It’s no secret I love stories: fiction and memoir are my go-to genres, not purely for the entertainment value, but because stories—even, and perhaps especially, when they’re made up—give me great insight into what it means to be a person in this world. How should we live? How should we care for others? How might we understand ourselves? How do we understand ourselves? The best stories—the ones I enjoy most, that I am most drawn to—deliver elegant, often through-the-back-door answers to these questions.
I don’t often read with information-seeking as my first priority. Don’t get me wrong, I read at least ten nonfiction books a year that are practical and fact-focused. But these titles account for just a sliver of my reading life, and they’re never the ones I am most inclined to pick up. Good as they may be, they’re the books I need to make myself read because this type of reading feels like “work” to me. (I know many of you are the exact opposite!)
And yet, when I finish the right nonfiction read, one that I feel I needed, that deepened my understanding and made a practical difference in my life, I am deeply grateful I was able to read it: that an author built the knowledge and took the time to write it, that it was then able to find its way to me. I’m thinking of books that have helped me understand specific issues I’ve been dealing with, or that my kids have: books about topics as varied as negotiation and nutrition, decision making and skill-building, managing a business or leading a kids’ sports team.
Something I’ve noticed of late is that many of these books—the ones I’m drawn to, that I’m so glad I didn’t miss—are focused on relationships.
These past six months I’ve happened to read two such nonfiction works that have deepened my understanding of my most important relationships. They feel like companions of sorts, though they were written by different authors in different styles, published more than ten years apart, and focus on different things. And yet both of them examine our most meaningful relationships through the lens of attachment theory, something I’ve only learned of in the past few years. Attachment theory holds that the nature and quality of the bonds we form with our caregivers early in life have a lasting and significant effect on how we connect with others as we grow older. (That’s my best summary, not the official answer you should use for your next psychology quiz.)
The first, published in 2011, is Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue E. Johnson, and its explicit focus is romantic relationships. It wasn’t on my radar until late last year, and I was surprised to learn it’s sold over one million copies. Johnson doesn’t go deep into the different attachment styles here; instead she uses attachment theory as a broad framework to examine what behaviors and mindsets threaten connection in a relationship, and what steps a couple can take to reestablish a close bond.
To do this, she lays out seven important conversations couples need to have in their relationship in order to remain close, conversations such as “finding the raw spots,” “revisiting a rocky moment,” or “forgiving injuries.” She breaks down why each conversation matters, how it might unfold, and how it could potentially go off the rails. One of her underlying beliefs is that couples may slip into negative communication cycles, and when this occurs it’s important to focus on fixing the pattern, not on fixing the other person; she provides lots of examples for what this can look like in practice. Sure, the word “cheesy” comes to mind when I think back on some of the stories told here, but did I find it helpful all the same? Absolutely.
The second book I’m grateful to have found is the newer 2022 release Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends by Dr. Marisa G. Franco (which some of you will recognize from our Fall Book Preview, or as our February Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club flight pick). She opens her book by saying that romantic love gets all the attention, but friendship is every bit as crucial to our well-being, and we need to prioritize it more. By looking at friendship through the lens of attachment theory, she makes the case for the many benefits of these relationships, including how they shape us and help us become our healthiest selves. I found this to be a relatable guide for strengthening and deepening your existing friendships, nurturing new ones, and better managing conflict within them.
Compared to Hold Me Tight, Franco’s writing is more academic in style but still accessible to the layperson. She goes into more detail about the various attachment styles—secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized—explaining what each means and how each type may function in platonic relationships. If you want to understand more about how attachment theory works, this is an accessible introduction.
I’m grateful for these information-heavy nonfiction reads, but I have to mention that some of my most profound relationship insights have come from novels. For example, one of the most striking insights I’ve encountered about grief was nestled into a post-apocalyptic story that wasn’t exactly my cup of tea (at least not at the time, I wonder what I’d think now?). And yet I think of that passage all the time. (I wish I’d been keeping a reading journal then—if I had, I would have that quote at my fingertips, ready to share with you, alas!)
There are so many reasons why we read, and a primary one for me is that books help us become better versions of ourselves, by helping us see ourselves and our relationships more clearly. And on that note …
Readers, the comments section is all yours: I’d love to hear about your relationship to reading for information. And more specifically, would you tell us about a book that has made an impact on your personal relationships? We would all love to hear about a book that made a meaningful difference in your life.
P.S. 7 books I wish I could download into my brain, and What niche subgenre do you love?