With so many marriage books out there, how do you know which books to choose from?

Last month I wrote a post asking you about what marriage books changed your life. I mentioned in the post that two and half years ago I wrote a post about the premarital books I recommend to couples.

So though it’s two and half years since that post, my list of top marriage books have changed little. I’ve added a couple of books to the list and  moved some of them around.

All this being said, one does not have to look very long on a bookshelf at the local bookstore, or browse the marriage categories on Amazon before feeling overwhelmed.

There are thousands of books on marriage.

And thousands more on being written each year.

I even hope to contribute a marriage book to the list in the not so distant future.

So how do you pick the right marriage book for you?

That’s a great question and I’m sure you have lots of criteria.

I too have my own criteria when picking a marriage book for myself to read, or when using it with other couples. As I mentioned in the post last month, the books I am recommending fall into the categories below.

    1. They have to be books that I have read.
    2. They have to be books that have fundamentally changed my life, relationships, and marriage.
    3. They have to be books that I have seen change the lives of couples I work with and others that I know.
    4. They have to be books that I find myself constantly thinking about, using in my therapy work and referring to.
    5. And most importantly, keep in mind that these books are my opinion. So my list is not the end all of course, and I would love to hear what books you would add to the list.
    6. I purposely did not include the Bible in my list.  The truths contained in the Bible are a given for me and are explicit and implicit in many of the works below.
    7. I work with Christian and non-Christian couples so my books will cover both genres. Also, I hold to the 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr’s view that all truth is God’s truth. So as a follower of Christ, husband and marriage therapist, I find lots of great truth in both Christian and secular books. It’s my job to discern what I read and learn now to integrate it into my life and those of the couples that I help.

five days5 Days to a New Marriage by Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever
–About 3 years ago I sat as a 3rd chair in a 4 day marriage intensive at The Hideaway Experience in Amarillo, TX. The experience absolutely changed my life. So much so, I have been on staff with them as a therapist since 2010. It changed the way that I think about marriage counseling. And it also changed me personally…which in turn transformed my marriage.  5 Days to a New Marriage is the book put together by Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever who built the model that The Hideaway Experience uses.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • taking responsibility for yourself in the relationship (not focused on “fixing” the other). Therefore, the book (and marriage model) is not built on validation from spouse (i.e. others) which many marriage books are. I think an understanding of this in marriage is crucial.
  • identifying your “Pain Response” (pattern of feelings and coping) and “Peace Response” (Your Truth and New Actions)
  • working as a team in developing your “usness.” Lots of Christian marriage books ask the spouse (usually the wife) to give up her identity and join the man in his identity. This book (and model) looks at the biblical concept that when the two become one we aren’t giving up who God created us to be, but we are bringing that unique identity to the “usness” that has now been created through marriage.
  • validation rooted in one’s relationship with God, rather than rooted in others.
  • book is short and simple for a couple to work through — includes important exercises throughout.
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective. It is a great combination of some Christian views on marriage, but with all the latest research, information and latest techniques in the world of therapy (secular and Christian). Really great integration.

41cHrfM8XdL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships by David Schnarch
–I first read this book about five years ago and I’m not overstating the case when I say “it changed my life and marriage.” From what I understand, this book was Schnarch’s lay version of his seminal work, Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy. I can honestly say that after I finished reading it I was really challenged to work on myself in the marriage. Almost a day does not pass where I don’t think about his thoughts on “self-differentiation” and “self-soothing” (especially my anxiety in marriage).

–Important Components of the Book:

  • probably the most profound is that of “self-differentiation” in relationship. I would venture to guess that the majority of us in relationships are not “self-differentiated”, but if we worked towards this, it would transform our marriages in huge ways.
  • “Self-soothing” one’s anxiety. A lot of people are dependent upon their spouse and others to soothe the anxiety that they need to learn to manage themselves.
  • tons of great insight into the anxiety that occurs in the sexual relationship (primarily anxiety).
  • CAUTION: I usually recommend this book with a caution because when I have failed to do so it can really catch people off guard, or they get offended at times. Schnarch is a sex therapist as well as a marriage therapist. So there is some really graphic writing (from the opening pages) on sex, as well as some very graphic language in the book and one chapter title in particular. I think this book is really important to read, so I hope that many of you who may steer away from non-Christian resources on marriage will take a look at it.
  • this book is written from a non-Christian, or faith based perspective.

hold me tightHold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson
–I first read this book a little over five years ago. I was really interested in Susan Johnson’s pioneering work in “emotionally focused couple’s therapy.” My professor Dr. James Furrow is a trainer in EFT and a contributor to the growing body of knowledge in this area of couple’s therapy — so I was very influenced by him and one of the classes that I had on this subject.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • written from an emotionally focused couples therapy approach.
  • firmly grounded in attachment theory which I am a firm believer in and witness the power of it everyday in my work and my own life.
  • the book really helps couples identify their emotions and work with these emotions as a key component for change.
  • helps couples heal the attachment wound that they have experienced in the relationship.
  • this book is written from a non-Christian, or faith based perspective.

mysteryThe Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle by Mike Mason
–This may actually be one of the very first books on marriage that I ever read. I first read it in 1999 for one of my graduate courses in my Master of Divinity program at Fuller Theological Seminary. It is a very unique marriage book because it’s not written with some model for marriage in mind, or with some step by step process. It’s much more of an experiential account of the author’s own marriage and the important concepts that he encountered and found vital to marriage.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • the struggle between the desire for separateness and togetherness in a marriage.
  • the idea of the complete “otherness” of your partner.
  • the sheer invasiveness of another person in your life as you enter marriage (how that can be alarming) — love demands all from you.
  • that marriage is not some formula or step by step process you follow, but is rather this experiential encounter with the other (both your spouse and God) that requires everything from you.
  • poetic nature of the book; reads much more like a book of poetry and philosophy than a typical marriage book.
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective.

gottmanThe Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman
–John Gottman and his wife Julie are probably some of the leading experts on marriage in the world. Their Gottman Institute is on the forefront of research and training in the area of marriage. They have lots of data and experience to back up their approach to marriage work.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • this book has lots of research in it, along with lots of exercise material for couples to engage in.
  • the well known four horsemen coined by Gottman, which are predictors of divorce in a couple: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
  • lots of good tools on how to overcome gridlock and solve solvable problems.
  • this book is written from a non-Christian, or faith based perspective.

sacredSacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy by Gary Thomas
–I first read this book about 10 or 11 years ago, and I won’t lie. The subtitle of the book both intrigued me and freaked me out at the same time.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • the question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”
  • the view that marriage is a refining process, especially one that “exposes our sin”.
  • our struggles in marriage shape us in ways that enrich not only our marriage, but our relationship with God as well.
  • rather than steps on how to have a better marriage, it’s more focused on what develops out of our relational struggle; and that struggle makes us holy and gives life to our marriage.
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective.

fiveThe 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman
–I remember when I first read this book. My wife and I had just become engaged and it was recommended to us. What we learned in the book changed our whole perspective on this idea of love languages, and it helped us better understand how each of us receive love from one another.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • the concept of love languages — 5 of them to be exact (gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch)
  • how your partner best receives love may be different than how you receive love; therefore, there is an important need to understand how your partner best receives love in the marriage.
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective.

wangerinAs for Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last by Walter Wangerin
–This book was recommended to me by our pre-marital therapist and it was a refreshing read. Wangerin approaches the book not from a marriage therapy perspective (he’s not a therapist, marriage researcher), but from that of a pastor, writer…and out of his deep, intimate experience in his own marriage. Like The Mystery of Marriage, this book defies steps or formulas to craft your marriage in a certain way.

–Important Components of the Book:

  • written from a more pastoral perspective.
  • the six tasks of marriage that are identified and discussed by Wangerin (truthfulness and dependability, sharing the work of survival, talking and listening, making love, healing, gifting and volunteering)
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective.

beyondBeyond Ordinary: When a Good Marriage Just Isn’t Good Enough by Justin and Trisha Davis
–I can’t remember how I first came across Justin and Trisha, but I know it was online several years ago. I kept seeing their name pop up time and time again. And the more I saw their names online the more I began to read up on who they were, and the story they had to tell. Their book is a powerful first hand account of marriage, infidelity, forgiveness, redemption…and a new life and marriage that helps other couples heal and have a great marriage.

Important Components of the Book:

  • first hand account of where a marriage can go wrong.
  • discussion about infidelity.
  • journey of forgiveness/healing.
  • written by two people (husband and wife) sharing from their vantage point.
  • this book is written from a Christian, faith based perspective.

Books That I Love That Are Not Explicitly About Marriage

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
–Because sometimes the best truths are communicated to us in poetry. His section on marriage, especially as it relates to the concept of differentiation in marriage is powerful.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
–As I mentioned with Gibran, some of the best truths are communicated through poetry. Rilke’s letters to this young poet have penetrating insight into the importance of really understanding one’s self and the commitment that is involved in a relationship.

The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity to the Most Important Organization in Your Life by Patrick Lencioni
–I absolutely love this book. Every marriage needs a vision and a mission to carry that out. But it’s hard to have a vision and mission if you don’t really know who you are and what makes your marriage unique. This book will help you define your marriage and create a vision to live by and a mission to carry it out.

The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey
–I wish someone had given my wife and I this book before we got married. It would have saved us much grief, many mistakes, and nights worrying about debt. Thankfully we came across Dave Ramsey in 2008 and his book helped us pay off $75,000 (really $115,000 if you count the $40k we had to use from our savings to pay to get out of our house so we could move to Texas) in 31 months. If the majority of conflict in marriage is due to finances, then why aren’t we addressing this issue before marriage?

Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions by Roberta Gilbert
–I love how Gilbert helps us understand relationships through the lens of Bowen family systems theory. I think systemically about marriage, family, work, church, etc. This book really helps us understand how we as individuals, and as a couple fit into our varying systems.

When To Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
–Most people could improve on their boundaries. And there is nothing more challenging to our sense of boundaries than when we get married. Marriage is a complete reorganizing of many boundaries and its important that we learn how to define our boundaries and understand what they are.

Closing Thoughts

I believe that all of the books that I wrote about above are really great. Each book contains important truths for our marriage that can greatly transform it. So my hope is that rather than just you using only one book and seeing it as the end all guide to everything marriage — instead, maybe you can glean things from all of these books and approach marriage with the collective wisdom from varying viewpoints. I do this with my own marriage and marital work, and it has made all the difference in the world.

Recommended Suggestions from Readers

This is a list of books that I have not read and that were recommended by you, my readers.

How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich

His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage by Walt and Barb Larimore

The Power of a Praying Wife by Stormie Omartian

What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul Tripp

His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage by Willard F. Jr. Harley

The Excellent Wife: A Biblical Perspective by Martha Peace

Have you read any of the marriage books (and non-explicit marriage books) above? How have they impacted you?

What books did not make the list that you recommend?