29 Books For People Questioning The Idea Of "Happily Ever After"

Since entering into an open relationship three years ago, I've been trying to untangle myths around gender, sexuality, and love. These are the books that have helped.

Penguin Random House

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what “happily ever after” means to me. Ever since I entered into my first open relationship, I’ve found myself questioning nearly all the romantic storylines that influenced me most — from Beauty and the Beast to Beyoncé — and trying to figure out what I would actually like my life to look like if I wrote it. (And then I decided to write a literal memoir about that fraught-yet-hot attempt, Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy.)

The more I investigate, the more I realize there is no one answer as to what kind of life would make me happiest — I just know it certainly isn’t as simple as anything I was presented as a little girl, and that happiness is not my only goal. One of the most helpful tools I’ve found to examine the “traditional” love story (besides therapy and writing a book on the topic) is reading. The books below are some of the ones that have been most helpful to me recently in untangling myths about not just about happily ever after, but gender and sexuality itself. I hope they might help you do the same.

1. Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks

William Morrow, bellhooksinstitute.com

Though it’s not one of the late bell hooks’ most famous works, Communion is one of the best examinations of the ways women are sold a fairy tale about love, and how this works to undermine our independence. Memoir mixes with deft social critiques to form this page-turner, as hooks drops one truth bomb after another. For example: “Women are not inherently more interested in or able to love than men. From girlhood on, we learn to become enchanted with love. Since the business of loving came to be identified as women’s work, females have risen to the occasion and claimed love as our topic.”

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Little, Brown, By Joel Moser (Provided by Wednesday Martin) [CC BY 3.0 (creativecommons.org], via Wikimedia Commons

Untrue is an investigation into the nature of female infidelity, ethical non-monogamy, and sexual psychology. Written in a conversational tone but packed with research, this book is about female desire, cheating, and the question of whether women have an “innate” proclivity toward polyamory and/or sexual variety. My favorite moments are when Martin gets personal in her reporting, delving into her feelings when she attends a workshop on practicing ethical non-monogamy. (Her interview with Carrie Jenkins, author of the also-notable What Love Is: And What It Could Be, is also a highlight.) Untrue is a must-read if you want to understand why monogamy might not always feel “natural” — but don’t want to read something pushing any one particular relationship model’s agenda.

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3. Love’s Not Color Blind: Race and Representation in Polyamorous and Other Alternative Communities by Kevin A Patterson & Ruby Bouie Johnson

Thorntree Press, kevinapatterson.com

This book should be required reading for anyone practicing nonmonogamy. People in the global majority face tokenization, fetishization, and many other forms of racism within many majority-white lifestyle spaces — and this book isn’t afraid to talk about that. This guide is for everyone — it will make some feel seen, and others realize how they can do better. It also recognizes the privilege involved in practicing nonmonogamy in the first place, with lines like: “So, when do you engage in all that valuable relationship-affirming communication? In the limited space between your full-time, minimum-wage shift, and your part-time, minimum wage shift? Do you find time on the phone, while taking public transportation to pick your children up from school or daycare? Do you find the time after you get home from washing dishes…but before you have to write a paper for one class and study for an exam in another? Do you see the problem here?” Monogamists could also learn a lot about how to be anti-racist in their dating lives from this book.

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4. Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy by Jessica Fern

Thorntree Press, jessicafern.com

Like Love’s Not Color Blind, this is one of the best books about nonmonogamy to come out in the last few years. Attachment theory is rarely applied to nonmonogamous relationships, and Fern rights that wrong mightily. This is an incredibly useful guide to compassionate communication in nonmonogamous relationships — but really, anyone in a relationship will learn a tremendous amount from this book.

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5. Cheat Day: A Novel by Liv Stratman

Scribner Book Company, livstratman.com

Not only is this novel compulsively readable, sexy, and lol-funny, but it is a welcome sympathetic portrait of a woman who cheats on her (not evil) husband. There aren’t easy answers or clear bad guys to this story — just honest grappling with conflicts of love, commitment, and desire. The struggle of the protagonist to adhere to monogamous societal norms in the face of temptation is relatable, with lines like, “[b]ut for some reason, in the company of Matt Larsson, I felt my unhappiness — and my constant hunger — subside, and so I followed those moments, chased time alone with him, pressed his words and then his body closer and closer to the center of who I was until, eventually, I had a real problem.”

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6. Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston

Atria Books, Landon Speers

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel so seen it changes your life. One such book for me has been Greedy, which explores through well-researched and funny essays the experience of being bisexual — especially when you’re socialized as a woman. It articulated feelings I’ve had for years as I was coming into my own queerness, like, “[b]ut at least threesomes made me feel comfortable — queer hookups seemed less intimidating when a guy was there too. Being alone with a woman raised other questions: What if I didn’t like the sex — would that prove I was straight? Or what if I liked it too much, and realized I didn’t need men at all?”

Being bisexual challenges traditional notions of happily ever after, in that you are “refusing” to pick a “side.” The label sounds binary, but the meaning behind it and lived experience are quite the opposite. Bisexuals are often told by both gay and straight populations that they somehow aren’t real as a result, and Winston is here to help us change that and affirm our identity — all while resisting being put in yet another box.

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7. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel by Bernadine Evaristo

Grove Press, Black Cat, bevaristo.com

This book says goodbye to “rules” of form or relationships. It features many different characters’ perspectives, both monogamous and nonmonogamous. Each person is their own individual rather than a definitive representative of any one identity. If you’re anything like me you’ll be inspired the whole way through and underlining relatable lines like, “Penelope came to the conclusion that marrying someone when you’re in love with them was perhaps not such a good idea, better to wait a few years (ten, twenty, thirty, never?) to see if you’re still compatible after the passion has subsided and reality set in.”

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8. In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

This memoir represents a relationship that begins nonmonogamous and then turns monogamous and abusive. As someone who also wrote a book about experiencing years of gaslighting, I so appreciated how Machado shows herself grappling with the fear around telling her story and making the queer community “look bad.” When you’re in any kind of relationship outside sexual norms, you can be even more prone to isolation and keeping secrets about abuse. This memoir is also filled with domestic insights worth remembering like, “A house is never apolitical. It is conceived, constructed, occupied, and policed by people with power, needs, and fears.”

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9. Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti

Macmillan, Malcolm Brown

Heti is known for walking the line between fiction and nonfiction, and Motherhood is no exception. Though her meditation on whether the narrator (who has her name) wants to be a mother or not can be slightly circular, Heti has said she wants to represent how thought works, and she achieves this goal. Don’t be surprised if she starts influencing your ideas too; I found myself bringing up Motherhood in conversation again and again. If you’re questioning whether motherhood is really for you — or wondering if it’s just something you’ve been taught you should do — this is required reading. Actually, read it even if you think motherhood is definitely for you, just to consider another perspective.

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10. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

Parallax Plus, By Duc (pixiduc) from Paris, France. (Thich Nhat Hanh Marche meditative 06) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (creativecommons.org], via Wikimedia Commons

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most emotionally intelligent authors (well, probably people, period) out there. I’ve found all his books incredibly useful, but How to Love was my entry point. You can pick it up and put it down as you go, since each page is its own meditation, with ideas like “One of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to embody non-attachment and non-fear… Everything is impermanent. This moment passes. That person walks away. Happiness is still possible.”

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11. Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Harper Perennial, chrisryanphd.com

This book has become a sort of cult classic for a reason. Like Untrue, it breaks down the standard narrative we are taught about monogamy — that men “naturally” want to spread their seed, while women want to get pregnant and lock it down — and makes the case that said narrative is the result of white male anthropologists, with their own confirmation biases, rather than an objective truth. The authors argue that monogamy can be linked to the Agricultural Revolution, during which the concept of woman and animal as property was formed. Sex at Dawn is required reading for anyone, monogamous or otherwise, to remember that what we call “natural” or “inherently human” is actually incredibly subjective and influenced by culture.

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12. The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Gallery Books, Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Comedian Tiffany Haddish’s memoir may be the funniest book on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less profound. If you want to be inspired by someone who decided (against many, many odds, no less) what her life would look like and then actualized the hell out of it — while also laughing hysterically — this is for you. Haddish’s memoir is incredibly vulnerable and brave, and it details (among many other things) how ideas about marriage contributed to her entering and staying in an abusive relationship — and how rejecting those expectations and defining her own happiness helped her get out. It’s a fairy tale most of us could use right now.

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Skyhorse Publishing, youtube.com

Winston’s practical guide is useful not just for those practicing polyamory, but really for anyone who wants to improve their communication skills and learn about different relationship models. With exercises drawing on Buddhist thought in every chapter, Winston’s guide is a straightforward but not silly read that empowers you to define your romantic life by asking yourself questions. Winston writes, “‘What is love to me? What am I going to do about it?’ The answer may always be a moving target, shifting and swaying and making sudden left turns.”

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Lionheart Press, Danielle Sykes

Another book I’ve found useful for its application of Buddhist thought to romantic love, Piver’s The Four Noble Truths of Love minces no words. “Thinking that a relationship will finally come to rest in a peaceful place is actually what makes it uncomfortable,” Piver writes. “We can’t actually promise each other anything. The relationship never stabilizes, ever. This is the way it works. I have no idea why.” I found myself nodding along with nearly everything she wrote; that doesn’t make it any easier to put her ideas into practice — but this is an incredibly useful book for navigating the difficult realities of long-term relationships.

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15. Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin

Melville House, Chuck Kuan

Women today are sold a very specific, insidious aspiration: that of “having it all” as a modern feminist. Crispin’s incredibly readable manifesto could make even the most independent person question the nature of their feminism. Not only does she make the argument that feminism has essentially become another commodity sold to women, but she also examines the role narratives around romantic love have played in its evolution. “We wait for love to redeem us,” she writes. “For straight girls, that means, despite all of our talk about independence and empowerment, the goals of self-empowerment are often pursued to make ourselves in better competitive shape on the romantic market.”

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16. Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert

Riverhead, Barry Sutton

Committed certainly isn’t as famous as Eat Pray Love, but Gilbert’s investigation into ideas about marriage and commitment around the world are insightful and honest. If you’re examining whether marriage is for you — and want to learn more about how long-term love and partnership is defined in other cultures — Committed might be useful. It’s also made all the more nuanced in hindsight: The relationship explored in the book was the marriage Gilbert ended up leaving to be with the female best friend she realized she was in love with. (Eagerly awaiting that memoir, please.)

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17. Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Advice on Open Relationships by Kathy Labriola

Greenery Press

By far the most practical book I’ve read when it comes to examining my own jealousy in my open relationship, Love in Abundance is a must for anyone who’s seriously considering any relationship model other than monogamy. Actually, it’s a must for anyone who’s ever experienced the very human emotion that is jealousy and would like to investigate it. But it goes beyond jealousy, too, and challenges other preconceived notions about what romantic love has to look like to be considered “real.”

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18. Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, bbk.ac.uk

Another wonderful collection of meditations on love and female desire, Angel’s unconventional memoir is at once deeply vulnerable and impressionistic, drawing upon thinkers like Susan Sontag to examine her love affair with a highly dominant man in a series of numbered observations, sometimes with only one line on a page. Angel’s book explores the traditional gender roles we fall into — and may desire even as feminists — without judgment. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself relating to observations like “It may be a compulsion to be what I think he must want, given that he is A Man. A compulsion to make him what we both need him to be.” Angel’s newest nonfiction book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, is also an incredibly astute examination of love and consent in a “post” Me Too world. I highly recommend it as well.

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Penguin Books, naturalmood.com

One of the most destructive parts of the happily ever after myth is the “happily” part — and if we feel anything but in our relationships or broader lives, we’re made to feel something must be wrong. But in fact, Dr. Holland argues, experiencing a range of emotions isn’t inherently bad — and people who live with hormonal and mood fluctuations can even be more adaptable. If you want to question your relationship with antidepressants, the Pill, or simply the way you think about happiness itself, this book is an empowering read. Moody Bitches got me to appreciate my hormonal fluctuations not as a liability but as a potentially powerful tool for self-examination, and that is no small gift.

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20. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer

Anchor, University of Arizona Poetry Center

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall examines the fairy tale itself in a series of essays by influential writers like bell hooks, Julia Alvarez, and Margaret Atwood. Some are deeply personal essays that reflect on the fairy tale more broadly, while others read more like literary criticism of specific stories. The collection is one of the best I’ve found looking at the form that shaped so many of our lives. Still waiting for someone to write one on ’90s Disney movies, though, so in the meantime I tried to explore those narratives myself in Open ...

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21. N.B. by Charlotte Shane

TigerBee Press, Instagram: @charoshane

Charlotte Shane is the author of the e-letter Prostitute Laundry (which was also compiled into a wonderful book I equally recommend), and she is one of the most lyrical, vulnerable, brave, honest-feeling writers I’ve read. N.B. covers similar ground as Prostitute Laundry, but draws on even earlier entries from Shane’s blog that’s no longer available online. Each reads like a series of beautiful vignettes on the nature of women’s sexuality, love, and bodily autonomy, unfolding like a series of perfectly composed chronological diary entries. Assembled together, they tell the story of a gifted writer’s early evolution as an artist and young woman. Her insights are relatable but also fearless, recorded so that we all might feel less alone. “I’ve realized I want one man to love me behind everything else,” Shane writes. “I want this love to be my scenery while I do whatever I want on the stage.” I can’t recommend her writing enough.

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Greenery Press, greenerypress.com

This guide is perfect for anyone who feels like they already understand/have read about BDSM 101 — and wants to level up. It is extremely practical and inclusive to those who are both monogamous and nonmonogamous. If you’ve read introductions to BDSM and kink but are looking for more ideas about how to put it into practice in your relationship in very specific ways, this book is for you. I mean, it literally teaches you to “write your own script.”

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Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nina Subin

I appreciated this book for being from the perspective of a woman who is dating a man already in a non-monogamous primary relationship. It is definitely not all fun for her, or even mostly fun, and this novel shows how some of the themes in Love’s Not Color Blind might play out in life. We need more complex and flawed depictions of nonmonogamy, and this book is definitely one of them. It’s also filled with relatable lines for many women and millennials, like, “This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man.”

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24. The Companion by EE Ottoman

Independently Published, acosmistmachine.com

This romance novel is so refreshing, in that it centers a nonmonogamous relationship composed of three trans characters. Too often in stories, there’s a love triangle, and it’s assumed the heroine has to choose! In this fantasy, Ottoman images what might happen if she didn’t have to, with lines like, "’I think you get to decide what enough is,’ he said finally. ‘You're a grown woman, and I can't make your choices for you. No one can, no matter how much the Church or the State might want to. If one lover satisfies you, so be it; if not, then take more. I've never believed it has to be more complicated than that as long as everyone is happy and satisfied.’" Amen to that.

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25. Insatiable Wives by Dr. David Ley

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, davidleyphd.com

This book was incredibly readable, yet packed with history, research, and information about the fetishes of hotwifing and cuckolding. It’s also an excellent primer on research into nonmonogamy and sexuality, and helps debunk the idea that women have a lower sexual or romantic appetite than men, with heavily cited lines like, “Substantial research has shown that women who are more independent financially, more educated, and less dependent upon their husbands are rather more likely to have sexual affairs, and also more likely to enjoy sex and pursue it for their own pleasure.” Essential reading for anyone interested in some very specific forms of nonmonogamy often excluded from conversations.

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26. Tell Me What You Want by Dr. Justin Lehmiller

Speaking of sexual research, this highly-readable book distills and analyzes Dr. Lehmiller’s landmark survey of North Americans’ sexual fantasies. It is the largest of its kind, and what he found gives tremendous insight into the reality of North Americans’ inner sexual lives. It might also help you feel less like a “freak” for imagining or wanting what you do, and more, well, common. For example, he writes, “[s]ex with multiple partners is a staple of Americans’ fantasies. When asked to describe their favorite sexual fantasy of all time, group sex was by far the most common theme to emerge. In addition, when asked whether they had ever fantasized about different forms of group sex, 89 percent reported fantasizing about threesomes, 74 percent about orgies, and 61 percent about gangbangs.” So while practicing nonmonogamists might still be in the minority, those imagining nonmonogamous scenarios are the clear majority.

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27. Monogamy by Adam Phillips

Vintage, Jerry Bauer / Via us.macmillan.com

This book, filled with roughly one brilliant thought about monogamy per page, will help you better understand what we talk about when we talk about monogamy. What are the philosophical and psychological purposes behind it? I underlined most of this book, which is filled with penetrating insights, like, “[w]e become frantic trying to keep the numbers down, trying to keep the true story of who we really are in circulation. This, perhaps more than anything else, drives us into the arms of one special partner. Monogamy is a way of getting the versions of ourselves down to a minimum. And, of course, a way of convincing ourselves that some versions are truer than others—that some are special.”

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28. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Simon & Schuster, Twitter: @lisadtaddeo

This book is a novelized version of years of reporting Taddeo did into different North American women’s romantic lives. The result is three incredibly personal portraits that parallel and contrast, showing different paths, but many overlapping longings for novelty, connection, and satisfaction. Many people will relate to the feelings described in this book, like, “[s]he feels that he cares more than she does, suddenly, and this freaks her out. It makes her feel sad for him and it makes her feel she will suffocate under the pressure to reciprocate; and this feeling of suffocation in turn begins to lessen her liking of him, so the situation becomes cyclical.”

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29. Do Better by Rachel Ricketts

Atria Books, Bethany Schiedel

Though this book isn’t explicitly about romantic relationships, it does discuss them, and is an essential guide to imagining different societal paradigms than the ones we’ve been conditioned to believe are “right.” It will also help you understand white supremacy culture, which is often at the core of how we have been taught to think about love. “As Tema Okun outlines, white supremacist cultural characteristics include: individualism and perfectionism belief in objectivity power hoarding either/or thinking (right versus wrong) worship of the written word defensiveness paternalism and urgency quantity over quality fear of open conflict and right to comfort,” Ricketts writes. “I would also add...capitalism[,] heteropatriarchy, fatphobia, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, colorism, and pretty much every form of oppression as it currently exists (most of which originated as a means to define ‘whiteness’ as separate and superior to Blackness).”

If you want to change your own happily ever after script, you need to understand the larger context in which it was written in the first place — and work to not repeat the same oppressive patterns in new ways. This book will help you do that.

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Rachel Krantz is the author of Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy. She is the namer of Bustle, and one of its three founding editors. Her work has been featured on NPR, Vox, The Guardian, Vice, many other outlets. She’s the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, the Peabody Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work as an investigative reporter with YR Media. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @rachelkrantz.



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