Alex Comfort (Quartet Books pounds 5.95)

First published: 1976.

Editions: two, with a third in production.

Words of wisdom: A well-thought-out exploration of sex, concerned with lifting taboos. "A little theory makes sex more interesting, more comprehensible and less scary" - so it's on to pattes d'araignee, femoral intercourse, coitus saxonus, and birdsong at morning ...

Sales: 45,000 worldwide.

Sequel: More Joy of Sex (1977).


Bernard Zilbergeld (Fontana pounds 7.99)

First published: 1978.

Reprinted: 10 times.

Words of wisdom: for men who feel "dejected and inadequate" because they're not a macho sex machine. "Erections are nice and we have nothing against them," murmurs the text reassuringly, "but even if you are unwilling to give up the idea that an erect penis is the star of a sexual performance, we want to remind you that every star has an understudy."

Sales: 70,000-plus.


Robin Norwood (Arrow pounds 4.99)

First published: 1986.

Words of wisdom: for women who wallow in the victim role, and insist on hitching up with badly behaved men. Ghastly but popular; "if being in love means being in pain, this book was written for you."

Sales: 350,000 worldwide (of which 190,000 UK).

Sequel: Letters From Women Who Love Too Much (sold 60,000).

can you help yourself to a happy ending?

when our relationships hit turbulent waters, love and devotion turn into to hell and damnation, and intimate togetherness becomes a frozen distance, we are inclined to feel it is a personal failing - our individual pathologies and inadequacies at work. This is the message which has been drummed into us over the past decade - a message which has done more for the ailing publishing industry than many a literary masterpiece. Self- help books that set out to help us confront the seeds of our relationship's destruction, manuals with 10-point plans and step-by-step programmes for a sort of emotional DIY, volumes urging us to recognise what kind of emotion junkie or intimacy-phobic we may be, have become a boom industry.

Are we Women Who Love Too Much, men hooked into the Peter Pan Syndrome? Are we messing things up because we have a Cinderella Complex or the Superwoman Syndrome? Are we women who fail to Open Our Hearts to Men or men who are Commitmentphobics? the books demand.

This autumn, as every season, there is a substantial batch of new titles. They are often a re-shaping of familiar analysis and psychology, or offer a newly angled theory on what is wrong with us. But they almost always, with the promise of redemption, offer the possibility of making things right if you just work hard enough at the formula.

Some will get into the bestseller list. These include John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Thorsons pounds 7.99), a gimmicky volume which suggests that the contrasting emotional behaviour of men and women is the result of their coming from different planets; Getting the Love You Want - A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendricks (Pocket Books pounds 4.99); and Dare to Connect by Susan Jeffers (Piatkus pounds 5.99). Others such as Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much (Arrow pounds 4.99), and The Relate Guide to a Better Relationship by Sarah Litvinoff (Vermillion pounds 8.99) are reprinted and remain top sellers year after year.

In contrast with this season's crop of self-help tomes Intimate Terrorism (Norton pounds 16.95) focuses on trouble in relationships, but offers insights and a cultural and historical perspective which take it far beyond the scope of the "follow a guru and find the key to your troubles" approach. A US psychotherapist with 20 years' clinical experience, Michael Vincent Miller, argues that disappointment at the impossibility of living the romantic myths we have clung to since adolescence, and dismay at the failure of our dreams of perfect love and intimacy, turn us into power-hungry "terrorists" within relationships. Miller says: "When two people begin to fail at making each other feel powerful through appreciating and affirming one another, each may soon seek to gain power for the sake of self- protection, at the other's expense..."

But Miller challenges the zealous quest for greater intimacy and boundless discussion of our desires and feelings which has become the touchstone of self-help. He raises an anarchic voice: "The self-conscious intimacy practiced in many middle-class marriages is particularly lethal. Like doctors examining a patient's blood pressure, couples check up regularly on the progress of the relationship. Many a couple's evenings, if they can still speak to one another at all in such a climate, are filled with anguishingly earnest diagnoses of each other's motives."

And he goes on to explore the danger of our obsession with intimacy, to look at how it fuels anxiety. Either we become anxious about being engulfed by the intensity of our partner's intimacy, or, if we do not feel that our partner is offering enough intimacy, we become anxious about that. The way we try to bring the situation under control is by attempting to "terrorise" our partners, often by withdrawal of sex and affection, into behaving as we wish. And it can be bloody. Miller points out: "Often you see a man and a woman in an intimate relationship, especially a marriage, treating one another with a cruelty that they would never consider directing towards anyone who meant less to them."

Miller's book uses history, culture, myth, and psychological ideas to show patterns in human behaviour that are not just symptomatic of an individual's malaise, but reveal how emotional attitudes and behaviour have evolved in our present troubled times. This is not a classic self-help, solution- based book - indeed, Miller's publishers recognise that if it had been more simplistic and formula-based, it would almost certainly stand a better chance of hitting the best-seller lists.

It is unfortunate, says the psychologist and psychotherapist Janet Reibstein, co-author with Martin Richards of Sexual Arrangements (Mandarin), that books which offer us the complexity and challenging questions which are the very nature of human relationships should rarely become popular. She believes they may ultimately help us far more than the simplistic books which appear to give solutions but may leave us understanding less and more demoralised than when we started.

Dr Reibstein says: "The danger is in books simplifying what is a very complex area. They suggest that there is a single answer for everyone, but of course this cannot be so. Then the person who believes what a book recommends should be the 'key' to their problem may feel they have failed when it turns out not to be so simple."

Although she acknowledges that when people are in deep distress, a "black- and-white book" may be comforting, she also worries that people may become addicted to these books in their search for an answer. "If this happens," she says, "they may not examine their own life, ask questions about what is going on in their individual relationship - the things which enable people to move forward and grow." But she adds: "It is important not to dismiss all books which offer help, because some offer very valuable information and encourage people to do their own exploring and questioning, and they can open up new frontiers. I believe Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex was such a book, and Maggie Scarfe's Intimate Partners, which uses a number of case histories of married couples to explore issues, is very good."

Julian Boon, lecturer in personality at Leicester University, who has specialised in love and romance, is not enthusiastic about the genre. "If one is reading them as fun or general interest then fine, but a guidebook can only be a blunt instrument." The advice, he says, should not be seen as a replacement for counselling, which deals with individuals and their own circumstances.

Counselling and therapy, which help people to focus on what is happening to them, and which of their individual experiences may be playing a part, may be a better way of addressing problems for some, but it is not available to everyone. Nor does everyone want it. And for these people, says Zelda West-Meads, former director of Relate, self-help books which are based on good psychological research can help them explore issues and think further about what is going on in their own relationships and what they might be able to do about it, but without being prescriptive. And they can be useful to counsellors, who get clients to read such books and then discuss the content, she says.

Donna Dawson, agony aunt for Company magazine, carefully selects the books she recommends, but she sees them as having an important place. She says: "Books are very useful if people can't be tempted into counselling or ther-