My Favorite Books on Marriage, aka The Books with the Yellow Highlights

Most of my readers know by now that I am a lover of books.  My children have come to expect at least one literary Christmas gift every year and to not be surprised if, on occasion, an unexpected tome arrives on their doorstep from Amazon.  Such are the consequences of having a father who is a bibliophile.

Recently, a young married couple asked for my favorite book on marriage.  I had to chuckle.  That’s like asking me which child I love the most.  So in response, I prepared a list of those books about marriage that, over the years, have impacted me the most.  And I thought I’d share them with TheBuddyBlog.com audience.

For a book to make my “favorites” list, it must meet three qualifications:

    • It is so good, I have read it more than once;
    • It is notable for the abundance of yellow highlighted markings;
    • The insights I adopted made me a better husband/man.

I long ago accepted a fundamental precept of masculinity that men are like Dairy Queen ice cream cones — they have to be dipped in the chocolate more than once for things to stick.  That is why I often go back to my favorite books, those abounding in yellow highlights, to “dip” myself once more in the chocolate jar of wisdom and truth. And keep in mind that women love chocolate.

So, guys, ready for your first dipping?

1.  What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women”

The first book on my Favorite Marriage Booklist is James Dobson’s What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. 

The opening line in the book is, “Women have needs that men do not understand.”  That thunder you hear in the background is the feminine world shouting, “Hallelujah! Amen! Preach it, brother!

First published in 1975, Dobson was just becoming known as a Christian champion of the family. I recall seeing the book in a bookstore.  The catchy title and table of contents tweaked my interest.  That Christmas found us as a young married couple with two sons ages 2 ½ and 10 months.  We were just twenty-four years old and still settling into a routine as a young married couple with children.   

Then, as now, I was a voracious reader.  Keenly aware that I needed to grow as a husband and a father, I was always on the lookout for good ideas and insights.  This new Dobson book appeared to be one that delivered both.

That Christmas was one of those years I had zero ideas about what to get my wife. But giving your wife a book for Christmas is a risky venture.  Giving her one that is really intended for yourself will likely dampen any hopes of Christmas Cheer!   So when she opened the wrapped book and saw the title, she laughed.  But her eyes got wide when she saw the three crisp $100 bills inside the front cover with a note that said I promised to read the book if she could find a way to spend $300 on herself.  To give you some idea of its value, $300 in 1975 was probably worth about $1,500 in today’s dollars.  Needless to say, Christmas was very cheery that year. 

My wife said I could give her a book anytime!

The book proved to be quite insightful.  Based on a survey of women, the bulk of the book speaks to the ten most common sources of depression in women.  Listed in order of their significance:

    1. Low self-esteem,
    2. Fatigue and time pressure,
    3. Loneliness, isolation, and boredom,
    4. Absence of romantic love in marriage,
    5. Financial difficulties,
    6. Sexual problems in marriage,
    7. Menstrual and physiological problems,
    8. Problems with children,
    9. In-law conflicts,
    10. Aging.

Dobson states that husbands often fail to comprehend the physical, emotional, and relational needs of their spouse.  In an insightful but humorous way, he explains those needs. “A good marriage is not one where perfection reigns; it is a relationship where a healthy perspective overlooks a multitude of ‘unresolvables’.”  In closing, Dobson sums up his recommendations by saying, “What do women most want from their husbands?  It is not a bigger home or a better dishwasher or a new automobile.  Rather, it is the assurance that ‘hand in hand we’ll face the best and worst that life has to offer — together’.

2.  The Gift of the Blessing

The 2nd book I’d recommend is The Gift of the Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent.  In 1992, I attended my first PromiseKeepers conference in Boulder, Colorado.  There I also heard for the first time, Gary Smalley when he gave a talk called “The Blessing.”  It was a short version of the book by the same title that he co-authored with John Trent.  (They later retitled it “The Gift of the Blessing”).  It was a fascinating talk.   I was so impressed with what I heard that I bought the book and quickly devoured it. This book left such an impression that I ordered 150 copies and sent one out with each of our Christmas letters that year. 

What’s so special about this book?  In some ways, it only confirmed what I already understood.  On page one, it states that “what happens in our relationships with our parents can greatly affect all our present and future relationships.”  This might be one of those self-evident truths that few people appreciate.  On one level, this book is all about parental acceptance, and how parents, especially fathers, can communicate their love and appreciation, their “blessing” to their children.  However, what you soon discover is that these principles are transferable to any intimate relationship, especially to your spouse.   An entire chapter speaks to how spouses can “bless” each other through the five elements of Blessing: meaningful touch, a spoken word, the expression of high value, describing a special future, and making an active, genuine commitment.   

Sadly, communicating and expressing how much you love and appreciate the people God has brought into your life is a skill far too few people have.  I know I have to continually remind myself that I am not a reservoir of God’s blessing, but a channel of it.  The Gift of the Blessing forever changed my view of parenting and the marital role of a husband.

It must have made an immediate difference in my life.  Two weeks after I returned, my wife and I were driving to my parents home, when I apologized to my wife for not thanking her sooner for her funding of my plane ticket to Denver to attend the PromiseKeepers conference.  Her response was a simple, ‘That’s ok, you came back good.  Good?  I questioned.  Was I that bad before?  She explained, “No, but you came back a better man and that makes the expense worth it.”  Humility never felt so good.

3.  “The Book of Romance

When I first read The Book of Romance by Tommy Nelson,  I expected it to be a detailed study of one of the most unusual books of the Bible.  Though I knew the theme of The Song of Solomon, (let’s just say it is rated “M” for Mature audiences only),  I was still surprised at Nelson’s direct discussion of intimacy, especially given that he, the author, is a pastor.  I was impressed with his candor.  It really is a book about romance.

But… 

When I give a copy to someone, I do so carefully.  After all, giving a book like this could be misinterpreted, if not, unappreciated.  I always ask the reader to go first to page 171 (hardback edition) and read the entire page.  Doing s0 helps to frame all that the book has to offer.   In short, it emphasizes that women spell love over time as tenderness, whereas a man spells love over time as respect or admiration.

Having used up a yellow marker while reading it, this book has been on my top ten list ever since.  I still periodically scan through the book to savor again and again the pearls of romantic wisdom.   Here are a few of those pearls:

    • Listening is a universal sign of wisdom.” (pg. 29)
    • Marriage is mostly about giving, not receiving.  Only the holy and selfless can truly be great lovers.  (pg. 97)
    • All couples fight.  Good couples fight clean. Bad couples fight dirty.”   Good marital conflict leads to resolution and greater closeness.  Bad marital conflict presses for victory, which leads to alienation and the potential for revenge.”  (pg. 106)
    • Show me a wife who knows that her husband is doing all that he can do, with an unfailing commitment to their marriage, and I will show you a happily married woman.” (pg. 129)
    • Your role in marriage is to build up, to edify, to strengthen, and to genuinely praise the goodness of God in your spouse…There is no excuse at any time for demeaning a person.” (pg. 140)
    • When husbands fail in tenderness and wives fail to show respect, marriages wither.  Revere your mate.  If you don’t, Satan will find someone who will.”  (pg. 173)

I wonder how many marriages could be saved if every couple read this book before they got married?

4.  “Love for a Lifetime”

In 1987, James Dobson published Love for a Lifetime.  This was another book known to spur the sales of yellow highlight markers.  Subtitled “Building a Marriage That Will Go the Distance,” this book addressed vital elements to building a firm foundation for a successful marriage.  Two topics caught my interest.  The first dealt with bonding.  Dobson shared the research findings of Dr. Desmond Morris, who concluded that “bonding is most likely to develop among those who have moved systematically and slowly through twelve steps (of intimacy) during courtship and early marriage.”  Permanent commitment often evolves when a couple properly follows these twelve stages of physical intimacy.  In other words, for a male-female relationship to reach its full potential, intimacy must proceed slowly.  Let’s just say that these twelve steps make it clear how much physical intimacy is appropriate before marriage.

Later in the book, Dobson dedicates a chapter to what he calls “Marriage Killers,” and goes on to outline twelve threats to marriage.  Among them are:

    • Overcommitment and physical exhaustion,
    • Excessive credit and conflict over how money will be spent,
    • Selfishness,
    • Interference from in-laws,
    • Unrealistic expectations,
    • Not giving your spouse enough space,
    • Alcohol or substance abuse,
    • Addictions (think porn or gambling),
    • Sexual frustration,
    • Loneliness and low self-esteem,
    • Business failure or business success and
    • Getting married too young.

This list sounds so similar to the sources of depression in women as discussed in “What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.” 

As a husband who cherished his wife and sought to protect his marriage, this book clearly outlined for me what I needed to do and what I needed to avoid — and it is no different in my second marriage today.

5.  The Five Love Languages

Another groundbreaking book was Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages.  Subtitled How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, this book unlocks the keys to developing a richer marriage relationship.

The Five Love Languages has become a familiar phrase today, but in 1992, when first published, it was a new concept.  As stated on the back cover: “You bring your wife flowers but she’d rather just have a hug.  You buy tickets to a movie when she wants to sit and talk.  Tired of missed cues and confusing signals?  Dr. Gary Chapman reveals how different personalities express love in different ways.  In fact, there are five specific love languages of love:  Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch.”

This Love Language paradigm is still considered by some an unproven model. So my recommendation comes only from anecdotal evidence.  It works for me.  Reading this book not only helped me better understand how to express love to my wife but provided abundant examples of how to do it.  Call me practical, but I appreciate tools that come with examples.

6.  Men Are Like Waffles Women Are Like Spaghetti

Ok, Ok,  with a title like that, I had to buy the book. But once I started reading it, I could not put it down.  The authors, Bill and Pam Farrel, use the illustration of waffles to mean that men process life in boxes. They live in one box at a time. Women process life more like a plate of spaghetti.  All the noodles touch each other, which illustrates that women can seamlessly move from one topic to another, making them great multi-taskers. 

I couldn’t stop laughing when I reviewed their list of What She Really Means vs. What He Really Means.   For example…

If she says…                                She means…

We need… “                                “I want…

It’s your decision.”                   The correct decision should be obvious by now.”

Do what you want.”                You’ll pay for it later.”

I want new curtains.”             And carpeting and furniture and wallpaper…”

“Do you like this recipe?”        “It’s easy to fix, so you’d better get used to it.”

If he says…                                  He means…

I’m hungry”                               “I’m hungry”

“I’m sleepy”                                 “I’m sleepy”

“I’m tired”                                   “I’m tired.”

“Want to go to a movie?”          “I’d like to have sex later.”

“Want to go out to dinner?”      “I’d like to have sex later.”

Yes, this book was a keeper.  Its metaphorical examples are an ongoing part of our marital discourse as my wife will often ask, “What box are you in right now?”

7.  The 21 Undeniable  Secrets of Marriage

The most recent addition to my list of favorite books on marriage was published in 2015 and is titled The 21 Undeniable  Secrets of Marriage by Dr. Allen Hunt.  I won’t list all 21 of the secrets — you’ll have to buy the book to gain those insights — but I will share a few nuggets that reflect the marital wisdom that abounds throughout this book.

  • Marriage is a garden, not a fruit stand.  You have to tend it.”
  • “Don’t marry someone you can live with; marry someone you can’t live without.”
  • “Attention and affection work for a marriage like oxygen and water work for the human body.”
  • “The most important word in a marriage is forgiveness…Show me a marriage teeming with forgiveness and grace, and I will show you a healthy, thriving marriage.
  • When you struggle, focus on the 8.”  What are the 8?  The book best explains it, but I’ll give you a hint – Philippians 4:8.

Ok, so these are seven of my favorite books on marriage, which is also why I labeled this collection My Yellow Highlighter List as each used a considerable amount of yellow highlighters.  More significantly, these books are ones that changed me into what I hope is a better husband.

One more thing.

I am almost finished reading a book that may be added to this list.  Communication between spouses is cited in almost all of the above books as a key to a healthy marriage.  Dealing with the Elephant in the Room by Dr. Mike Bechtle, is a recently published book about how to move from tough conversations to healthy communication. 

    • Talking is easy; communication is hard.  The key is to find out what tools we’re missing and obtain them.”  (pg. 37) 
    • But communicating takes a more extensive set of tools than just talking.  Better tools give us better options for growing our conversational skills.”  (pg 41)   
    • The best relationships will end if we take them for granted. The more valuable the relationship, the more important it is to take care of it.” (pg. 206)
    • Healthy relationships have the strength to handle the hard work of tough conversations.  They’re able to handle it because they’ve been well maintained during the easy times.”  (pg. 206)

And this book is chock full of examples of the conversational tools you need and how to use them. 

So, husbands, what marital tools do you have in your husbandry toolbox?  Are they rusty?  Need sharpening? Time to restock with a fresh set of tools? 

Perhaps it’s time for you to invest in some yellow highlight markers.

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