Your Summer Reading Challenge: Read a Secular Self-Help Book

by | Jul 12, 2023 | Research | 46 comments

Summer Reading Challenge Secular Self Help Books
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Evangelical materials are often very subpar.

A few years ago, after I had written our first series about the problems with the book Love & Respect, a male friend of mine who had led sessions on Love & Respect at an annual men’s conference contacted me.

He had read what we wrote on Love & Respect and didn’t want to promote it anymore, but he didn’t know what else to use.

We talked for a bit, and I recommended he read John Gottman’s book 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, and consider giving a presentation just on Gottman’s concept of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in marriage. It’s a manageable part of his book that is memorable and packs a punch, and could easily be done in one session.

Yes, it’s a book not published by a Christian publisher–but I really didn’t have anything else to recommend.

A few weeks later I was talking to him again, and he said he was absolutely blown away by how good the book was. It was well-researched. It was clearly laid out. It didn’t ramble. It made its case logically and forcefully, without resorting to any “the Bible tells me so.” 

He asked a question that I have thought about many times since: “Why can’t Christian books be this good?

This man is a smart man who works as a business consultant.

He has read many, many business books. 

But when it came to personal self-help books, he, like many of us, had tended to stick to Christian books. I did that too! That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? If we look at life from a biblical standpoint, then we can’t read books that don’t use the Bible when it’s about relationships or emotional health.

And so he had never seen the profound difference between the best-selling and most respected secular self-help books, and the best-selling evangelical self-help books.

This is something that we at Bare Marriage want to change.

We want to call the Christian publishing world to more. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot write great self-help books like Gottman’s book (and I believe that with She Deserves Better and The Great Sex Rescue, we met that standard).

But to do so, you must: 

  • Use current peer-reviewed and relevant research to back up your claims
  • Make your case clearly and logically
  • Refrain from the shortcut of saying “the Bible says to do X”, and instead explain why you believe the Bible says to do X, even if other people may interpret it differently; and explain why doing X is actually beneficial, which is why God would promote X. 
  • Keep each chapter unique, rather than rambling and repeating information to fill pages
  • Be mindful of abuse dynamics, and help people recognize when they are in an abusive relationship
  • Be trauma informed and mental health informed
  • Promote evidence-based solutions, rather than merely what has always been taught in Christian circles
  • Point people to other qualified help when needed

This should not be a big ask.

Unfortunately, very few books that we reviewed for The Great Sex Rescue meet even one of those criteria. 

“Eat the meat and spit out the bones” should not be our mantra.

This has become such a common saying among Christians that we think this is normal. We think it’s normal for a book to be harmful or even downright nuts in some areas, but we’ll still recommend it because chapters 3 & 4 are really good. 

I can’t tell you the number of book studies that I’ve been in where people said: “Okay, we’re studying this book, and I really loved most of it. I mean, there’s a bit that you’ll have to just skip over, because she goes way too far in one area, but just ignore that and we’ll talk about the rest.”

Do we realize that this shouldn’t actually be normal? Do we realize that books shouldn’t actually be harmful, or crazy, or whatever word you want to use? 

Christian books should be well-researched, evidence-based, and safe.

This is not too much to ask. But when we live in a Christian bubble, we often don’t realize how poor so many of our resources actually are.

So can I suggest a Summer Reading Challenge? I know you’re all eager to jump into Jane Austen again after last week’s podcast, but here’s another to add to your list:

Your Summer Reading Challenge

Choose a best-selling self-help book from the general market (not published by a Christian publisher) on an area of your choosing that has to do with emotional health, habits, or relationships–and read it!

See if you notice a difference!

(Plus you’ll likely get some great help!)

I know some of you may balk at the idea of reading a general market book.

After all, if we believe in the Bilbe, and if Jesus is to be the center of our lives, then how can we read a book that doesn’t put Jesus at the center?

But let’s remember that Jesus is the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life. He is Truth. When others have studied psychology and have learned things, this doesn’t need to contradict Jesus. In many ways, learning about trauma from general market books helped me understand God better!

Some suggestions for books to try:

(Thank you for the recommendations from Facebook and Threads! I only included the ones I could vouch for, but I loved your recommendations! And check out the Facebook post for more recommendations, and follow me on Threads!)

Seriously–read one and see what you think! It will help you regardless, but hopefully it will also cause all of us to raise the bar on what we expect from Christian publishers.

And this is not to say that there aren’t good books published by evangelical publishers–not at all! But our best-sellers are often quite bland, repetitive, and don’t say anything really new. We can do better.

I think most of the truly amazing Christian books don’t sell that well, because the best-sellers squeeze out all the others. Perhaps if we became more discerning, then these smaller books would rise to the top!

If more of us realized that we should expect excellence from our resources, we’d become more discerning as a church!

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Join 40,00 others and let's change the evangelical conversation about sex

We can do much better than what we are currently doing. There is no reason for Christian books to be so badly sourced and so devoid of actual research and evidence-based advice. 

I’m eager to hear the results of this challenge!

Your Summer Reading Challenge Secular Self Help Book

Have you read a secular self-help book that surprised you with how good it was? Have you heard people say “eat the meat and spit out the bones” when it comes to Christian books?

Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. R

    I would also like to see a list of Christian books (aside from yours, which I already know about) that are truly helpful. I know it would be short, but surely there are a few out there?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! I’ll likely do a follow up post on that!

      • Rebekah

        I’m curious what the score would be of The Marriage Book by Nicky And Sila Lee

  2. CMT

    I like this idea! I would recommend Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” It’s a quick read but powerful.

    Also second the recommendations for “Come as You Are” and “Burnout.” Emily Nagoski is well worth a read.

    Dr Jen Gunter has written a lot about women’s health and sexuality as well. I read “the vagina bible” a few years ago. She makes evidence-based information very accessible and cheerfully busts a lot of pervasive women’s health myths. I learned quite a bit (bear in mind I’m in healthcare so you’d think I’d have been taught a lot of that stuff already!) It’s maybe not self-help in exactly the same way, but information about our bodies is also important and empowering.

  3. Angharad

    Recently, I heard a Christian speaker point out that we are all made in the image of God, so we shouldn’t be surprised at finding ‘glimpses of glory’ in the secular field (i.e. advice or attitudes that are in keeping with a Godly worldview, even though they come from those who do not share our faith)

    As with Christian books, the key is discernment. Is this the kind of advice Jesus would be happy for me to follow? Does it agree with what the Bible says on the topic? Is it ‘excellent and worthy of praise’? If it is, then it’s good stuff, whatever source it comes from.

  4. Women Are People Too

    I’d also recommend The Menopause Manifesto by Dr. Jen Gunter, Ejaculate Responsibly by Gabrielle Blair, and Fair Play by Eve Rodsky.

    Fair Play is for learning how to equitably divide the mental load of running a household, avoiding the all-too common “she-fault” scenario.

    Ejaculate Responsibly is for education about the unjust burden women bear, physically and mentally, for preventing unwanted pregnancies and calling men to take full responsibility for their 24/7 fertility, which is very easy for men when compared to women’s birth control options.

    Menopause Manifesto is full of medical information that assured me I’m not crazy in the wild ride of peri-menopause I’m on! (I still want off though!)

    • Lisa M

      Agree, those 3 books are fantastic! Also “The Vagina Bible” by Dr Jen Gunter.

  5. Lindsey

    I agree that discernment is necessary when reading through Christian and secular books. The statement about others studying psychology and learned things and this doesn’t need to contradict Jesus…true, but it certainly can contradict Jesus so again, be discerning. Test everything to God’s word. I always go back to the fact that we are prone to error fallen humans and then there is God’s inerrant word. Also, the statement about “the Bible says to do X” just reminded me of if we know that God is good and we believe he is a good Father then I think it comes naturally to understand that the boundaries laid out for us in scripture are also good.

    • Jo R

      The implications are that “Christian” resources are 100 percent right and secular resources are 100 percent wrong.

      We laypeople, and for God’s sake especially laywomen, can’t be relied on to have discernment to read anything secular without falling into endless errors and heresies. Yet when “Christian” books are shown to cause harm, sometimes a LOT of harm, we’re then advised to eat the meat and spit out the bones.

      But, but, but we’ve been told those books are 100 percent right, so what’s to spit out? So they’re not REALLY 100 percent right? If that’s the case, how can we possibly have discernment to know what’s meat and what’s bone?

      You cannot have it both ways, people. And thanks for the side dish of gaslighting. That’s super helpful.

      🤬 🤬 🤬

      I think I’ll reread TGSR and SDB, then start on How to Do the Work, because merely knowing all those “100 percent right” books I read in the 90s, 00s, and 10s were in fact screamingly harmful is NOT enough to fix things. That’s only pulling down the building and ripping up the foundation. The foundation needs to be re-poured, and that’s going to be a lot of probably back-breaking, soul-crushing labor.

      Thanks, church, I’m looking forward to walking back in your doors reeeeeeaaaalllll soon. 🙄

      • Jo R

        Sorry, should be standalone, not a reply.

    • CMT

      I agree; whatever the source of advice, we need to keep our critical thinking hats on. Everyone has biases, works from limited information, and is dealing with the fact that knowledge and culture evolve over time. The difference is that secular authors aren’t claiming a scriptural basis, whereas evangelical authors generally are. Using the Bible to lend authority to bad advice can amp up its impact dramatically.

  6. Katie

    Maybe I’m the only one preoccupied with this, but do you think this could apply to other things to? Like, movies, books, music, ect? I’m having trouble actually formulating more of a response to explain what I mean and my thought process, but this was just a connection I made.

    • Angharad

      Totally. I don’t watch many Christian films because I find them too cringy, but a lot of secular films contain wholesome messages. Same with fictional books – I gave up on Christian novels because I read so many that made me deeply uncomfortable with the very dodgy messages they were giving, especially around the areas of dating, consent, respect for others, excessive glorification of good looks, wealth and ‘marriageability’ etc, etc, etc. I don’t actually read any ‘Christian’ fiction now, but I would say that all the fiction I do read is as ‘healthy’ as ‘Christian fiction’ if not more so.

      Same with music. People get very hidebound as to the ‘right’ kind of music to listen to, and often get so judgemental that they can’t even hear straight. Several times I’ve heard someone ranting on about a modern song (i.e. the music is modern) and complaining that ‘there is not one word of truth in the lyrics’, yet the lyrics are actually taken STRAIGHT FROM THE BIBLE!!! They are so convinced that the style of music being played is ‘ungodly’ that they don’t even HEAR the words that are being sung and assume they must be evil!

      • Cynthia

        I once heard someone say in a discussion that really good Christian literature or music was simply known as “literature” or “music”. Dostoevsky was a Christian who explored Christian themes in his novels – but those novels are also considered great works by secular experts. The rock band U2 has Christian members, Christian references in their lyrics and the frontman Bono is almost as well known for his social action and philantropy as his music – but because the music is great, they are simply known as being a great band and have fans from other religious backgrounds.

    • Nessie

      I had similar thoughts as you and Angharad.

      Christian movies are often so terribly done or even harmful with some of the beliefs posited. Just because a song is written by a Christian doesn’t mean it is safe. And several secular songs have drawn me closer to God in ways that many Christian songs haven’t.

      I think a lot of people want to support other Christians in their endeavors so they are often willing to put up with lower quality., and some even feel guilty for adding to the income of non-Christians in some cases.

      My former church definitely played the, “use discernment, and skip the bad stuff.” (That was combined with, “Well, you really shouldn’t speak badly of others, especially Christians,” so you basically were sinning for using your discernment then discussing it with others because you were gossiping or slandering the authors.) But how does one know the bad stuff IS bad until you get burned by it? Oftentimes you can’t tell unless you have learned about trauma, abuse, atc.

      That said, are there any books specifically about learning to spot red flags, abuse, etc.? I would love to learn more all-around just for anunderstanding beyond my personal experiences.

      • Angharad

        Yes, guidelines on what to look out for would be really helpful.

        I’ve been interested to see how my take on some secular stuff has changed over the years, as I’ve developed greater discernment. For example, the Daphne du Maurier novels were recommended to me in my late teens, and I read them all. I didn’t care for them hugely, but I thought it was just a matter of taste. Recently, I started to reread Rebecca to see if I liked it any better now I’m in my 40s, and I couldn’t finish it – the central relationship is SO abusive, which would be fine if it were presented as an abusive relationship, but it’s presented as a wonderful romance. I never even spotted the abuse when I read it aged 18 or 19. (Sadly, probably because the belittling and controlling behaviour of the ‘hero’ was so similar to many of the Christian men I met in real life!)

    • CMT

      Katie-I will second what others have said. The concept of general revelation implies that Christians do not have a monopoly on all truth. I believe art can capture something real about the human experience. A poem, movie, piece of music, a classic work of literature, or a graphic novel can speak to me powerfully and truthfully whether it was created by someone who shares my beliefs or not.

  7. Laura

    It’s been quite some time since I dove into secular self help books. A great one to read is Codependent No More by Melody Beattie (not sure if that’s the correct spelling of her last name). After I left an abusive marriage 21 years ago, I took a college class on codependency and this book was our assigned reading. I wish I had kept it so I could explain more.

    As for these “Christian” nonfiction books, I have heard the mantra of “take what you like and leave the rest behind.” It is hard to do that especially when a harmful teaching is ingrained into your mind and sadly, it has taken me years to get that out of my mind.

    Over the years of attending Bible studies where the study focuses on some Christian nonfiction book, I realize how redundant these books are. It’s gotten to the point where I no longer want to attend these studies because that just means I have to get another book that I get bored with then it just sits on the shelf.

    Most of these Christian nonfiction books are based on the author’s personal experience and they tout it as “this worked for me so you should do things this way” and they sprinkle in some Bible verses without really going deeper. There’s one Christian author I used to read and I often listened to her sermons. She had a best selling book about the mind, but most of her other books after mimic that best selling book. So to me, it’s just become the same old, same old thing.

    I grabbed Gottman’s book from the donations at my library. I plan to read that in the very near future.

    • Lisa M

      Codependent No More is such a great book Very few send help books stand the test if rune. That one does.

    • exwifeofasexaddict

      I couldn’t finish Codependent No More. I felt like it was blaming me for my ex’s bad behavior.

      • Lisa Johns

        Yes, while the codependence paradigm is helpful for some, it can also be a big gaslight for others. Caution is needed!

        • Taylor

          Early in the recovery process, codependency messages compounded the damage I’d been through. (The Divorce Care program wasn’t a good match for me in this regard.) I definitely felt re-gaslighted for problems stemming from my ex’s addiction problems. At the time, I thought the whole codependency thing was a big gaslight.

          I am finding Codependent No More to be helpful now, though. AFTER going through emotional and mental detox from the abuse, and doing a lot of trauma work. Reading it now is helping me unhook from other people’s junk. I think it’s got alot of helpful stuff in it. Basically I see it as a responsibility book–helping me delineate what responsibility belongs to me, and what belongs to the other person. Boundaries.

          • Laura


            Over 20 years ago at the cusp of my impending divorce, I went to a Divorce Care class at my church (the church I attended during my marriage) and came away feeling shame. Shame for going through with my divorce. If only the pastor of that class knew why I was getting a divorce, would he think differently? I had to leave my ex because of constant sexual assault on his part. I no longer felt safe.

            The pastor kept talking about how divorce should never be an option, yet he was on his second or third marriage. Needless to say, I never attended another Divorce Care class and I changed churches. Thankfully that former church was huge so it wasn’t like I was easily recognized.

  8. Healing

    I find it ironic that the people who say not to follow secular stuff are usually the ones with the most damaging religious views.

    For instance, they won’t follow Gottman’s 7 principles for making marriage work because in the Bible, it “says” men need respect and women need love. Marriage doesn’t need any more knowledge than that. And boy- Eggerichs sure is cashing in on that “claim”.

    Of your reading list, I’ve only read Gottman’s book and The Body Keeps The Score. Looking forward to reading some of the others! Thanks!

  9. Lisa M

    Secular parenting books are an absolute must as the majority of Evangelical parenting books encourage at least some form of abusive parenting.

    I also think it’s SO important to read memoirs from people who are different from you. Especially if you’re in Evangelical culture which claims to have the solutions to everything and to understand everyone.

  10. Joy

    Come As You Are is a great book. I’ll check out a few of these! Atomic Habits looks appealing.

    Honestly I’ve never been the sort of Christian that restricts my media intake to a Christian bubble–Christian music, books, movies, TV, whatever. You really do need to be able to be discerning in all areas of life and not rely on some media company to filter things for you. Honestly that is a pretty immature way to approach that–just trusing that some publishing company is giving you the “right” stuff. I have known people that go that route, though.

  11. Lynn

    I read a book called The Mastery of Love. It helped me realize people are not healed, but when they heal, they are able to be content with themselves and learn to love others without expectations. But the book had a lot of pagan theology, and so I wonder if there is a similar book that explains the timeless truth in the context of the Creator God, the fall of Man, the Redemption of Jesus Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the eternal life we’re promised.

    Also, Sheila, I do wonder if when you say the work needs to be evidence-based and well researched, do we ever insert earthly values (storing up treasures on earth) in that research instead of heavenly values (withstanding trials and suffering for greater communion with God and the church). Because if we’re reading for our life to be more comfortable, wouldn’t it look different than if we’re reading to become a better person with more integrity and to treat people in a healthy way?

  12. Cynthia

    Great post! I like the recommendations you gave. I would just give a slight caution that secular doesn’t necessarily mean good, and you should still consider whether it is a book that is evidence-based and that was written with the input of people who know how to analyze that data. There are some rather toxic people, some of whom have been embraced in incel circles, who peddle pseudo-science and misogyny as “self-help”. (I won’t mention their names, and you haven’t ever come close to recommending them.)

    • Angharad

      Yes – I’ve also come across a marriage/relationship book with no Christian content that spouts the garbage about your husband/boyfriend abusing you because you haven’t been sufficiently respectful, the need to communicate indirectly etc, etc.

  13. Wild Honey

    I second the “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” book! I found it helpful both for myself AND for giving grace to my parents, who had their own emotionally immature parents.

    On that theme, John Gottman’s parenting book, “Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children” was also very good.

  14. Taylor

    A friend who’s a therapist recently told me she recommends Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents to many of her clients. So excited to see it on your list! I ordered a copy yesterday, and can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  15. Tim

    I spoke at our church this week about this passage:

    “Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil.” (1Th 5:20-22, NET)

    If you define ‘prophecy’ broadly as ‘people claiming to speak on behalf of God’, this is exactly what you’re saying. We despise ‘prophecy’/Christian advice/books/movies/music if we flat out disregard them, BUT ALSO if we follow them blindly and without discernment. But it seems like many churches discourage that kind of critical thinking, which to me is actively going against the Bible.

    (Not just a one off passage either. See also Acts 17, 1 Cor 14:29-32, and the various ‘judge them by their fruit’ passages)

    ‘Adult children of emotionally immature parents’ is going straight to the top of my list.when I’ve finished my current books too. Thanks for the recommendation!

  16. John G

    Come As You Are is great. I’d also recommend Contemporary Male Sexuality by Barry W. McCarthy and Emily McCarthy, Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships by Sue Johnson, She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman by Ian Kerner. Not really self help, but good perspectives on sexuality by non-Christian authors: Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry. Some good Christian ones: Sheila’s 31 Days to Great Sex, Porn Free: Becoming the Type of Man That Does Not Look at Porn by Matt Dobschuetz, God, Sex, and Your Marriage by Juli Slattery and Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction by Ed Shaw.

  17. Learning to be beloved

    I’m in the process of getting out of an abusive marriage. Secular resources are helping me, while most Christian resources want me to continue to be abused.

    Some of these secular books are saving lives, including mine. Thank you for recommending them, Sheila! I just borrowed a couple of them from the library.

    I’m working on breaking generational cycles by teaching my children healthier ways of relating. Last year, we studied The Body Keeps The Score. This year, we’ll include Ejaculate Responsibly and She Deserves Better.

    • Perfect Number

      Also since a lot of people are recommending “Come As You Are” I guess I’ll chime in on that- I see that it was helpful for a lot of people, and that’s great, but I read it and it wasn’t helpful for me- I’m asexual and it didn’t address any of the actual questions I had about sex. (Some asexuals do want to have sex- I was having sex with my husband but a lot of things were very confusing and didn’t make sense, so I went looking for books to help me make sense of it.)

      “Come As You Are” is specifically about how to increase your sex drive, and its goal is to help women in long-term relationships to have more sex. So if that’s the specific situation you’re in and you’d like to learn more about, then maybe this book will help you. But in my case, I don’t even really understand what sex drive is and why everyone acts like it’s required in order to have sex, and also the book never explained *why* women in long-term relationships should have more sex (like, why is that seen as intrinsically a good goal to have?). What I actually needed help with, back then, was information about vaginismus and asexuality, and the book wasn’t about that at all.

      I wrote a review of “Come As You Are” from an asexual perspective:

      • Lisa Johns

        Now that is interesting, because that was not my takeaway from Come As You Are AT ALL! To me it said, Be comfortable with your body, and realize that “normal” encompass a WIDE range of experience. And I really appreciated that! (That, and the explanation of the stress cycle — which sparked the writing of Burnout, which I also loved!)

        • Perfect Number

          Yeah the part in “Come As You Are” that was most helpful for me was the concept of accepting myself as I am, instead of being constantly hung up on the fact that I don’t fit what society says about the way sex/attraction/desire supposedly works for everyone. Which is also what I learned from the asexual community and queer community. <3

          Also it was nice that it had a section on how to masturbate.

          But the overall metaphor of the book was about the "accelerator" and "brakes" and how you can increase your sex drive by being more aware of "sexually relevant situations" (and also figure out what your "brakes" are and avoid them)… and I don't really think there is such a thing as stimulus that is *objectively* sexually relevant, I think it's all a matter of opinion, and also I don't understand why the book talks about increasing one's sex drive like it's obviously a good thing. (But I suppose for people who want to increase their sex drive, it would be useful.)

          • Lisa Johns

            You are right, it really was! Interesting that it just didn’t stick with me that way!
            I love how we tend to get what we need sometimes, while being able to just let the rest roll off. 😊

  18. Lisa Johns

    I’m the past year I have read The Body Keeps the Score (excellent), both the Nagoski books (fabulous), and Gottman (excellent). Plus Sarah Dessen. 😂
    This was while also reading a bunch of stuff about porn addiction (thanks husband) and my assigned texts for school. That other stuff is the light reading. Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll be looking them up!

  19. Angharad

    I had a look at some reviews of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and it seems like it’s mostly about understanding/accepting/healing from this. Can anyone recommend anything on how to deal with one of these parents on an ongoing basis? I mean in practical terms – e.g. if a two year old throws a toddler tantrum, I know how to deal with it, but when it’s an 82-year-old…

    • Lisa Johns

      Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries comes to mind.

      • Angharad

        Thanks, I’ll check that one out. Juggling caring responsibilities with private life while also not letting her impact too badly on those around can be tricky at times!

        • Lisa Johns

          I can imagine. Best of luck to you!

  20. Michelle

    I’d add to the list The Psychology of Money, great read about why we spend and how our view of money affects its use. I recently also read Married Sex and found it to be a refreshing and balanced perspective, although Christian, similar to the TGSR.

  21. Shoshana

    I’ve never read “Love and Respect”, though from the quotes I’ve seen, it seems wrong to even mention John Gottman’s “Seven Principles” in the same breath. The differences between them are not differences of degree but differences in kind.

    That being said, my relationship with “Seven Principles” is still complicated. When I first got it, I loved it and re-read it multiple times. And each time I re-read it, I loved it a little bit less. I won’t get into all the reasons, but want to at least address the most serious one: The book entirely bypasses the issue of abuse. To be fair: a) from everything I’ve read about him, John Gottman is a highly capable therapist who is well aware of what abuse is b) his is far from the only relationship book that scarcely mentions abusive dynamics, and c) I am not a mental health professional, so this is a layperson’s take.

    Still. While I guess it’s to some extent understandable that since general-public self-help books are geared toward the general population, and because most marital problems stem from issues more benign than abuse, authors prefer to focus on those. But here’s the issue: though there are certainly healthy couples who pick up these books in order to solve minor problems and make their marriages/relationships better, there are also going to be plenty of people who turn to these books because there’s something *really* wrong going on. And these readers will need much more than a brief caveat in the foreward saying that the principles in the book they’re holding don’t apply to their situation (and Seven Principles does not even have that). In many cases, the reader may not even be aware that his/her relationship is abusive.

    I honestly believe that any book geared toward couples in conflict (not just Gottman’s book) is dangerously negligent if it doesn’t clearly define what abuse is and show how to recognize it. Otherwise, they veer way too close to a damaging “takes two to tango” territory, as in fact this book itself does: for example, in the emotionally destructive relationship portrayed between Peter and Cynthia —pages 34-37 in the 2015 edition—(which in my opinion crosses the line into emotional abuse: Gottman himself writes, “Listening to this discussion, it becomes clear that Peter’s main purpose is to demean his wife”), Cynthia’s weak attempts to defend herself against her husband’s verbal barbs are portrayed as “defensiveness”, and are equally blamed for the toxicity in their partnership.

    This is not acceptable. I’m all in favor of both parties being adults and taking accountability for their behavior, and recognize that in many (hopefully most) relationships both partners play an equal role in creating the tone of the relationship.
    But authors/therapists are in a unique position of influence, and need to understand that pretending that each partner necessarily contributes equally to destructive dynamics is untrue, unjust, and strengthens those who use their power to hurt.


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