on some rare occasions depending on the situation, but in my experience every single time in my life when a friend or relative has stabbed me in the back. They always, AlWAYS did it again even after promising they never would. Even the times when I thought they didn't, I would find out 12 years later that they did and I consider myself lucky that I actually found out because a lot of their "friends" never did. Unless you're doing something truly ridiculous, real friends defend you when someone tries to kick you down.

3) Birds of a feather flock together. If someone is an unworthy POS almost certainly anyone who is a close friend of theirs is also an unworthy POS. Even if that person's friend seems entirely different or seems to be a victim in some way, if they choose to spend their time with someone like that, they are secretly a lot more like them than they are putting on.

4) The specific words people choose matter and what people say matters. A person who says, "Everyone lies." Is likely to be the biggest liar you ever met. A person who says, "Everyone cheats" Is likely to be a big cheater. A person who says "Everyone is hypocritical" is going to be a huge hypocrite. Never fails. These people really believe that everyone does these things because they themselves do them all the time and therefore figure it's normal and justifiable behavior.

5) Do not automatically believe your first judgement about someone- bad or good. And do not automatically believe what someone says about someone else even if you think they have "no reason to lie". People ALWAYS have a reason to lie, even if it's just as simple as they are bored and feel like spewing negativity. This can be hard to wrap your head around especially if you're like Edgar (The character being referred to in the King Lear Quote) but it is true that some people don't need an actual reason to be deceitful or nasty.

I don't know if you already knew these things. I was really socially inexperienced when I went into the real world so I didn't know them.
posted by rancher at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I strongly recommend, Intimate Connections: The Clinically Proven Program for Making Close Friends and Finding a Loving Partner, by David Burns, MD. The book is just wonderful.

it works.

also, if you find yourself not standing up for yourself in relationships, I suggest No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover. The politics is unimportant, but that's only one chapter in the book.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:27 AM on November 20, 2014

Tiny Beautiful Things is about more than just relationships (sort of)... Reading it taught me to be more empathetic, to understand boundaries in all kinds of relationships. I honestly feel like a different person having read it.

Maybe not exactly what you're looking for but check out the reviews. I couldn't recommend it highly enough to everyone I know (and strangers on the internet :)
posted by ista at 7:23 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations. My reading list will be full for a while. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 7:50 AM on November 21, 2014

Response by poster: I've added one more book to the pile: Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples.
posted by clawsoon at 4:28 AM on November 22, 2014

Erich Fromm - The Art of Loving
Also an old AskMe thread titled "What's it like when it's nice?"
posted by yoHighness at 3:30 PM on November 24, 2014

Response by poster: I'm reading the books as they come in, and making notes, and I'll update this thread with my thoughts on each of them later. This bit, though, from "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It", is worth an immediate mention for its humour value:
By the time he's an adult, his emotions are like an invisible clitoris; you should not be too direct too quickly.
posted by clawsoon at 10:30 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In case you have room for one more, Hold Me Tight is a self-help guide to emotion-focused therapy. Despite the cheesy title, it presents a well-researched and original take on relationships.
posted by Frenchy67 at 8:52 PM on November 25, 2014

Response by poster: Frenchy67: Hold Me Tight

Added to the list... thanks!

One thing I'm realizing as I start on my reading is that the books for couples are usually for people already in a committed relationship, who are willing to stay committed and try to rescue the relationship even though it has started to become frozen and resentful. I've only recently begun to think of the possibility of a romantic relationship with that level of commitment in my life. I remain dubious about the possibility that it will happen, given my history, but I'm more open to the idea now, and that's part of what launched this AskMefi. (Raising my daughter has proven to me that I'm capable of that level of commitment, but romantic commitment feels very different from commitment to your child.)

Hopefully at least one of the books will address questions like, "How do you know whether that's what you want?" and "If you do realize you want it, how do you get there?"
posted by clawsoon at 5:13 AM on November 26, 2014

Check out David Richo. He actually writes more about "What do I do as an individual to be honest and open and fair in my relationships?," rather than about how couples should resolve conflict (both are important, of course).
posted by jaguar at 7:02 AM on November 26, 2014

Response by poster: I'll mark answers and write my thoughts on each couple of books as I finish them. I hope that's not considered bad form for Metafilter.

The first two books to arrive:


The Sociopath Next Door

The book seemed like an odd choice, but one of the points that the author repeatedly returned to was that conscience - which sociopaths lack - is intimately tied to love: "[C]onscience is a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment... [it] does not exist without an emotional bond to someone or something, and in this way conscience is closely allied with the spectrum of emotions we call 'love'."

The book also provides a useful distillation of some of the things to watch out for in a potential partner that rancher talks about. Charm and charisma can blind us to a sociopathic personality; as a defense, the author suggests that "the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behaviour with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person's forehead as you will ever be given," and, "One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you're dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behaviour. Cut your losses and get out as soon as you can."

Completely tangentially, I appreciated the book's reference to D.S. Wilson's multilevel selection theory; it deserves more press.

The one criticism I have of the book is that it seems to see sociopathy behind every bad behaviour, without exploring the idea that singular symptoms are probably signs of something else. Boredom at work? If that's a sign of sociopathy, there are a lot more sociopaths than the estimated 4%. Problems creating lasting relationships, bitterness and anger in interpersonal interactions? Sure, those might be a sign of a sociopathic lack of a desire for interconnection; they also might be the result of exactly the opposite, of repeated pain and disappointment when deeply desired interconnections have failed.

Okay, maybe I have two criticisms, this one much less important: The author thinks that rates of sociopathy are lower in China than in the West. My own reading about modern Chinese history, from the Taiping Rebellion through the warlord era, the Communist Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and the modern white cat-black cat era (in which Chinese capitalists seem to be consciously trying emulate the heartless assholes of classic Communist propaganda) throws up plenty of examples of sociopathy in Chinese society.

Overall: Not really what I'm looking for; some claims were dubious; still an interesting read.


How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It

This book starts with the assumption that there's a marriage already in place which has hit some rough spots but is worth saving. It also assumes that the male and female roles and attitudes are fairly conventional, which is probably a generally fair assumption for its target audience. The nutshell assumptions that it makes are that men get overwhelmed by shame in a relationship, while women get overwhelmed by fear.

It's basic thesis is that when we feel connected, we feel safe and communicate well. Therefore, working on building connection makes for better communication, but working on building communication does not make for better connection. The hands-on portion of the book is about building connection skills: Reaffirming the importance of the relationship, increasing the level of affection and intimacy, learning to see things from your partner's perspective. There are a handful of flip chart word lists to help you remember the right thing to do and the right attitude to take: "Improve, Appreciate, Connect, Protect"; "Recognition, Remorse, Repair". Building your connection skills, the book says, will automatically make communication better.

There were a couple of points that stood out for me that I'll note here:

One of the first notes I took from the book was an accurate reflection on my experience raising my daughter: is riskier for men to invest too much in love, compassion and nurturance, as that will make them more vulnerable to feeling like failures as lovers, providers, protectors and parents. When men have no choice in the matter, for example when they are single parents, they abandon their shame-avoidant habits and become more loving, compassionate, and nurturing.
There's truth in that. Because there's no question about my commitment to my daughter, I'm already automatically doing some of the non-romantic connection-building stuff they recommend in the book. (Hugs are essential. Starting and ending the day with an expression of affection makes everybody's day better.) The authors say that reminding ourselves of our core commitments and core values makes doing difficult emotional work much more straightforward:
How do you switch into approach mode when you have negative feelings about your partner? You do it from your core values. You make a choice to approach.
And it makes an argument for not responding to negative emotions with avoidance, which is a sometimes habit of mine: emotion is the body's way of getting our attention to make us act on it. For the most part, we become aware of negative feelings when we do not do what they prepare us to do - that's when they start to feel bad. The pain in your foot gets you to loosen the laces of your shoes.
Overall: I can imagine this book being useful for couples, especially conventional couples in conventional relationships, and I believe cross_impact when he says it works well for the couples he teaches. I'm some distance from that level of commitment to (and even some distance from defining any of my core values in terms of) a romantic relationship, so this might be a book I return to at some future distant date.

More books to come...
posted by clawsoon at 5:49 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Another book finished. But first, one more depressing note from "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It": If you're a man and you get depressed, get it treated and get over it, because "research clearly shows that, unless depression is addressed and alleviated, the woman will not only be left alone on the edge of his depression; sooner or later she will be gone."

And now on to:


Intimate Connections

This book is a relatively straightforward application of cognitive-behavioural practices to dating, romance, and being alone. It's full of examples of how to recognize cognitive distortions in your thinking and argue - with yourself - your way past them. This book immediate strikes me as one that would've been helpful for me in high school and college, and it continues to hold some lessons for me.

Most relevant for me right now: I realized that I'm all about fortune-telling. I want to know right away whether a relationship would work out or not, often before I even talk to someone. I often find myself thinking, as per the book's example, "I'm not really interested in her.  She probably isn't my type." As the book points out, the correct response to this thought is, "I don't even know her."

It's interesting to note that the book covers about 80% of bog standard "PUA guru" advice.  Burns uses different labels, but the concepts are there: "inner game", "cold approaches", "peacocking", "shit tests", "be the prize".  Even "negging" shows up, in the form of Burns' recommendation of the "insincere compliment".  And, sure enough, a quick Google for "PUA" and "Intimate Connections" throws up a handful of recommendations of the book on PUA forums.  However, absent from the book are the PUA world's misogyny, anger, objectification, and encouragement of rape culture.  When Burns talks about "the game", he attaches it to positive intentions: "You play the game, not to 'win' or to put someone down, but to have the chance to share your life with someone in a deeper, more genuine manner."  He separates himself most clearly from PUA thinking when he says, "Other people aren't just extensions of your ego, they are separate and unique and have minds of their own.  It may be a pleasant fantasy to believe that if you behave in just the right way you can make everyone love and desire you, but the world doesn't work that way."

The one jarring anachronism in the book is the good doctor's "cure" of a homosexual patient.  "I instructed him to get a wrist counter and whenever he saw a woman - regardless of her age or appearance - he was to create a sexual fantasy about her and to count it on his wrist clicker whether or not he found the fantasy stimulating or exciting.  ...  As his sexual fantasy total approached two thousand he began to experience some pronounced sexual reactions from them.  As the total rose toward three thousand these effects became stronger and stronger..."

The book's final chapter flips the emphasis on "feeling good" around and talks about how the mirror image of the usual cognitive distortions can lead to "doing bad".  A depressed person might have a "mental filter" that focuses only on the negatives; someone who's headed toward adultery might have a "mental filter" that focuses only on how good the sex will feel in the moment.  Similarly, "emotional reasoning" can be used to justify bad or self-destructive behaviour: If it feels right, it's easy to believe that it is right.  He applies the usual cognitive techniques to help us avoid getting carried away by good feelings that lead to bad behaviour.

Overall: It has been useful to read many examples of CBT techniques being applied to relationship issues.  This is something I've already been doing in a haphazard way, but the book covers a wider range than I would've thought of on my own.
posted by clawsoon at 8:45 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Next up:


The Journal of Best Practices

An entertaining read. Painfully entertaining at times, as the years leading up to the author's year of change sound like hell to me:
The fact that I used to sit around in my car and punch myself in the face after a rough night of Scattergories should have been a clear indication that something was amiss.
Yes, indeed, something was amiss. But after five painful years in which a marriage died, the author and his wife were able to bring it back to life. It started with an Asperger's diagnosis; once they realized how much that explained about the state of their marriage, the author applied his obsessive focus to fixing everything about his symptoms that was wrecking his marriage, with his wife's support.

One question that occurred early in the book was answered near the end: How did he convince her to marry him in the first place? She's described as the girliest of social butterflies; he's a full-blown case of Asperger's ("'Don't mind our son,' my parents would say to guests as I pushed myself down the hallway floor on my face. The brushing sensation of blended-fiber carpet pile against my forehead put me in a place of tranquility that to this day I can't achieve with sex, drugs, love, or money"), but somehow they got together. He explains: "[W]e started dating and I began psyching myself out, thinking that now she was mine to impress or to offend, to grow old with or to lose.... Every day felt like an audition.... 'I'm Kristen's boyfriend, and Kristen's boyfriend must be perfect.' Perfectly dressed. Perfectly groomed. Perfectly behaved. Perfectly fun." That couldn't last once they got married, of course, under "the weight of real life."

There were a couple of useful things I was able to get from the book. Writing down my thoughts and feelings as I work through them has served me on a few occasions, though I don't think I've ever done it "live":
Of all the people I know, I'm the only one who would ever take notes during an ass-kicking. But it was the greatest thing I could have done. Taking notes allowed me to slow down the discussion, to understand her points. It also provided some emotional buffer. Rather than getting overly emotional, I could respond constructively and focus on decoding the underlying problems and solutions. It allowed me to be proactive rather than defensive. Slowing the emotions down by taking notes was the best way for me to process what she said and use it to influence real change in my behaviours.
And there's a reminder that a lot of this stuff is about becoming an adult:
From everything she'd told me that evening, it was clear that if we were going to move forward, then I was going to have to become a well-function, fully autonomous man. Or, as I discovered during our laundry fiasco a few months earlier, I was going to have to become an adult.
And about a continuous process, not a one-time fix:
Like anyone battling an affliction - be it addiction, hyperactivity, an eating disorder - I have to manage my behaviours every day if I want to be successful. If I don't, I can find myself retreating behind old habits. I forget to go with the flow, I lose sight of other people's perspectives, or I begin to absent myself from my family. Brooding, silence, resentment - it's all there, waiting for me.... I'll probably continue to slip from time to time.... But now when I slip, I don't fall. I know how to keep myself up, and I know how to move on.
Overall: An entertaining read, and the underlying message is one that I've seen in other books already and I suspect I'll see in more: If you're powerfully committed to a relationship, you can make it work in the face of incredible difficulty. That level of commitment, though... where does that come from?
posted by clawsoon at 6:17 PM on December 3, 2014

"research clearly shows that, unless depression is addressed and alleviated, the woman will not only be left alone on the edge of his depression; sooner or later she will be gone."

Honestly, I think many men realize this - explicitly or subconsciously. It's a big piece of the untreated depression problems that (western or otherwise) men face - admitting that they're suffering from depression/etc is a losing gamble when it comes to relationships. Women will dump sick guys so we hide it. We're penny wise and pound foolish that way.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 8:49 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Onward to:


Hold Me Tight

This book adds the talking back into "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It".  The major thrust of this book is the same as that one: Emotional connection is the centre of a committed relationship; broken relationships can't be fixed with clearer communication or rational problem-solving skills if the partners feel disconnected or emotionally unsafe.  In this book, though, the focus is clearly on talking, as the subtitle suggests: "Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love".

This book - especially the conversations recounted in it - raised intense emotions as I read.  In many ways, its tone is opposite that of Intimate Connections; where Burns is relentlessly optimistic, offering a rational rebuttal to any negative emotion that might slow you down, Johnson invites - demands! - exploration of fear of loss of attachment, of the feeling that we might be left all alone.  She invites the exploration, not to rebut the fears rationally, but to recognize that we're all vulnerable in our closest relationships and the only deeply satisfying response is acceptance and connection from our partners.

I'm not quite sure what to do with this book.  My emotional response tells me that it's touching on something important, perhaps even something that's important for me right now.  But the tools it offers - its "seven conversations" - are for partners already in committed relationships.  If the book didn't raise such powerful emotions, I could simply file it in the "remember these skills when you're in/working toward a committed relationship" cabinet. As it is, though, it raises more questions for me right now than it answers. That is, by the way, a positive recommendation; part of what I'm figuring out right now is what questions I need to ask myself.
posted by clawsoon at 1:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Next up:


How to Be an Adult in Relationships

The message in "Hold Me Tight" was that it's not unhealthy to continue to have child-like needs for total acceptance and attachment in our most intimate relationship, and we can get those needs met, and it's important and valuable to do so.  "How to Be an Adult in Relationships" disagrees.
A needy child says: I demand 100 percent of my need fulfillment from you. A healthy adult says: I hope to get about 25 percent of my need fulfillment from you.  A needy child says: End my loneliness. A healthy adult says: Be my companion while both of us respect each other's need to be alone at times.
This is an interesting rift, and I'd be interested in finding a book which discusses both sides of it without dismissing one side or the other.

Both mindfulness books I read - this one and "The Happiness Trap", recommended elsewhere on Metafilter - had what seemed to me like superfluous Just So stories to justify the practises presented later in the book.  The Just So stories used were completely different, though.  "The Happiness Trap" justified mindfulness practise with some embarrassingly bad (but mercifully short) evolutionary psychology.  "How to Be an Adult..." justified it with endless metaphors and spiritual/religious thoughts: "Even now, as you read this, many bodhisattvas and saints are gathering to become your mighty companions on your heart's path."  "Synchronicity is meaningful coincidence that directs us toward our destiny."  These stories might be valuable for some people, but I found that they turned me off the books' messages.  In "How to Be an Adult...", they went on for so long that I almost gave up on the book before getting to its more directly applicable material. Again, this might be valuable for some people, but at this point it wasn't valuable for me.

I found the constant metaphors and abstractions overwhelming.  This book might be better for someone who has already put considerable effort and thought into the experience of many relationships, enough to make the metaphors and abstractions meaningful.  A randomly picked example that's reflective of much of the book's approach: "We feel fear when power seems to be 'out there' and not in ourselves.  We then feel trapped and controlled, at the mercy of others."  I suspect that some people would immediately understand and relate to that.  I had to put some mental effort into relating that to an experience in my life, and once I did, I didn't feel any more enlightened.  That's not to say it's a bad book; rather, that I probably need a book with more concrete examples from other people's relationships, since I don't have enough examples of my own.

There are many absolutes in the book, despite the occasional protestation to the contrary.  "I show my love in my every thought, word, and action."  "I show appreciation for everything I receive."  "I feel unity with all human beings and with nature."  This is a standard of perfectionism that I found off-putting.  There's an incoherence in the book between this kind of perfectionism and its oft-stated acceptance of imperfection.

On a lighter note, the author gives a number of shout-outs to Shakespeare - "by this point in our journey together surely acknowledged as a bodhisattva of wisdom" - reflecting rancher's endorsement of the Bard as a source of relationship wisdom.

There are probably many things I could have learned from the book, but all of the things I've mentioned unfortunately got in the way. Probably a good book for someone else; not a great book for me right now.
posted by clawsoon at 9:31 AM on January 6, 2015

Response by poster: The next book comes by way of recommendations from other books:


Boundaries in Dating

This book is problematic in a couple of ways. It's also right at the level I'm at, and I learned from it.

First, the problems: It is written by Evangelicals, for Evangelicals. It has chapter-and-verse Biblical references, and says things like, "While the Bible is not explicit on the issue of how long a dating relationship should go on...." Not surprisingly, its approach to sex is to abstain until marriage.

However, having grown up as an Evangelical, I immediately understood the Biblical references as shorthand and didn't find them distracting. Other readers might find them grating and have the same reaction to this book as I did to the spiritual material in "How to Be an Adult in Relationships", reviewed above.

Much of its advice is dismissed as "common sense" by other reviewers, and for anyone with a reasonably sophisticated understanding of human relationships it is probably elementary material. However, I'm at an elementary level myself, so on to what I appreciated about it:

For virtually every point the authors make, they have an example from a real relationship as an illustration.  This is hard work for a writer, but it's great for the reader; it very much helps with understanding.  In many cases, they give an example of a couple who weren't able to work a problem out, and an example of a couple who were able to work out the same problem. That really helped me wrap my head around what they were talking about.

They give convincing and clear explanations for the standard dating advice.  For example, I know that everybody says you shouldn't date to cure loneliness, but if I'm feeling lonely, why shouldn't I date?  They say:
Relationship cures loneliness.  However, dating is not the kind of relationship that cures loneliness, and that is the real problem here.  Relationships that resolve loneliness must have certain elements, such as safety, unconditional love, and deep commitment.  These elements help the person take in the love they need, get connected to life, and stay in relationship.  Dating does not have those elements.  At least at first, it is exploratory and low-commitment in nature.  So lonely people often get deeply and quickly connected to someone.  Then, when conflicts arise, they are devastated because they invested such deep parts of their hearts and souls in the relationship.  If you are getting too close, too soon out of loneliness, use it as a signal to get connected with some good, solid, nondating relationship.  Deal with loneliness before it backfires on you.
That makes sense to me, and they expand on that idea in ways that explain some of what went wrong for me in previous relationships.

Refreshingly, they avoid any, "Men are like this, and women are like that."  For example, when they give the example of "caring and connecting" Lindsey and "strong, confident" Alex, they are suddenly silent on what the Bible might say about such a pleasingly traditional arrangement.  Instead, they point out all of the things that could've gone wrong if Lindsey had become permanently dependent on Alex's strength, and applaud Lindey's choice to actively work on growing in assertiveness.  They never explicitly tie gender to expected traits that I can recall, and they seem to be making a concerted effort to mix their examples up; for example, the story after traditional Lindsey and Alex concerns social butterfly Pete and introvert Kim, who wouldn't be on the right Mars or Venus planet in other books.  They are primarily concerned with personal growth, regardless of gender; if partners get stuck in traditional gender roles, they'll stop growing:
Dependency on the love and support of others is a good thing.  But dependency has an ultimate purpose: growth.  We are to take in the love, comfort, and instruction of others in order to grow....  The problem is that you can have a relationship that has dependency, but no growth.  The dependency is regressive.  It keeps you or your date unformed emotionally.  This is the problem of two opposites depending on the strengths of each other.  Two people are close, supportive, and connected.  But someone isn't doing the hard work of taking what they are given and working on their character and soul.  Dependency that does not lead to growth ultimately creates more immaturity in the person. ... Opposites often depend on each other.  That is not a problem, as long as that dependency spurs each member on to maturity and completeness.
As you're a kitty! and jaguar point out above, not falling prey to simplistic gender ideas is a good thing.

They tie being clear with boundaries to being honest, which I found useful in both re-evaluating my own role in some previous relationships and as a motivation for personal growth. This is the sort of insight which I expect people with more sophisticated understanding of human relationships would find obvious and trivial: Of course keeping your mouth shut about things that are important to you is a form of dishonesty! It was valuable for me, though. There were many similar nuts-and-bolts of character traits to grow (and to watch out for) in order to move toward healthier relationships which I appreciated.

Overall: A valuable book for me, but I'd hesitate to recommend it given the constant Biblical references. A secular version of this book would be a valuable resource: Something with lots of examples that tie various character traits to the success or failure of long-term relationships, suggestions for character growth, and solid explanations for common-sense advice.
posted by clawsoon at 1:17 PM on January 30, 2015

Response by poster: =====

The Ethical Slut

I thought I would get whiplash from going from a book written by Bible-quoting Christians to The Ethical Slut. I was wrong. Other than the issue of sex, the two books agreed on almost everything, to the point that it became something of a game for me to find overlapping advice. Both books are firmly in the camp of setting boundaries, clear communication, learning to be independent, and personal growth. What joins them at the hip and sets them apart from the other similar books is the emphasis they put on:
  • the importance of character in potential lovers, as opposed to physical attractiveness, wealth, social status, etc.
  • a calm and rational approach to evaluating potential lovers and situations - drugs and drinking are frowned on
  • the value of having close relationships outside the primary relationship, relationships in which you can explore deep vulnerabilities
The only major difference is the obvious one: Should those outside relationships involve sex, or not?  And what kind of sex is okay?

Any kind of sex that appeals to you and is consensual and ethical, say the authors of The Ethical Slut.  (Or even no sex at all: "If you think a 'celibate slut' is a contradiction in terms, we have a few surprises in store for you.") "Consent" is thus a critical term in the book, one that they describe as "active collaboration for the benefit, well-being, and pleasure of all persons concerned".

It quickly becomes clear that paying attention to "all persons concerned" gives ethical sluttery a combinatorial complexity. A decision made in one relationship can have an impact on all other connected relationships: "When your lover has a whole bunch of partners, making agreements can look like major treaty negotiations and might require some diplomacy." Complex online calendaring software is recommended at one point in the book in order to help a group of polyamorists maintain their overlapping and intertwining commitments to one another.

It also means that safer sex is a must. An alternate subtitle might be "learn to love latex":
We hope you don't need us to explain this to you at this point in history, but careful use of barriers includes condoms for vaginal sex, anal sex, and fellatio; gloves for masturbation of a male or female partner or for insertion of fingers or hands into vaginas or anuses; and dental dams or plastic wrap for cunnilingus or analingus.
Jealousy is another challenge of polyamory, which the authors suggest as a guide toward personal growth:
Jealousy is often the mask worn by the most difficult inner conflict you have going on right now, a conflict that's crying out to be resolved and you don't even know it. ... Use your jealousy as a signpost: "Work on this feeling here!" ... The challenge comes in learning to establish within yourself a strong foundation of internal security that is not dependent on sexual exclusivity or ownership of your partner.
The book made it clear to me that polyamory is not the life for me. Unlike the authors, who "tend to like our lives complicated", I have limited relationship bandwidth. One, I think, is enough. However, the book does do some degree answer my quest for a secular version of "Boundaries in Dating".
posted by clawsoon at 1:26 PM on February 9, 2015

Response by poster: On to the John Gottman book I picked, out of the multiple recommendations for something by him:


The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

This book offered a simple idea which I found easy to remember and which I've already used in AskMe answers and in my own life:
Complex, fulfilling relationships don't suddenly appear in our lives fully formed.  Rather, they develop one encounter at a time. ...

We learned that people typically respond to another's bids for connection in one of three ways: They turn toward, turn against, or turn away.
I didn't take detailed notes on the book, so this won't be a detailed review. The book builds on its thesis, talking about many ways in which you can more often and more clearly "turn toward" bids for connection, and how you can improve your own bids for connection so that they're more likely to get a positive response. The focus is on building warm, positive connections with family, friends, and coworkers.

This book, especially the first couple of chapters, appealed to my mathematical brain. The equation it offered in the two quotes above is easy enough for my brain to remember, and clear enough to apply to many different situations. Just focus on listening to what the person right in front of me is saying and feeling, and engage with it; don't shut them down or turn away. That's a rule that's simple enough for me to remember in the heat of an I-want-to-turn-away-now or I'm-too-tired-for-this moment.
posted by clawsoon at 11:13 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

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