16 Books Everyone Should Read Before Getting Married

Let me start by telling you one thing nobody is going to tell you about marriage — you might not be terribly good at it, at least in the beginning. After all, how many things have you done perfectly on the very first try? But that’s where these books to read before you get married come in. From novels and memoirs about the good and the not-always-so-good about “until death do we part,” to nonfiction titles filled with tips and tricks to help you on your wedded way, these books about marriage act like a book-loving bride’s (and groom’s) crash course in the art of everything that comes after “I do.”

I’ll be honest, I had literally no idea what I was getting myself into when I got married. I knew it was probably about a whole lot more than the hair, dress, and flowers — but what that “whole lot more” was beyond buzzwords like “commitment,” “forgiveness,” and “joint-checking account” was all a little fuzzy to me. Until I dove in headfirst, that is, and realized marriage (for better or for worse) could be just about anything my partner and I were willing to make it. And as a pair of book-lovers ourselves, we called upon some of the greatest love stories of all time to inspire us, to guide us, and even to offer us some examples of what not to do.

Here are 16 books to read before you get married. Or after you get married. Or if you think you never want to get married but are still wondering what all the fuss is about. 

1. The Story of a Brief Marriage: A Novel by Anuk Arudpragasam

This novel is as brief as the marriage it describes — taking place over a single, 24-hour period during the Sri Lankan civil war — but it dissects a lifetime’s worth of the kinds of thoughts and questions, mysteries and intimacies, strengths and weaknesses, disappointments and failings, and successes and loses that make up any marriage, no matter how brief or long it might be. Dinesh and Ganga are evacuees living in a temporary campsite that is plagued daily by shelling and shrapnel, when Ganga’s father asks Dinesh to marry Ganga in hopes of protecting her from being conscripted into the fighting. The Story of a Brief Marriage encompasses the first day and night of their marriage — one in which Dinesh not only imagines his life with Ganga, but recognizes what a complete mystery she and her thoughts are to him; when he wishes to share physical intimacies with her, but instead finds himself sobbing strangely into her shoulder instead; during which he feels complete responsibility for the safety and happiness of his new bride, but is utterly bewildered as to how to offer her what he cannot even give himself in the midst of war. The Story of a Brief Marriage is an intense and beautiful account of the essential human spirit, painting a picture of the first day of a marriage that all couples will recognize, even those whose unions weren’t marked by violence and civil war.

2. Light Years by James Salter

I adore James Salter’s prose, so perhaps the beauty I find in his writing is what softens the blow his novel, Light Years, deals marriage. Light Years tells the story of husband and wife Viri and Nedra, who seem to have the perfect marriage. But boiling immediately beneath the surface is a bevy of restless discontents and disappointed expectations that lead both to seek what they think they’re looking for outside of their marriage, by having affairs. A sad, but telling portrayal of a marriage, Light Years is a cautionary tale against putting all your hopes and dreams for your own life into another person, and for assuming the hard work is over the moment you say “I do."

3. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

This is the book that prepared me for my marriage before I even knew I was getting married — not only because it is packed with the kind of straightforward, down-in-the-dirt relationship advice you’re simply not going to get from anyone other than Dearest Sugar herself (unless you just have THE COOLEST friends ever), but also because it’s the kind of book that guides you through doing the important growing-up work that we all need to do with ourselves before embarking upon the journey of doing the work of two. Covering everything from careers and money, to love and infidelity, to body image, and forgiveness, and child-raising, and depression, and substance abuse, and loss, and just about anything else you could think of, Strayed bears her heart in this collection of advice columns, while helping you heal and strengthen yours.

4. The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

Composing the story of his own romance through a series of vignettes (some only a sentence or two long) structured as entries in a dictionary, David Levithan gives you everything you’ll ever need to understand the language of your own love story. The Lover’s Dictionary is sweet, sad, sometimes funny, completely unpredictable, and totally relatable. With entries like “aberrant, adj.”, “blemish, n.”, “livid, adj.”, “abstraction, n.”, and of course “love, n.” this novel-in-snippets runs through the gamut of experiences to be had in a single relationship, from beginning to end. 

5. Wedlocked: A Memoir by Jay Ponteri

I was recently working my way through a Dear Sugar Radio binge-listen when podcast co-host Steve Almond listed, perhaps a tad facetiously, this memoir as the book that almost ended his marriage. So naturally, after such a Sugar-type endorsement, I had to read it immediately. Now, a book that almost ended one couple’s marriage might seem like an odd reading recommendation for the soon-to-be-wedded — especially one like Jay Ponteri’s Wedlocked, which is all about love, betrayal, desire, and marital loneliness. Consider it a literary litmus test for your own relationship, if you must. Or you could just look at it as an accurate and compellingly written portrayal of the type of imperfect relationship tons of couples find themselves wading through at some point during their own marriages.

6. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

Forgiveness is essential to any long-term relationship, and it’s definitely required for a successful marriage, when you’ll likely be challenged to forgive everything from those socks that are constantly left on the bathroom floor, to even larger betrayals of all kinds. And as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu literally wrote the book on forgiveness — along with his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu. The Book of Forgiving looks at the relationships we have with ourselves, each other, and the world, and describes different ways to use forgiveness as a path towards healing, transformation, and whole-hearted relationships.

7. Geography of The Heart by Fenton Johnson

This memoir about the love and loss story of Fenton Johnson and his lover, Larry Rose, is utterly heart crushing, and beautiful, and will make you believe in love so hard. The adoration and compassion Johnson feels for Rose practically reverberates off of the pages of Geography of the Heart, as he writes about the experience of watching his lover die of AIDS — Johnson first giving into denial about the looming loss of his partner, but then surrendering to immeasurable gratitude for the time they were able to share together. Just sob.

8. Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy by Ophira Eisenberg

You know how people (the ones who really know you, anyway) are always advising you to do things like travel the world and take part-time, outside-the-box jobs before having children, at which point you won’t just be able to pick up and move to Brazil for six months on a whim? Consider Ophira Eisenberg’s Screw Everyone in a similar vein, only for the pre-wedded. Unconvinced that long-term monogamy was something she was interested in, Eisenberg viewed dating (widely) as something of a scientific, information-gathering experience. Until she met a fella who wasn’t so down for that. Hilarious and sweet, Screw Everyone is the journey of a marriage-skeptic turned romantic.

9. The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer

“In sickness and in health” is spoken in traditional wedding vows for a reason — even if it’s usually not the line you and your love are thinking about as a newly-wed couple. But Ann Packer’s novel about 23-year-old high school sweethearts Carrie Bell and Mike Mayer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, will definitely leave you thinking about those words differently.  Although they’re engaged to be married, Carrie is desperate to end their relationship — she just doesn't know how to tell Mike. But when he’s paralyzed while diving into a shallow lake, Carrie's obligations to him become even more unmanageable. In a move that shocks friends and family, and infuriates Mike's parents, Carrie flees to New York to start a life of her own. But as Carrie learns, in life and love your challenges follow you no matter how hard you try to outrun them. The Dive from Clausen's Pier is all about the limitations of love, and the sacrifices people make for one another.

10. The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

George Stillman and Amina Mazid meet as many couples do these days: online. Though the two live worlds apart — he is from Rochester, New York, and she is from Bangladesh — after their e-romance takes hold they form a plan that will bring Amina to the United States, where they will marry. Despite all the early makings of a fairytale romance for the internet age, their merging of personal habits, diverse cultures, and very different histories (including some unforgotten past loves) comes with the types of challenges that all couples ultimately encounter after the heady rush of new love gives way to long-term commitment. This novel depicts a full portrait of a marriage — it’s successes and failures, it’s joys and disappointments, unmet and exceeded expectations, and the myriad ways people grow apart and come back together.

11. First Year of Marriage: The Newlywed's Guide to Building a Strong Foundation and Adjusting to Married Life by Marcus Kusi and Ashley Kusi

Newlyweds are typically fed either one of two unlikely scenarios: you’ll practically be sneezing glitter with all that newlywed-glow you’re going to feel during your first year of marriage, or your first year of marriage will probably be the hardest year of your life. The first is impossible to live up to, and the second utterly self-defeating. And married couple Marcus and Ashley Kusi will help you keep it real through that first year and beyond with their book First Year of Marriage: The Newlywed’s Guide to Building a Strong Foundation and Adjusting to Married Life. Written like the transcript of a conversation between some of your best married buds, First Year of Marriage alternates between Marcus’s voice and Ashley’s as they describe some of their own marital challenges and successes, and offer tips for the newly-wedded that place an emphasis on things like freedom, maintaining your own personhood in the union of your marriage, considering personal change and growth as a benefit to the marriage rather than something that divides a couple, exploring the expectations formed in your childhood that you carry with you — even unknowingly — into your marriage, communicating (even — eek — with in-laws), and my personal fave: reading at least one book together a year. I’m definitely on board with that. Only, it’ll probably be more like 10 books. Or 20. Through all their hard-won advice they emphasize the importance of doing whatever feels right for your own, unique marriage.

12. Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, tells the story of a Harvard cognitive psychology professor, Alice, who is diagnosed with and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. And while the main focus of this novel is consumed with bearing witness to Alice’s experiences as her health declines and the simplest tasks become more and more challenging for her, I also think there is something important about the relationship between Alice and her husband — who can do little but stand by as Alice keeps growing sicker and more confused — that deserves noting. While John is often distant, impatient, and frustrated as he witnesses Alice’s declining health, he does the one thing that none of the other people in her life, not even her children, seem to be able to do in the end — he lets her succumb to her incurable disease in as much peace and comfort as possible. And sometimes, especially at the end of a lifelong marriage, that’s all you can do.

13. Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic by Esther Perel

Intimidating title, I know. But relationship counselor Esther Perel is not messing around, and her take on marriage, relationships, and sex is fresh, real, and exactly what nobody else is going to tell you before you walk down the aisle. Perel’s investigations, analysis, and advice in Mating in Captivity are all spot-on, totally relatable, unflinching, and sometimes even funny. She thinks outside the box of tradition when it comes to relationships, and this book can definitely help you to think about what is going to work specifically for you and your partner — both in and outside the bedroom — instead of succumbing to the pressure society places on the institution of marriage.

14. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Spanning the course of a single week in the life of two 1970s-era NYC hipsters, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters offers readers an important lesson: if your marriage cannot survive a cat-bite (albeit, a rabid cat) then you might have some serious soul work to do. When Sophie Brentwood, wife to Otto, is bit on the hand by a cat, this simple event quickly spirals into the dissolution of their marriage — via inconveniences, paranoia, arrogance, disaster, and relative hysteria.

15. The French War Bride by Robin Wells

People end up getting married via all different paths, and for all kinds of different reasons. The French War Bride begins as few love stories do — with a jilted woman visiting her former fiancé’s elderly widow in order to answer the questions she’s carried with her about the end of her romance throughout her entire life. Although Kat and Jack were high school sweethearts when Jack left to fight in World War II, when he returned to his hometown he brought a French wife named Amelie with him. Now Kat wants to know the answers to the questions she's carried with her all this time. 

16. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Even though this gem was published all the way back in the early years of the 1800s, it’s lessons about marriage, family, expectations, and living your own truth are still as important today as they were when Jane Austen penned them to page. Elizabeth Bennet is my marriage spirit animal, refusing to marry because that’s what’s expected of her, and then when she finally does choose a mate, not only is it on her own terms, but it’s someone who both admires her and respects her, who challenges her intellectually and recognizes her brilliance. There’s a reason this story is so beloved, and it’s not just because Matthew Macfadyen was super cute in the movie. 

Image: Pro Image Photography/Unsplash

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