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The best books on Relationship Therapy

recommended by Mira Kirshenbaum

Interview by Anna Blundy & Cal Flyn

Systems thinking is key to figuring out how relationships work, says Mira Kirshenbaum, psychotherapist and clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute. She chooses the best books to help us understand modern relationship therapy.

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Mira Kirshenbaum

Mira Kirshenbaum is a therapist for individuals, couples and families. She is co-founder and clinical director of The Chestnut Hill Institute. She is the author of eleven bestselling and award-winning books on relationships, translated into 25 languages, including I Love You, But I Don't Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship, Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay: A Step-By-Step Guide to Resolving Your Relationship, and When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People in Two Relationships

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What can books tell us about relationships?

You asked me to tell you about the five best books on relationships. Well, that started me on quite a quest. There are certainly a lot of great books on relationships. In fact, you could easily argue that almost all great works of literature are about relationships. Where else would the conflict and drama come from? Sophocles’s Antigone is about Antigone’s relationships with her uncle and her sister and her dead brother. Homer’s Odyssey is about many relationships, but most of all it’s about Odysseus’s relationship with his wife Penelope, his yearning for her, strangely coupled with his delaying the journey home. And, when he does get home, we see how well-matched she is with him in both cunning and strength of character.

You can see where this is headed. I could easily give you a list of the five best works of literature if all I wanted to do was tell you about the five best books on relationships.

But, as I thought about it, I realised that none of these books, no matter how great, really explain relationships, how they really function, any more than the greatest paintings in the world explain human physiology. And so I realised that if I wanted to pick the five best books on relationships – from the point of view of how relationships work – I’d have to look elsewhere. I’d have to look at the foundational work of some thinkers who were responsible for one of the greatest revolutions in human understanding. This is a revolution so profound that even today most people either can’t grasp it or aren’t even aware of it. I know, that’s a pretty stunning statement, isn’t it? But, in fact, the average person’s understanding of relationships is about 100 years behind the time. The best couples therapists know about this revolution and use its discoveries all the time, but with too many couples therapists, their thinking lags far behind.

What is this revolution? What should we know about it?

Well, let’s start with systems thinking.  For most everyday folks, and even some therapists, their thinking about relationships is dominated by our sense of personalities: mean people make bad things happen; nice people make good things happen. All of drama and literature is based on this idea. According to this old-fashioned thinking, when something really bad happens in a relationship it must be because someone has done something really bad.  It’s the idea that people are like automobiles: find the broken part, fix it or replace it, and you’re done.

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The systems approach is based on the fact that relationships aren’t like this at all.  From the systems point of view, things look very different.  Systems thinking says that once you have two people who sort of fall into each other’s orbit, the relationship becomes a kind of third force.  It takes on a life of its own.  Certain initial properties, perhaps insignificant in themselves, can take on huge significance.  As a couples therapist, you have to think of your patient as three “people”: the two partners and the forces, patterns, and processes that are really in control.

Shall we turn to your book choices?

The first book I want to talk about shows this really nicely in all kinds of contexts, from the interpersonal to business to the environment.  It’s Donella H Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer.

It gives a really nice overview of how initial conditions (for example, who the couple are at the beginning of a relationship) lead to patterns that determine what the relationship feels like to the people in it. Systems thinking says that once you have two people who sort of fall into each other’s orbit, the relationship becomes a kind of third force. It takes on a life of its own. Certain initial properties, perhaps insignificant in themselves, can take on huge significance.

Here’s a trivial example with important implications. Let’s say you and I set up housekeeping together. We decide we’re going to share the washing-up chores after every meal. How nice!  But let’s say that you’re just a little faster when it comes to washing dishes than I am and you do just a little better job.  Can such a small difference have huge implications?  It can.

How can that be?

There you are, seeing me stumble through a job that you can do just a bit better and faster.  I’m not terrible, just not as good as you.  But the impact will be that it will be easy for you to feel impatient with how I do it.  You’ll might well be itching to jump in and do it yourself.

Months pass, and the next thing you know we’re not sharing that chore at all.  You’ve somehow gotten saddled with the job.

Of course, now that you’re doing the washing-up every night, that’s one extra chore for you. And that might make you a little resentful. You might or might not blow up. You might act ever so slightly cold and hostile. Maybe not even enough for me to notice consciously. But I will notice it, and I will respond. And then you’ll respond to my response, and then I’ll respond to your response. And we’re off and running in a self-maintaining cycle of anger and distance.

“Two nice normal people in a terrible mess not because they’re terrible people but because of the properties of systems”

And there you have it. Two nice normal people in a terrible mess not because they’re terrible people but because of the properties of systems.  Almost all problems in relationships come from processes like this.

Now here’s the miracle. While this is very hard for two people to sort out on their own – which explains why we feel so stuck so often in our own relationships – it’s surprisingly easy for a good therapist who understands systems to sort this out, and she can do it without anyone feeling blamed.  And that makes all the difference.

What is the success rate for couples who undergo therapy, and at what point should a couple decide they need to go?

Some studies I’ve seen have put the success rate for couples therapy at about 67%.  That is, two thirds of couples receiving professional help end up with meaningful and lasting improvement in how they deal with each other.  Is 67% a good number?  Yes indeed, from two very different perspectives.

First, it’s a sad fact that most couples seek help only after things have been quite bad for quite a long time.  That means that small difficulties and differences have become rather big.  No wonder most couples are quite a challenge for most therapists.  It’s as if you were a cancer doctor who only saw people with late-stage cancers.  Given this, 67% is damned good.

Second, compare this number to the benefits of most medications.  Here in the States, the Food and Drug Administration would be head over heels to see a new drug that demonstrated effectiveness on 67% of people and was safe in almost every case.  If couples therapy were a drug, it would be considered a very good drug.

Yes—that’s higher success rate than I’d have expected.

There is one big qualification to this good news.  The majority of therapists are below average in effectiveness – yes, that’s quite possible; here’s another example, the great majority of incomes are below the average income for most countries – and to make matters worse, therapists have no real check on their necessarily biased self-perception of effectiveness.

So what do you, the prospective patient, do about this?  First, believe that couples therapy is generally very helpful and therefore do yourself a big favour.  Do not wait until you’re thoroughly miserable before seeking help.  The moment just one of you can admit you’re disappointed, frustrated, and unhappy, or even if you’re concerned that your marriage might be off course, seek help.  Don’t wait.

“Do not wait until you’re thoroughly miserable before seeking help”

Second, make sure you’re content with your therapist.  This is what you should be seeing by the second meeting:  That your therapist has already started to make suggestions and interventions designed to move you toward change, and that indeed do bring about some change.  That your therapist ‘gets’ you.  That the way she treats both of you feels roughly balanced.  That your therapist seems to have an eclectic, results oriented, evidence based approach, as opposed to using some one theory or to spending hours collecting information about you.  That she asks for feedback about what you find works and doesn’t work, and uses that feedback to tailor her approach to working with you.  And she does not just ask you to share your feelings with each other or to just talk to one another.

Next book?

Next we turn to a book by one of the pioneers of family therapy, Don Jackson. It’s called The Mirages of Marriage, and he co-wrote it with a professional writer named William Lederer. But Jackson is the mind behind this book. It was the very first self-help book for married couples from a systems perspective and it’s still one of the very few from this perspective. What it also includes, which is very important, is everything that had been learned up until that time about communications theory.

I don’t want to make this book sound heavy. It really is a nice self-help book for regular people. But the question is: if you really want to change things do you want to be told what you already know, which clearly hasn’t been working, or do you want to see things with fresh eyes, even though none of us is comfortable with what’s unfamiliar? The Don Jackson book will help you see that there are things going on with communication in your relationship that you never realised, and I’m not talking about that Mars/Venus junk. You see, people don’t just exchange information. They do things with words. They issue commands even when they think they’re just describing reality. They create realities even when they think they’re ‘just talking’. For example, someone might say ‘How are you?’ to you in a way that both made you feel dominated and made you feel like crap.

One of the cool things about the Don Jackson book is that he explodes a number of myths about marriage, particularly about the role of love in marriage. If your marriage is in trouble, this book will help.

The role of love in marriage is a myth?!

Romantics might not like what I have to say, but I’m telling the truth as a long-time therapist and as someone who’s been married to the same person for 50 years.  Don’t shoot the messenger!

Love doesn’t really have much to do with anything when it comes to relationships.  Love really has two parts.  The first is the feeling of hope and excitement most of us feel when we encounter someone we think will meet our needs.  As in: ‘Oh, she’ll think I’m wonderful and special, and we’ll want to have sex with each other, and she seems interesting or fun, so I won’t be bored and my friends will like her,’ and… stuff like that.  Next thing you know, you’re head over heels.  But this love is really just the rocket fuel people need to launch a relationship in this fearful, divorce-ridden world we live in.

But love is not self-validating.  The initial love you feel isn’t saying anything true or important about the quality of your relationship, or about how your relationship will turn out.  It’s just hope, and the psychology of hope is that hope is hard to kill.  In fact, hope is usually the last thing to die in a dying relationship.  Which is why people hang on so long before divorcing.

“Love is really just the rocket fuel people need to launch a relationship in this fearful, divorce-ridden world we live in”

The other aspect of love is the feeling that grows over time when you are life companions with someone.  It has to do with attachment, loyalty, friendship, and a hundred filaments of connection.  And people can feel this kind of love long after they’ve concluded they actually don’t want to be with their partner anymore.  People who’ve been seriously abused by their partner can still feel this kind of love.

So please don’t put too much stock in love.  The measure of okay-ness in your relationship isn’t “But I love him!”  It’s whether you’d recommend a relationship just like this to your beloved younger sister or brother.  It’s whether you would look forward to another year with this person if it were like the year you’ve just had with him.  Perhaps most important, it’s whether you are pretty sure that there is room in your relationship for two whole people: you as you really are and him as he really is.

So am I throwing love overboard altogether?  Of course not.  I’m just saying that as a feeling it doesn’t prove much, though it’s a nice feeling to have.  But there is one aspect of love that’s all important.  No matter what you feel, if you treat your partner as if her happiness and well being were as important to you as your own, and she can tell you’re treating her that way, then that’s love that matters.  A lot.  If your partner’s in distress and you’re able to focus your concern on him, as opposed to focusing on the distress his distress causes you, then that’s love that matters.  If the way you treat her makes her feel good about herself, then that’s love that matters.  If your love creates a life in which both of you flourish, that too is the only kind of love that matters.

Your next book is about relationship therapy itself.

It’s called The Family Crucible by Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker. Whitaker was one of the founders and pioneers of family therapy. If you read Whitaker, you will immediately see how lame the therapy is in most movies and TV shows. Whitaker embodies the family therapy revolution in the most amazing way – he jumps in and makes things happen. This is not therapy that consists of turning to somebody and saying “How do you feel about that?” It’s about rearranging the molecules in the family. In this book you see how somebody can tackle the family as a whole living organism. Whitaker shows how important it is to change people’s assumptions about who they are to each other, to change the ways they interact with each other, to change the very structure of the family.  And to overcome the systemic forces that have kept everyone so stuck.

All this change sounds a bit worrying. Everyone has to change.

Of course in a marriage both people have to change.  An unhappy marriage is one where the partners have been doing things wrong.  Very wrong, usually.  You can’t learn how to do things the right way without changing.  Whitaker introduces us to the notion of change. This is a very important concept in family therapy. I’m talking about the idea that therapy is not about insights. It’s about change. This makes sense. After all, when people come together to form a relationship, whether they realise it or not, they’re trying to change each other. All too often, though, they fall into a situation called homeostasis in which change is impossible. They are stuck in seemingly unchangeable patterns. So what you do?

That’s where the next book comes in. It’s called Uncommon Therapy, and it’s written by one of the family therapy pioneers, Jay Haley.  But it’s about another therapist named Milton Erickson. Erickson understood that if therapy is about change, not insight, then in some important way you’re not tethered to reality. The therapist is free to create new realities.

“Who I am and who you are is pretty much a plaything of context and assumptions”

This tremendously empowers the therapist, but it also changes our whole sense of what is to be a person. The notion that who I am is this stable entity gets exploded. In fact, and the evidence for this is overwhelming, who I am and who you are is pretty much a plaything of context and assumptions. Change the context, change the assumptions, and you change the self. Do that with people in a relationship, and you change the relationship. As with Whitaker, this book will give you the sense, wow, I never imagined that therapists could do this. It’s enormously exciting, but for those people who have a traditional view of the self, it’s also deeply challenging.

Aren’t we always told that a leopard never changes its spots? Or, ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’. Can we really pin our hopes on other people changing who they are?

Can people change?  The answer is a clear yes and no.

We can’t change the psychological stuff we’re made of.  Anxiety is always going to be an issue for a basically anxious person.  Stupid people never become smart.  When I look now at all the people I went to school with so many years ago, I see profound continuities between who they were and who they are now.

And yet. While people can’t change, they can learn.  They can learn a lot.  And what they learn can have huge implications for how well they function.  The anxious person can learn tools for out-processing anxious thoughts that are so effective these thoughts stop bothering her or affecting her life.

“While people can’t change, they can learn”

In the same way, people can and do—all the time—learn enough about how to deal with their partners to turn a very troubled relationship into one that’s mostly good and fun and rewarding.  It’s making this learning happen that’s the therapist’s job.  This is the missing-tools approach to therapy, and it works beautifully.  You just need to identify the missing tools, teach them, help the patient learn to use them, and suddenly everything is different.

On to your last book, the classic Change: The Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch.

And what a fun book to read!  Fun, and transformational. It will reveal one of the great secrets of why couples get so stuck, and how to get unstuck. I’m talking about the idea that “the solution is the problem.”  What this means is that couples aren’t stuck because they have a problem.  They’re stuck because they found a solution to a problem, and this solution doesn’t work, but because it’s “the solution” they just keep on using it on the assumption that if a little of the solution doesn’t work, then more will be better.  People don’t abandon unproductive solutions; they keep using them more and more intensely until things are horrible and they’re forced to seek help. At which point it may be too late.

Can you give a real life example?

I come home from work and, yup, there I go, dumping my stuff in the entrance-way.  If you’ve told me once, you’ve told me a thousand times…  And so right now you feel incredibly helpless, frustrated, and disrespected.

So you – I don’t know – yell maybe, or cry, or threaten, or give me the silent treatment, or burn my chops, or spend the evening giving me little digs.  These are the ‘solutions’ you’ve used in the past to try to get me to change.  If they haven’t worked, it’s because I’m just a big jerk, but they’re great solutions, and one day they will work.  Or so you tell yourself.

But I, of course, am far from happy at being treated this way.  I didn’t mean to step on your toe, and now you’re deliberately stepping on my toe!  Now I feel frustrated, et cetera.  Now I have a problem that I have to solve.  Maybe I yell louder than you, or out-threaten you, or deal with your crying by going out to the pub.

“And so, like millions of couples every single evening, we’re off and running”

And so, like millions of couples every single evening, we’re off and running.  If we’re volatile people, we’ll escalate up to the point where we scare the bejesus out of one another.  If we’re super polite people, we’ll have an out-and-out brawl, but one so subtle and low key that no one in the world would suspect what’s going on.  But we know.  We know.

We’re stuck in an endless cycle, stuck with solutions that don’t help but that we’re helpless to get rid of.

There’s another example of a ‘solution’ that’s a problem.  Adultery.

Sometime a person will enter an affair, either as a way to create a bearable modus vivendi or as a way to shake things up or to dig an escape tunnel out of the marriage.

Is adultery ever the answer?

It depends on the question. If the question is, ‘What’s a good therapeutic move I can make in my marriage?’, well, adultery is good couples therapy the way a sledge hammer is good headache therapy.

“Adultery is good couples therapy the way a sledgehammer is good headache therapy”

But if the question is, Is there some incredibly expensive and risky move I could make that might, just might, provide some possibly illusory benefit?, then the answer is yes.  By getting something you haven’t been able to get in your marriage, you both get that benefit and take pressure off your marriage.  Good deal! At least until the whole thing explodes, which it almost always does.  Let’s just say that if adultery were a pill, most health officials would find it neither an effective nor a safe treatment.

In much of literature, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, there’s a tragic mismatch of people’s needs which leads to an escalating use of bad solutions which ultimately leads to a tragic clash. Emma Bovary was doomed because her try-and-stop-me kinds of acting out could only escalate, and she and Charles had no other way of dealing with their differences.

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The same thing happens in real-life relationships, and it can be just as tragic. It can certainly cause a lot of aggravation.

But there’s good and hopeful news here. If we can understand all the ways we get ourselves in trouble by using ineffective solutions—fruitlessly or at a very high cost—to get our needs met, and if we can get our hands on the right tools, none of this pain and futility is necessary.

What would you advise Emma and Charles Bovary if they came to you for therapy? Was their relationship saveable?

If Emma and Charles Bovary came to me for therapy—and how cool would that be!—I would first be thrown into despair as they tried to convince me of how awful the other was and how terribly mismatched they were.  Good: my despair is a sign that I’ve understood their despair.  But I’d recognize the likelihood (systems!) that small initial differences had led to this hostile chasm.  I’d ask them what they wanted.  If divorce, I’d ask if they wanted to regret-proof their decision to break up by working on their relationship.  If they wanted to stay together I’d ask them to tell me about the good things in their relationship that made them feel that way.

And I’d ask them about the problems that led them to seek help.  Like all couples, they’d be feeling they’d ‘tried everything.’

“I’d tell Emma and Charles Bovary: ‘I’ve helped people overcome bigger problems than that.’ And it’s true”

In spite of Emma and Charles thinking they’d tried everything, I’d be pretty certain that it was precisely their solutions that had kept them stuck.  Then off we’d go, halfway through the first session, me offering game-changing solutions aimed at breaking them out of the cycle they’ve been stuck in.  Then our work has begun.  They’d try the new solutions—behaviors that actually do work—even if the main problem is, as Emma would phrase it, that Charles is a boring loser.  “I’ve helped people overcome bigger problems than that,” I’d say.  And that’s true.  All kinds of problems seem insurmountable if you’re stuck using the wrong solution.

Because as any experienced couples therapist will tell you, it’s not the size of the problem but the ability of the therapist to craft user-friendly tools for her patients that determines the outcome.  Huge problems can quickly seem quite small in the face of the right solution.

All the books I’ve mentioned are challenging, but they’re tremendously exciting and deeply hopeful in the promise they hold forth for change and growth in even the most troubled relationships.

Interview by Anna Blundy & Cal Flyn

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Mira Kirshenbaum

Mira Kirshenbaum is a therapist for individuals, couples and families. She is co-founder and clinical director of The Chestnut Hill Institute. She is the author of eleven bestselling and award-winning books on relationships, translated into 25 languages, including I Love You, But I Don't Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship, Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay: A Step-By-Step Guide to Resolving Your Relationship, and When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People in Two Relationships