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There's a lovely black-and-white photograph that makes the rounds on social media every so often. In it, an elderly woman lies in a hospital bed. Her husband sits beside her, holding her hand, while they both raucously laugh.
Despite their bleak surroundings, the couple radiates joy and the kind of shared intimacy we all aspire to in our relationships. Superimposed on the image is the phrase: A "perfect marriage" is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.
If only it were that simple.
Reality, of course, is much more complex. We all experience shining moments, as well as bad moods, dark days, and bumps in the road. Trying to keep pace with a partner along the way is a beautiful challenge that can often prove daunting and even feel impossible.
A great relationship requires all sorts of work, but maybe you can start here. These five books are packed with actionable advice based upon years of scientific research, marriage counseling, and behavioral studies. Consider them on-call roadside relationship assistance.
1. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman, PhD, and Nan Silver
Why It's Compelling: Over the past 40 years, Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, have revolutionized the study of marriage by using rigorous scientific procedures to observe the habits of married couples. They have written dozens of books based upon their research, and this one represents the culmination of their life's work. In it, John Gottman offers seven principles to guide couples on the path toward a harmonious and long-lasting relationship.
Great Takeaway: One of Gottman's key principles is nurturing fondness and admiration for your partner. Simply thinking about what you appreciate about the other person can repair fraying relations. Make an effort to talk about the happy events of the past. Gottman writes, "I've found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage's history are likely to have a happy future as well."
2. Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success—Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain, by B Grace Bullock, PhD
Why It's Compelling: When we are stressed, the social bonds that connect us to our loved ones can begin to break down. Too often in moments of distress, we internalize our feelings and shut out the very people who could help us most. Dr. B Grace Bullock integrates the science of mind, body, and brain to explain how stress undermines our relationships, and what we can do about it. Her seven skills are essential tools for creating and maintaining a healthy and successful relationship with yourself and others.
Great Takeaway: The foundation of Bullock's mindfulness method is the BREATHE model. In moments of stress, turn your focus inwards to focus on your breath. When you intentionally regulate your breathing, you are able to concentrate on the emotions you are experiencing. This heightened awareness will help you appraise and adjust your mind-set, allowing you to more effectively cope and communicate in the moment.
3. Happily Ever After . . . and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams, by Linda and Charlie Bloom
Why It's Compelling: Working as therapists for more than 40 years, Linda and Charlie Bloom have heard it all, from "couples with great relationships don't fight" to "little things aren't worth getting upset over." But, as they illustrate in this book, these myths can actually prevent couples from building intimate relationships. The Blooms offer compelling stories and suggestions for replacing myths with realistic expectations, and guidelines to help you enhance and strengthen your relationships.
Great Takeaway: "Having a great relationship means more than just staying together. A true partnership is a means through which our deepest longings are awakened and ultimately realized. And unless we enjoy trust, intimacy, caring, and love with our partner, we are sharing an arrangement, not a true partnership."
4. Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships, by Sue Johnson, PhD
Why It's Compelling: Often cited as the method of couples therapy with the highest rate of success, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) views the love relationship as an attachment bond and works to reestablish safe emotional connection between partners. In this book, Dr. Sue Johnson introduces a practical approach to EFT and reveals how understanding each other's emotions and enhancing emotional and physical closeness can help couples repair rifts and build strong, loving bonds.
Great Takeaway: "Love has an immense ability to help heal the devastating wounds that life sometimes deals us. Love also enhances our sense of connection to the larger world. Loving responsiveness is the foundation of a truly compassionate, civilized society."
Why It's Compelling: When Oprah refers to someone as the "the marriage whisperer," you should probably pay attention to what they have to say. Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, cocreated Imago Relationship Therapy, an approach to couples therapy that focuses on the innate healing power of connection and the profound spiritual potential of intimate partnerships. Together, they have written ten books on relationships and parenting, and this foundational work has sold more than two million copies.
Great Takeaway: "When partners learn to see each other without distortion, to value each other as highly as they value themselves, to give without expecting anything in return, to commit themselves fully to each other's welfare, love moves freely between them without apparent effort."
Guinevere de la Mare is a writer, editor, and the founder of Silent Book Club, a community of book lovers with chapters in more than 30 cities around the world. Her first book, I'd Rather be Reading, will be published by Chronicle Books in August 2017.