I am looking for advice on books/apps/websites/activities/tangible things that actually helped you change for the better. I am in a long term relationship and both of our mental health has been very bad recently, there have been lots of conversations on the lack of feeling “in love,” we both love each other but neither of us are getting that honeymoon feeling anymore, which makes sense. And I recently began therapy again so long story short I am looking at how to actually work on myself, there is so much talk about it but like HOW do I actually do it because I have behaviors I notice that spill into my relationship that stem from personal issues. I want to be a better person to myself, and my partner. I want to feel like my cup is full as I am, and then be able to use that to help fill our cup. I hope this makes sense. I am feeling really lost looking at how I want to be and what I am currently doing, and it’s a bit crushing honestly. I know I can’t just change who I am and that’s not what I want I just have noticed ways I want to improve myself so my quality of life is better but how the hell do I do that?
— Needing To Grow
Hi Needing To Grow,
Despite my skepticism of “self-care” as an “answer,” I am a big fan of self-help. I don’t like super didactic books or strategies or anything that claims it can “fix” something that’s “broken,” or that relies on gender or other stereotypes, but I am a believer in the power of introspection generally. And of books. So, I have a bunch of book recommendations for you!
Unfortunately, I don’t have experience with any apps or websites, though I did get a free subscription to Balance — but haven’t tried it yet — and have been talking to my therapist about doing something like Habitica. On that note, one tangible practice is I create a weekly habit tracker. I have a list of about 12 habits, and I track every day whether I did them. My goal is to average at least six per day. This is motivating because I have to share my results with my therapist (accountability!) and because it’s data and I am a nerd. Other than the standard activities like therapy, journaling, physical activity, and being in nature, though, I don’t have too much else to offer. Hopefully commenters can chime in! I’m mostly going to recommend books.
Before that, though, I want to quickly address the beginning of your letter. I’m sorry that you and your partner are struggling with mental health right now, and I’m happy you’ve restarted therapy. I hope you both have access to any other resources you need, whether a wider circle of intimate friendships to rely on, good food, rest and relaxation, or whatever else. I also am happy that you understand the diminishing of the “honeymoon” phase makes sense, and I have a metaphor I’ve been thinking about that I want to share.
A frequent negative feeling we often have in relationships is that the relationship has lost its “spark.” But if we want to think more deeply about that common metaphor, what is a spark actually for? If our relationship is a fire, then a spark is for lighting a fire, and is not particularly useful beyond that. The “spark” brings people together and ignites passion — but a spark, no matter how intense, will not keep a fire going.
Other things are necessary to keep a fire going — primarily fuel, oxygen, and shelter. To extend the metaphor: Fuel is the daily actions that we take to keep a fire going, like the daily act of loving each other (a fire must be continually fed logs in order to stay burning). Oxygen is space and time apart to breathe and take care of ourselves (a smothered fire will quickly go out). And shelter is how we protect and care for each other when things are difficult (fire needs some kind of rain/wind protection to literally weather a storm).
I hope it’s not out of place to offer this metaphor to you. I think even when it’s not about relationships, doing work on yourself is necessary for a healthy relationship “fire.” Please note that I don’t believe that any of the modalities in any of these books is “the truth.” I don’t think there are four types of attachment, or five ways to give or receive love or five love languages, or whatever. I do believe that these different ways of thinking about ourselves and how we love are useful frameworks to ponder, not “the truth.” Also, many of these are written from a straight perspective, but the ideas are universal enough that I think everyone can get something out of them. On to my recommendations!
Books Specifically About Relationships:
1. Essential reading: How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo
I recommend this to everyone, and I think all adult human beings should read it, especially anyone trying to love better. It hits on similar notes to the books on love languages below, but frames them differently, and is really about working on and changing yourself as the key to loving others better and thus improving your relationships. I believe that one of our most important goals as humans is to learn how to love, rather than finding someone to love us.
2. Getting philosophical: The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm
Check out this podcast episode for a primer on Fromm and on this book. Existential loneliness is an inevitable aspect of the human condition, and we’re typically taught a “commodity” framework about making ourselves more loveable and seeking out a partner we “deserve” in order to attempt to escape that loneliness. It’s transactional: we think of relationships as something that’s mutually beneficial, whether by soothing each others’ loneliness or bolstering each others’ ego, and a “healthy” relationship is when the transaction is about equal. Fromm says: what if instead of trying to escape that loneliness you learned to accept it? What if you grew your capacity to love others because of the inherent merits of doing so, not because of what you might get out of it? What if love isn’t a feeling but an art we must practice in order to excel at?
Note: writing this had me going back and looking at this book, and I realized that Fromm does, in fact, rely heavily on gender stereotypes/tropes and also has some pretty blatant homophobia in here. It’s too bad — the ideas are really powerful otherwise. If you can’t deal, then listen to the podcast episode and skip this one. If you’re able to shake your head and keep reading (he’s remarkably feminist for 1957, actually, and I had to keep that publication year in mind) then it’s still a recommended read.
3. On love languages: The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts
There are tons of books and websites about love languages, and this probably isn’t one of the best ones, but thinking about love in this way was very helpful for my partner and I. Reading it really helped us to talk about how we give and receive love, and helped us make little shifts in our day-to-day that really supported our feelings of security. It also gets us to think deeply about how we learned what love looks like as young people, and how we’ve created assumptions about it, and how this affects our adult relationships. It also helped us to better understand that there are lots of ways to “put logs onto the fire,” as it were — including having sex, giving gifts, going on dates, writing love notes to each other, spending quality time together, etc. — and they’re all necessary in varying degrees to “keep the fire going.”
4. On attachment theory: The Attachment Theory Workbook: Powerful Tools to Promote Understanding, Increase Stability, and Build Lasting Relationships
I don’t “believe” in attachment theory, but I and my relationship still benefited a lot from reading and working through this. I clearly have avoidant attachment tendencies, and my partner clearly has anxious attachment tendencies — so learning about this and our triggers and fears and childhood messages has also helped us to better love each other.
Books That Are Not About Relationships but Are Important for Self-Work and Introspection
1. Learning to be a trustworthy, secure person: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
I think this book can be over-hyped, but like everything else on this list it can be powerful for anyone to take from it what they will. I especially think that making every effort to learn how to take care with your words, mean what you say, and follow through on your commitments is huge. It is one of the only ways to become a trustworthy person, and how can someone love you if they can’t trust you? How can you love someone else if you can’t trust yourself? I also believe that working on taking fewer things personally is an incredible challenge that pays off in big ways the more you work at it. I think some things are personal, though, and finding that boundary is crucial to living a contented life.
2. Overcoming self-sabotage: The Mountain Is You by Brianna Wiest
I am currently reading this book, and it’s really been blowing my mind. A few years ago, I exited a period of extreme mental health crisis, changed career paths, and now I’m doing better mentally and financially than I ever have in the past — and I feel guilty. It’s helping me realize that I created narratives for myself when I was younger about certain types of people. And it’s been transformative as I’ve experienced a crisis of conscience upon becoming one of those people! I think this book can be powerful for a lot of people in our communities who romanticize poverty or struggle or overwork or moral/ethical purity out of necessity as a survival strategy, and who then get older and realize that those narratives might not necessarily be accurate.
3. On doing what feels good: Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown
While this isn’t a “self-help” book, it really helped me to understand that one of the most powerful and transformative things I can do in the world is seek pleasure and contentment. “Movement” work doesn’t have to be a slog or a constant struggle. We should pursue justice because it’s pleasurable to, because it brings us joy, because it’s an outpouring of the love we have for humanity. My best work in the world is doing what brings me joy and pleasure, whatever that is. This of course requires us to expand our thinking about pleasure; helping a friend through an intense crisis, or working through a difficult struggle with our lover, isn’t a pleasurable experience in a typical sense, but it does bring us joy and is an aspect of our love for them and that intimacy and shared work is pleasurable in an expanded sense.
I think it’s our work as human beings to constantly be getting to know ourselves better and to grow our ability to love and care for ourselves and others. As some of these books address, there are major structural barriers in our way to building intimate, loving relationships with ourselves and others. True love is essentially anti-capitalist and anti-oppressive, which is why it’s so hard to do. That being said, no matter our circumstances we can always do our best. I hope that these resources give you some places to start, and that your love continues to grow, internally and externally.
PS: Commenters, please make more recommendations in the comments! I’m sure there are so many great books, along with apps, websites, and activities, that I missed.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.