02/10/2013

Happily Ever After (by Gary Chapman)

I have read and enjoyed various books by Gary Chapman over the last few years. He is probably best known for his book ‘Five Love Languages’ and others on the same topic, but he has also written or co-written some good books about raising children. When I noticed that one of his books was available free for the Kindle for a few days back in June, I decided to download it.

‘Happily Ever After’ turns out to be a book about marriage, a topic with which my shelves are already someone over-stocked. The subtitle is, rather cheesily, ‘Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage’. After over thirty years I think my marriage probably counts as reasonably successful, but there’s no harm in a few reminders from time to time, so I read it over a couple of weeks recently.

The book is divided into six broad sections, with the first one being the most useful in general terms. It talks about the unpleasant inevitability of most marital arguments, how nobody ever ‘wins’ even if one partner emerges as the apparent victor. When someone beats down a loved one with words, there’s a nasty taste left in both mouths, and a new scar in the relationship. Chapman acknowledges that we all have negative traits, and that probably every married person in the world wishes at least one thing was different with his or her spouse… and, unusually, rather than talking about love being beyond such things, he suggests that in a good relationship it should be possible to address potential changes over time.

The first sections cover listening skills and empathy, the importance of feeling understood, and some techniques to encourage mutual respect and expression of love. Naturally enough there’s a brief summary of the famous ‘Love Languages’, the ways in which people express and receive love, and a reminder to figure out and use one’s spouse’s primary ‘language’ regularly (with a sprinkling of the others). All good stuff, and something I find myself thinking about and discussing more often in the context of parent/child relationships, where understanding and empathy are every bit as important.

I felt less enthused when I read about trying to negotiate for change in one’s spouse, in a way that seemed to be rather manipulative, albeit cloaked in plenty of love and respect. In many cases, I simply don’t think it would be helpful; moreover the author didn’t even mention those cases where a relationship becomes abusive in some way, where change simply isn’t going to happen. There are long lists of things that typical spouses wish they could change about their partners; it was quite interesting and, in places, eye-opening - but I do wonder how many people would actually take the time to follow the author’s suggestions, and whether their loved ones would simply see through their apparent loving to the underlying manipulation.

The other sections cover various topics on which couples typically have big disagreements: finances, in-laws, raising children, and so on. I felt that there was some good advice in this, mixed with some rather obvious statements, and some which I disagreed with. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and for a newly married idealistic couple this could be a good book to work through together. But most of it didn’t feel particularly relevant to me. I particularly felt that the section about finances seemed unrealistic, assuming that people wanted to acquire ‘things’ beyond their means, and helping them figure out how to avoid them. For those of us who live (and prefer) a somewhat minimalistic lifestyle, it was a section to skim.

I like Gary Chapman’s clear writing style, which has sufficient anecdotes to be interesting, and is well organised content-wise. But given the number of marriage books already available, I didn’t think that this said anything new or different - so would not particularly recommend it above any of the others. In particular, I didn’t feel that it was as inspiring or constructive as the author’s ‘Four Seasons of Marriage’, which I recommend very highly.

However, if this book becomes available free again, or if you come across it inexpensively in a charity shop, it’s not a bad book at all; for those trying to figure out how marriage works, there are a few gems which may be helpful.

Note that the Amazon links are to the paperback edition; the Kindle version is not much cheaper at present.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 2nd October 2013

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