Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.

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image via Wikimedia Commons

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4 thoughts on “Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

  1. Gottman is an excellent researcher- and huzzah!- and effective communicator. Our marriage counselor has taught us many of his principles. His work on parenting is also worthwhile.

    Like

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