The Dance of Anger

‘Stand like a mountain, bend like grass. It’s at the heart of having both a marriage and a self.’ I love this quote from Harriet Lerner’s Huffington Post blog because it sums up much of what I think psychology is all about — the relationship between self and other.

Harriet Lerner is a clinical psychologist, one of the US’s foremost relationship experts and an author who has ‘dedicated her writing life to translating complex theory into accessible and useful prose’. Her 1985 classic The Dance of Anger is one of those books that I wish I had read years and years ago. As someone who has had my fair share of ‘anger issues’ over the years, I could really have used her calm advice on how to use anger in a productive way to improve my relationships.

This is the opening paragraph:

‘Anger is a signal and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of the self – our beliefs, values, desires or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.’ — Dance of Anger, p.1

Great opening I thought. Any reservations that this book is just for women (the subtitle is A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships) were quickly dispelled. After all, men have just as much difficulty defining themselves and how to balance those selves in relationships as women do.

One of the things that Lerner does here is to use practical examples from her own life and those of her patients to explain typical relationship pitfalls. For example, she and her husband Steve (also a clinical psychologist) used to get into major arguments when their first son was six months old. Harriet was worried that their son was developmentally delayed while Steve refused to acknowledge the possibility. The two of them would get into a repetitive pattern in which she would get more and more worried and he would distance and minimise:

The more I expressed worry and concern, the more Steve distanced and minimised; the more he distanced and minimised, the more I exaggerated my position. This sequence would escalate until it finally became intolerable, at which point each of us would angrily point the finger at the other for ‘starting it’.

As it turns out, their son wasn’t delayed but their arguments about it became particularly unhelpful. As Lerner explains, venting anger in the form of complaining at your partner usually doesn’t solve the problem.

If feeling angry signals a problem, then venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur. When emotional intensity is high, many of us engage in non-productive efforts to change the other person, and in so doing, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves.

She then makes a helpful distinction between two typical female styles of anger: ‘nice lady’ and ‘bitchy woman’. Nice ladies keep anger to themselves and avoid making clear statements about what they think and feel ‘when we suspect that such clarity would make another person uncomfortable and expose the differences between us’. Society rewards them for their ‘niceness’ but the personal costs in terms of emotional and mental well-being are high.

In contrast, the ‘bitchy woman’ often gets into a ‘pattern of ineffective fighting, complaining and blaming that only preserves the status quo’. As Lerner says: “When we voice our anger ineffectively – without clarity, direction and control – it may in the end be reassuring to others. We allow ourselves to be written off and we provide others with an excuse not to take us seriously and hear what we are saying.”

The answer here is deceptively simple. Use anger as a tool for clarifying your own position and for changing relationships rather than blaming people:

1. Tune in to the true sources of our anger and clarify where we stand
2. Learn better communication skills
3. Learn to observe and interrupt non-productive patterns of interaction
4. Learn to anticipate and deal with countermoves and “change back” reactions from others.

Lerner does explain that it’s not as easy as it sounds and that families (and partners) will often do their best to try and resist that change. She provides example from all aspects of family life — one of the chapters is titled “Anger at our impossible mothers” while others deal with children, ageing parents and family triangles. Obviously patterns that have taken decades to develop require a lot of work to change but I found the scripted dialogues very helpful (if a trifle formulaic at times). I was surprised to see that the process of change could be summarised (at its most basic) to the rather bland-sounding steps of observation, clarifying the pattern and gathering data (as part of disrupting the pattern).

Interestingly, an important part of that data-gathering appeared to be going back to how previous generations dealt with similar issues. For example, a 50-year old woman struggling with an ageing father who is increasingly dependent on her, looks to previous generations to see how similar problems were solved in the past (and how people felt about those solutions). She is then able to choose an option which works best for her (while still being caring towards her father).

Lerner talks about “emotional hanging-in” and this was a particularly good point I thought. Applying her theories to our present situation in which our little one has meltdowns when she doesn’t get to watch “winna-pooh” has been helpful. Clarifying the boundary (e.g. once a day) and still being attuned to her emotionally seems to be the way to go here. In some ways the problem is hers in that she is having the tantrum but the problem is also ours in that we are the ones who don’t like her behaviour. Clarifying our position and remaining calm in the face of the meltdown seems to be a good way to keep that elusive balance between self and other. But I’ll let you know how we get along with that strategy!

All in all, an excellent read and one I’ll come back to in years to come (in addition to checking out The Dance of Connection, The Dance of Anxiety and her latest one, Marriage Rules).

6 Responses to The Dance of Anger

  1. smithereens says:

    Thanks for this review! I really need to get this book.

  2. Grad says:

    I’m trying to decide whether I am “nice lady” or “bitchy woman.” I think it depends upon how much sleep I get.

  3. litlove says:

    Excellent review! I’m so glad you liked the book – I think she’s really good in a very practical way. I’m beginning to think that most problems, even complex ones, have very simple solutions – or at least require us to hang onto a mantra or stick with a behaviour that is simple but clear. I have a problem with anger in that I don’t/can’t express it. But reading this and seeing that stating one’s case clearly and firmly is the way forward is highly encouraging, I find!

  4. Grief Happens says:

    Your review reminded me how much I liked this book AND that I should re-read it! I feel like the “bitchy woman” in a sea of “nice ladies.” Unfortunately, it seems to me that when women clearly express their needs, they’re often labeled “bitchy women.” I’ve mostly lived in the south, and I find it more that way here. I lived in Queens, NY for a couple of years, and I found it refreshingly different. I remember that she used practical & common dialogues as examples in the book, particularly between men & women that were helpful. I loved the example that you referenced between Lerner & her husband when her son was a baby, as my husband & I have had nearly identical exchanges about our own children. OK – I’m done – gonna go pull the book out again. Definitely need a refresher course! Thanks again for a helpful review.

  5. smithereens says:

    I just got this book through Bookmooch. I look forward to reading it!

  6. Tere says:

    I’m not sure I would still be alive if not for this book. I implemented the changes immediately, and got out of a very dangerous situation.

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