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 just as 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 explained 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 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.
Quick! What is this revolution?
Well, let’s start with systems thinking. The first book I want to talk about is entitled Systems Thinking and it’s edited by a guy named F E Emery. This is where you’ll find one of the most influential essays of the past 50 years. It’s called ‘The Theory of Open Systems’ and it’s written by a guy named von Bertalanffy. There are a lot of equations in this article, so you might have an easier time reading another piece in this book by Katz and Kahn. The van Bertalanffy piece, which was written in 1950, not only changed people’s thinking about relationships but changed people’s thinking about the self. You see, previous 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.
No. 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. 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. Now let’s say that you’re just a little faster when it comes to washing dishes and you do just a little better job.
Or, I think I do.
Well, it’s quite possible that because of that little difference the responsibility for washing dishes every night will fall to you. After all, you’ll be itching to jump in when you see how comparatively slow I am and how I end up not doing as good a job as you.
Of course, now that you’re doing the washing-up every night, that’s one extra chore for you. And that might make you just a little resentful. You might not blow up. You might just 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. 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.
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 you can do it without any blame.