There’s evidence that strong relationships are central to our happiness and well being. But getting along with others is complicated, and maintaining healthy romantic partnerships in particular can be challenging.
Therapy can help couples examine “the dance, the pattern, the cycle, the choreography” of their relationship, but it’s not accessible to everyone, said Alexandra Solomon, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and host of the “Reimagining Love” podcast. Books often serve as an informal “training program” that help partners learn new skills or gain different perspectives, she added.
We asked 14 psychologists, counselors and therapists for book recommendations that can help nourish relationships. These seven titles rose to the top of the list.
1. “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide From the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert,” by John Gottman and Nan Silver
Recommended by several of the therapists we interviewed, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” offers practical tips to strengthen relationships, from “turning toward” each other to overcoming gridlock (which happens when couples are stuck on one disagreement).
Dr. Gottman — along with his wife, Julie Gottman — has been studying what makes couples work for decades. In this book, he and his co-author, Ms. Silver, unpack research on “couples that survive and couples that don’t,” said Jodie Milton, a relationship coach (trained in the Gottman Method) based in Portugal. The resulting advice is rooted in those findings, she said.
2. “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” by Emily Nagoski
Misconceptions about low libido can cause “a lot of conflict in relationships and a lot of shame for women,” Ms. Milton said. But “Come as You Are” dives into the science of sex, arguing “that there’s no such thing as a sex drive,” she said. Instead, Dr. Nagoski asserts that people have a brake and accelerator, and these mechanisms cause arousal.
Amy Julia Cheyfitz, a sex therapist based in the D.C. area, said that the book “normalizes the variety of ways we engage in sex.”
3. “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” by Sue Johnson
Dr. Johnson is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, an approach that homes in on strengthening the emotional connection between partners. In “Hold Me Tight,” she deftly explores how people in relationships can struggle to maintain connection, said Jean Fitzpatrick, a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in New York.
“Without blaming anyone,” the book helps partners “recognize their patterns and learn to create more fulfilling and loving interactions,” said Allen Sabey, a clinical assistant professor and faculty member at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
4. “Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On — Together or Apart,” by Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom and Kristina Coop Gordon
“Getting Past the Affair” provides a framework that “helps couples slow down” and decide how they want to move forward after infidelity, said Adam Fisher, an assistant clinical professor at Brigham Young University who teaches a course called “Relational Intelligence: Building Healthy and Lasting Connections.” The text defuses some of the chaos that couples face, he said, by dividing the aftermath of a betrayal into stages.
A caveat: The book presents practical tools for couples dealing with an affair, but it’s often “best if a couple also seeks a professional if there’s been infidelity in a relationship,” Ms. Milton said, “because it is a really challenging thing to heal and to process.”
5. “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” by Terrence Real
In “Us,” Mr. Real, a family therapist who has worked with couples for more than 30 years, unpacks how we need to move away from our culture of individualism to form healthy relationships. He “also names how patterns in childhood show up in present moments and encourages accountability,” Dr. Sabey said.
While the book looks at both partners in a relationship, presenting examples of how real couples have overcome obstacles using these skills, “Terry has a way of speaking to men that is both gentle and firm — there’s not a lot of places to hide,” Dr. Solomon said. “He holds the reader’s feet to the fire in a way that is absolutely essential.”
6. “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence,” by Esther Perel
In “Mating in Captivity,” Esther Perel, a therapist and host of the podcast “Where Should We Begin?” describes how domestic partnership affects lust. Dr. Solomon recommends it to couples at every relationship stage, though she says that Ms. Perel “has a particular eye toward couples that are raising their family.”
The book helps readers “honor the complexities of holding all of those roles — lovers and partners and parents and workers,” as well as the challenges a couple might have moving between them, Dr. Solomon said. It “won’t give easy answers, but will put words to the complexity we feel, and why we’re feeling alone,” she added.
7. “All About Love: New Visions,” by bell hooks
In “All About Love,” bell hooks, a trailblazing feminist scholar and author of more than 30 books, explores what it means to actually love someone. (“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun,” she writes, “yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”)
Callisto Adams, a dating and relationship coach, recommends the book to couples who are grappling with mismatched or “false expectations” because it challenges traditional “perceptions of love,” she said.
While this book isn’t a guide filled with tips, it is “quite moving and thoughtful,” Dr. Sabey said. “It enlightens, comforts and confronts.”
Hope Reese is a journalist who writes for Vox, Shondaland, The Atlantic and other publications. Her book, “The Women Are Not Fine,” will be published in 2025.