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 three years ago, 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.
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 journaling) 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
Though it’s not one of 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.”
Untrue is a just-released investigation into the nature of female infidelity, ethical non-monogamy, and sexual psychology. Written in a conversational tone but packed with research, this is probably the best and most up-to-date overview of the latest research on 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.
3. Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti
This is the only novel on this list, but 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.
4. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
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.”
5. Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
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.
6. The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
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.
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.”
8. The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships by Susan Piver
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.
9. Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin
Women today are sold a very specific, insidious aspiration: that of “having it all” as a modern feminist. Crispin’s incredibly readable manifesto is one of my favorite books of the last few years and will 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.”
10. Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert
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.)
11. Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Advice on Open Relationships by Kathy Labriola
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.”
12. Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel
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.”
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.
14. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer
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...
15. N.B. by Charlotte Shane
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.
Rachel Krantz is the lead writer at Mercy For Animals, where she writes about veganism. She is the namer of Bustle, and one of its three founding editors. She’s the recipient of the Peabody Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights International Radio Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work as an investigative reporter for Youth Radio. Her main beats these days include travel and immersion journalism, non-monogamy, veganism, cannabis culture, and feminism. She is working on a memoir about her exploration of non-monogamy (goddess help her).