4 Books That Will Help You Deal With Painful Relationships

Painful Relationship Books Cover

John Donne famously wrote “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. This 400-year-old wisdom is a reminder of the importance of relationships for humans. We don’t exist in isolation. Instead, we are relational beings who flourish in social interaction. When we live under the illusion of being a remote island, independent of others, we are destined for a life of painful and lonely isolation. Yet, whilst relationships are important to us as humans, they too can be places of pain. 

Many of the people I work with as a relational psychotherapist have lived through interpersonal pain – the challenge of strained relationships, estrangement, or rejection. Whether it’s between friends, work colleagues, within our family of origin or within intimate relationships, our connections with others have the potential to be a source of deep pain as well as joy and fulfillment.

For this reason, many of us turn to self-help literature to help us process and understand painful relationships. We’re driven to find ways to heal relational pain and repair and strengthen relationships that matter to us. There’s a wealth of books that can help us to explore our own relational patterns, but it can feel daunting to know where to begin when we’re feeling hurt, betrayed, or spurned. In this post, we look at the key messages within a selection of self-help and personal growth books – with links to simple summaries so you can begin to apply the essential points to help you deal with your own painful relationships.

How the Past Shows Up in Our Parenting

Our past relationships shape who we are in the present. Past pain, anger and disappointment can begin to show up in the present, particularly if a current relationships reminds us (often subconsciously) of a past relationship. For this reason, it can be helpful to explore how our past relationships – particularly the relationships we had as children in our family of origin – have impacted us. These relationships can be thought of as our inheritance and are likely to inform how we interact with people nowadays, including how we parent our own children.

Once we have awareness of the origin and significance of relational patterns that cause us pain, we can begin to change this patterns to have the best possible relationships with the people in our current lives that matter. Our past can inform and change our present if we’re willing to learn from our past relationship pain. This is the theme of the very readable book by British Psychotherapist, Philippa Perry.

Her insightful and judgment-free book, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad that You Did) covers the significance of attachment relationships in our formative years – and how we need not let pain from these relationships undermine our present. With a focus on supporting parents to build warm and secure relationships with their children, Perry makes a strong case for the importance of addressing past relational pain.

Beginning with a simple and accessible summary of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read will help you to decide if this book can help you deal with relational pain in your own life and strengthen the relationship you have with your own children.

Learning to Communicate Love

There are many ways we can express our fondness, appreciation, and love for another person. Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of “love languages”, popularized through Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages books? In these books, Chapman suggests that humans have different preferences when it comes to communicating our love and affection within relationships.

Some people feel loved when someone gives them time and attention. Other people are best able to understand that they are valued when someone shows this via a thoughtful gift. In other words, we have preferences for the way in which we like to communicate about love. When people respect and respond to our preferences, we feel seen and heard. When our preferences are not understood or valued, relational pain can ensure.

Chapman calls our preferences for how we like to give and receive love our “love languages”. These love languages are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch
  • Acts of service
  • Receiving gifts

It’s thought that most people have one or two primary ways we prefer to receive and show love and fondness for others – whether that’s between friends, family or in intimate relationships. Chapman explains that we can experience a painful sense of feeling misunderstood when someone’s preferred love language does not align with our own.

We might feel that our efforts to communicate are not appreciated or valued, or we may feel overlooked and rejected if our expectations around love languages are different. For this reason, identifying your own preferences and needs in relation to love languages, and communicating this directly with people you are in close relationship with can help to navigate and reduce painful interpersonal conflict as well as strengthen and deepen relational intimacy.

Check out a simple summary of Chapman’s original book, The 5 Love Languages, to begin to consider how identifying and communicating your love language preference can help you process past relationship pain and avoid such painful interpersonal conflict in the future.

Be Compassionate to Others, Be Compassionate to Yourself

Painful relationships can lead us towards feeling hostility and hatred towards others. When we hurt, we are often inclined to hurt in response – leading to further conflict and pain. One approach that offers an alternative is the development of compassion. Compassion can be thought of as an emotional response to suffering that involves an authentic desire to help alleviate that pain. Research shows that compassionate people are perceived as less controlling and aggressive which can, in turn, support close interpersonal relationships. So, developing compassion for others can be a practical step towards reducing painful relationships in your own life. That’s a theme explored within Richard Calson’s classic Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Carlson advises people to practice compassion for others and to “choose being kind over being right”. You can read a simple summary of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff here.

Of course, extending compassion to reduce relationship pain need not only apply to our relationship with others. We can also benefit from self-compassion – that is, applying compassion to ourselves when we are suffering or hurting. Such an approach has the potential to heal our relationship with ourselves and tend to the past and current pain we are exposed to in our relationships.

Dr. Kristen Neff is recognized as a leading researcher on the power of self-compassion. She has written extensively on self-compassion, including within her best-selling book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In this, Neff acknowledges the role of past relational pain in our current self-criticism. The role of mindfulness is explored to reduce the pain of self-blame and self-hatred. Neff also explores how to strengthen our ability to show compassion not only to others, but also – importantly – to ourselves. A simple summary of Self-Compassion is a great place to start if you want to explore how self-compassion can help to heal the pain of past relationship challenges and improve your relationship with self.

So, whether you are looking to heal from relational pain from past and/or present relationships, including your relationship with yourself and well as your relationships with others, there’s a wealth of self-help books that can support you. Each of the books included here can lead you onto other discoveries. I wish you well in your quest to deal with the pain of relationships.


Lathren, C. R., Rao, S. S., Park, J., & Bluth, K. (2021). Self-Compassion and Current Close Interpersonal Relationships: A Scoping Literature Review. Mindfulness, 12(5), 1078–1093. 

Last Updated on February 22, 2024

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Claire Law

Claire is a Qualified and Accredited MBACP (Accd.) Registered Integrative Psychotherapist. She has a background of almost 20 years of teaching experience. She now works as a relational psychotherapist, writer and trainer. Claire is passionate about supporting children's and young people's mental health and wellbeing.