Colorado State University Researchers Analyze Top 10 Self-Help Books, Find Top Four Send Relationship-Damaging Messages

Could the top best-selling, self-help books over the past decade offer advice that is damaging to marriages? In an article published by a top national journal, two Colorado State University faculty members and a graduate student argue that the messages in four of the top 10 books are detrimental to relationships.

The article, "A Decade of Advice for Women and Men in the Best-Selling Self-Help Literature," was written by associate professor Toni Zimmerman and instructor Shelley Haddock, both from the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in Colorado State’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Kristen Holm, who earned her graduate degree at Colorado State, also contributed to the project. The article was published in the latest issue of the journal "Family Relations."

The researchers used six criteria to determine which books offer advice consistent with generally accepted clinical research findings and key marriage and family therapy practices. The analysis found two categories of books-those that encourage relationships built on friendship and equality, and those based on stereotypical gender roles. The researchers found that the top selling four books did not offer accurate or helpful messages about how women and men can behave and relate to one another.

"With a divorce rate of 68 percent, there’s a huge demand for books that offer relationship advice," said Zimmerman. "Our findings show that the top 10 self-help books fall into two distinct categories with very little middle ground. The top-selling four advocated going back to the ‘good old days’ when men and women had ‘traditional’ gender roles. The remaining books encouraged couples to move forward into relationships based on partnership. Based on today’s social and economic realities, marriage and family therapists generally agree that couples who choose to move forward develop happier, more successful relationships."

The study found that books consistent with generally accepted best practices in marriage and family therapy included "The Dance of Anger" by Hariette Lerner; "Mars and Venus Starting Over" by John Gray; "Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know" by Barbara De Angelis; "Are You the One for Me" by Barbara De Angelis; "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix; and "Women Who Love Too Much" by Robin Norwood.

Books that the study found to be inconsistent with accepted best practices were "Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" by Gray; "The Rules" by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider; "Mars and Venus on a Date" by Gray; and "Mars and Venus in the Bedroom" by Gray.

The factors the researchers examined included how well books encouraged nonstereotypical behaviors for women and men. For example, do the books encourage women to be more assertive and independent and encourage men to be more emotionally expressive?

The study cites a passage from "Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know" as a good example of how books encourage women to maintain independence and a sense of themselves while in a relationship. This is consistent with generally accepted marriage and family therapy practices. De Angelis wrote: "Each time you give up an interest, a friend, or a dream in the hope of winning a man’s love, you give away a piece of yourself."

The study also analyzed whether the books encouraged exploration of nontraditional careers or encouraged people to conform to gender-based expectations. For example, do the books encourage women to value themselves based on their appearance or men to value themselves according to their earning potential?

The study points to a passage in "The Rules" as an example of advice that runs counter to generally accepted marriage and family therapy practices. In the passage, women are encouraged to value themselves according to their external appearance. "The Rules" authors wrote: "Before The Rules can be applied for the best, most unbelievable results-the man of your dreams asking you to marry him-you have to be the best you can be. Certainly not perfect or gorgeous, but the best you can be, so…Look your best!"

Zimmerman said this division in self-help books mirrors the confusion and tension found in today’s American society. She said much of the advice given in self-help literature doesn’t fit the current reality and the numerous changes that have taken place in men’s and women’s lives over the last decade-changes that include an increasing number of women in the work force and an increasing number of men becoming involved fathers.