How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Patricia Love, Ed.D., and Steven Stosny, Ph.D., 2/5
Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I feel this book’s title may as well be How to Improve Your Marriage by Reading About It. Yes, the book presents some interesting psychological concepts, focusing mainly on how men’s vulnerability to feelings of shame and women’s vulnerability to fear can result in a sense of disconnection not reparable by verbal communication. Unfortunately, you have to take the authors’ word for even the most outlandish-sounding statements, since they provide no footnotes or references. This lack of academic documentation seriously undermines the book’s credibility, in my opinion, and gives a strangely pop-psych flavor to an unpopular message of resolute self-improvement and one-sided commitment to acts of connection. While I respect and agree with the authors’ encouragement to generally be an emotionally intelligent human being and not a shitty, selfish one, their “practical” advice seems laughably out of touch with reality. I honestly can’t see the “Power Love Formula” saving any relationships, but I guess what do I know since I’m lucky enough to be almost four years into a relationship with an amazing, sensitive man who is secure and loving enough to demand we talk things out even when I’d rather sulk in silence. In terms of practical relationship advice that resonates with what I’ve observed and experienced, I find The Five Love Languages to be much more relevant and helpful.
Why I read it: it resonated with my dad but not my mom, so I was curious.
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff, 5/5
Bob Goff knows how to tell a story. His stories were almost too good; I devoured them like a kid devours a bowl of fruit loops and had to keep reminding myself to slow down and digest the bigger messages. When someone who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of remarkable experiences takes the time to write down what they’ve learned from a broad perspective, it’s a gift–a sneak peek of a meaningful work of art when all you could see before was the close-up chaos of individual brushstrokes.
Formerly a lawyer and law professor, Goff was not a “professional Christian” when he wrote this book, so I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to sell some pre-packaged, preachy, lifeless form of religion. He is very practical and realistic, using stories to transcend the cliched verbiage of encouraging people to fearlessly follow their hopes and dreams while living in God’s love.
I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d need to know first. […] What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness (156).
There are a lot of crazy stories and insightful life lessons packed into this easy-to-read book, but perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most a couple weeks later, was how fearlessly Goff loves other people and gets involved in their lives. If he was giving bits of himself away, he would soon be reduced to nothing, but instead his life seems immeasurably richer. It truly seems that he has an endless supply of supernatural love from which to draw. I still don’t fully understand how to live this way without getting used up by the “takers” in the world, but this book was a helpful piece of the puzzle for me and an amazing reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, 4/5
Disjointed, unscholarly, easily debatable and offering no real solutions, this book nevertheless makes a tiny but very specific contribution towards understanding the complexities of U.S. mental health issues. Junger postulates that mental health declines as societies lose their tribal features, becoming more complex, prosperous, elitist and individualistic. Further, he attempts to prove that people’s resilience actually increases in troubled times, when society temporarily becomes more communal and egalitarian. His final claim is that long-term PTSD in soldiers is not so much caused by wartime trauma, but the difficulty of transitioning between these two cultures.
Junger makes some controversial statements and is up-front about his book’s origin (a Vanity Fair article) and purpose (nonacademic). Because of this, I feel Tribe transcends its pop-psychology characteristics and can be forgiven for feeling like a very preliminary exploration of a complex topic.
Why I read it: When the title was recommended separately to me by two of my brothers, I knew it was worth checking out.
The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, 4/5
Making and receiving apologies has always seemed like a fairly natural part of human interaction to me, so I’ve never given the topic much thought. However, I was recently very confused to be told plaintively by someone that “so-and-so has never apologized to me in twenty years!” What was so confusing about this comment? Well “so-and-so” had recently made an unexpected and unsolicited apology to me! Was I to believe this same person had purposefully withheld all apologies from someone else, or was there some other communication issue at play?
It turns out that different people have different expectations when it comes to what makes a sincere apology. According to this book, if one or more of the five “languages” of apology is lacking, the whole effort can fail to register with the recipient as a sincere apology, no matter how genuine it was intended to be.
- Expressing Regret: “I am sorry.”
- Accepting Responsibility: “I was wrong.”
- Making Restitution: “What can I do to make it right?”
- Genuinely Repenting: “I’ll try not to do that again.”
- Requesting Forgiveness: “Will you please forgive me?”
I feel that the use of the word “languages” to describe these five aspects is a too-obvious effort to tie this book in with Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, but it is undeniably helpful to know what shortcomings could cause an apology to ring untrue. While the main focus of the book is on how to make sure your apology meets the intended recipient’s subconscious criteria, it is also interesting to understand that just because an apology doesn’t cover the aspect that is most important to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is insincere.
Another very interesting point the authors make is that, while forgiveness is a decision, trust is an emotion (213). You can choose to forgive someone, but trust should be earned. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what someone has done, making light of their bad actions, or going back to the way things were, but it does mean giving your relationship with them a chance to heal and grow.
Why I read it: my sister recommended it and I’m always interested in learning to be a better communicator.
The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman, 5/5
It took an effort to get past the cringe-worthy cover and subtitle, but this book is well-written and explores concepts that can apply to a variety of relationships besides marriage (such as between friends, family members, or people who are dating). Using common sense and many examples from his years of experience as a marriage counselor, Gary Chapman proposes that, while everyone needs to feel loved, each individual tends to recognize and express love in primarily one of five ways: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Two people with loving intentions who speak different “languages” can be left each feeling uncared for and confused as to why their expressions of love aren’t accepted as such. Chapman encourages people in relationships to notice which of the five categories their partner might belong to and adjust their own behavior accordingly. It seems to me that this could be a bit forced and awkward in some cases, especially if the other person knows you very well and notices that you start acting out of character. I think it makes more sense for everyone to learn each other’s love languages, not so that they can necessarily speak them, but so that they can appreciate love in its different forms. For example, if someone prefers to hear affirming words, they should learn to appreciate the love of a person who makes time for them or quietly does helpful things. Or if a person wants their partner to show they care by giving them gifts, they should also realize that a kind word or touch can be equally meaningful and heartfelt expressions of love.
Why I read it: One of my sisters said it was interesting and it is important to me that the people I care about feel loved.
Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller, 3/5
Miller is an entertaining writer, but not a very convincing psychologist. While it is fun to read the story of how he developed a healthier approach to relationships and gradually found love at a relatively late age, I felt like he spent a lot of time answering easy questions I didn’t have while skirting around the most important, mysterious, confusing aspects of the topic. He claims to want to teach that “love is worth what it costs,” but the focus of the book is much more on how to pay the cost than the worth. For me, the real question isn’t what caused his previous relationships to fail and his current one to succeed (that is fairly obvious–turns out that authenticity and vulnerability make a better foundation than insecurity and manipulation), the big question is why did he suddenly feel compelled to make it work with someone in particular? Now that I’m thinking about it, this is the exact issue I had with the previous book on relationships I read. Perhaps one day, I’ll find a book that focuses on the why, not the how, but until then I guess I’ll just hope they are as entertaining as this one.
Why I read it: a family member recommended it to me.
The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists by James E. Loehr, ED.D., 4/5
For the casual participant in competitive sports, this book is the literary equivalent of that annoying person who gives you really hard, practical advice when maybe all you wanted was some encouragement and affirmation (I don’t actually know anyone like that, so That Person is probably me). While I was put off by all the self-assessment, soul-searching, diary-keeping, essay-writing, plans, logs and mantras Loehr recommends, they do seem like a plausible way to at least take your mind off negative emotions, clarify your commitment to your sport and get focused.
Defining “toughness” as “the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances” (5), Loehr explores the concepts of Real Self vs Performer Self and how your mental and emotional habits affect your Ideal Performance State. One of the most interesting ideas in this book is wave-making–achieving growth through alternating phases of stress and recovery (mental, emotional and physical). This is something I’d already figured out on some level, but never seen put into words. Also, Loehr’s clarification of just how much stress is healthy was very helpful. I’ve long thought that the whole “no pain no gain” mentality is a bit simplistic and possibly dangerous for people with over-achieving personalities; yes, you should push yourself, but going too far just to make a point is a bad long-term strategy. Loehr distinguishes between discomfort and pain, identifying the first as stress that toughens and the second as a symptom of overtraining.
My first impression of this book was not good, but as I dip into it again to write this review, I start to suspect that it might reward a slower, more thoughtful reading than the first one I gave it. It contains a lot of information, but all very concisely communicated, which can give the impression of shallowness during a quick reading. If it wasn’t overdue at the library, I’d read it again, but perhaps I will buy a copy instead.
I’ve always suspected that I belong to one of the thin ends on the bell curve of normality, so perhaps I should not have been so surprised that reading this book was like reading placards at the zoo about weird animal mating rituals. In this case, the strange animal is a human being who is definitely sure that being married is the key to their happiness and isn’t too hung up on the minor details, like exactly who to marry or why. After all, if you’re determined to find a spouse, Welch argues that it’s just a simple case of creating a list of more or less arbitrary criteria that can be used to sort through participants in a tireless grind of date-interviews that goes on until you find someone who is either a) if you are a woman, a man who pays for everything and is infatuated with you thanks to your hard-to-get attitude or b) if you are a man, a woman who can be convinced to love you and is as young and beautiful as your status and economic resources merit.
As a guide to getting what you already know you want in a relationship, this book is both practical and disturbingly plausible. But for people who not only don’t know what they want, but doubt even the possibility of being able to predict what will actually make them happy, this book is worse than useless–it’s nauseating.
Why I read it: it was a gift from a family member.
They say that opposites attract, in which case I suspect that I may be very similar to the author, who I found to be thoroughly grating. Perhaps it’s her approach to the topic, which is somehow both overly analytical and overly anecdotal, or perhaps it’s because studying how to make habits seems pointless to me (surely the hard part is deciding what habits to have, not how to keep them up?). I knew I was in trouble when Rubin’s first attempt (of many) to organize her readers into overly-tidy categories failed to resonate with me–am I an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Does it even matter? At any rate, I felt so little interest in this book that I had a difficult time finishing it and remember practically nothing about it now. It has joined the growing ranks of faceless self-help books that have made the New York Times Best Seller list but not an impression on me.
[Why I read it: my friend Joy recommended it to me.]
When a psychiatrist who endured the German concentration camps of WWII has something to say about happiness and the meaning of life, you can bet it’s something worth paying attention to. Frankl’s thoughts on the bigger questions in life are woven into the first part of this short book–an account of the author’s experiences and observations in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. An introduction to the foundations of logotherapy (the author’s approach to psychotherapy) comprise the second part of the book, in which Frankl’s ideas really come into focus.
Frankl’s refreshing premise is that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (121) and that “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease” (125). The author’s theory of the meaning of life encompasses the complexities of human existence with startling simplicity:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible (131).
I have seldom been moved as this book moved me, right from the preface, which contains this bit of wisdom that alone would make the book worth reading:
Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run–in the long run, I say!–success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (17).
[Why I read it: it was mentioned in Your Money or Your Life and the title sounded interesting.]