Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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****The Dance of Anger

A Woman's Guide to Changing Patterns of Intimate Relationships

by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

Reviewed May 12, 2005.
One Spirit, New York, 2003.  First published in 1985.  239 pages.
Available at Sembach Library.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#7, Relationships)

Here’s a wise as well as fascinating book about anger and how it influences our lives with our partners, our parents, our children, our friends, and our co-workers.  The subtitle is pertinent, as the book encourages us to look at patterns in the way we relate to others and at how we repeat ourselves.  She talks about how the way one person acts influences the actions of the other, and how our anger with one another becomes a self-perpetuating dance.  Any attempt to change the patterns will be met with resistance.

She has some wise things to say about anger itself.  We’ve all been warned about repressing anger, so I thought you were supposed to get it out.  However, she says, “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 nonproductive efforts to change the other person, and in so doing, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves.  The old anger-in/anger-out theory, which states that letting it all hang out offers protection from the psychological hazards of keeping it all pent up, is simply not true.”

She talks about how couples get stuck in circular patterns, using an incident in her own life as an example.  “Later, we were able to recognize the unconscious benefits we got by maintaining these fights.  Fighting with each other helped both of us to worry a little less about our son, and deflected our attention from other concerns we had about becoming new parents.  But what was most impressive at the time was how irrevocably stuck we were.  We both behaved as if there was only one ‘right’ way to respond to a stressful situation in the family, and we engaged in a dance in which we were trying to get the other person to change steps while we would not change our own.  The outcome was that nothing changed at all.”

She gives some good advice about breaking out of these circular dances.  “A good way to make this break is to recognize the part we play in maintaining and provoking the other person’s behavior.  Even if we are convinced that the other person is ninety-seven percent to blame, we are still in control of changing our own three percent.  So the central question becomes:  ‘How can I change my steps in the circular dance?’  This is not to say that we don’t have good reason to be furious with the other person.  Nor is it to say that our current sex roles and gender arrangements, which breed these sorts of dances, are not at fault—they are.  Rather, it is simply to say that we don’t have the power to change another person who does not want to change, and our attempts to do so may actually protect him or her from change.  This is the paradox of the circular dances in which we all participate.”

Harriet Lerner talks about many different aspects of anger in all the different relationships of our lives.  She discusses when it’s important to take a firm stand and when it’s time to change something in ourselves.  There’s lots of wisdom here, and especially good advice about simply seeing the undercurrents and dances happening behind our anger.

She teaches us not to think in terms of blame.  “Relationships are circular (A and B are mutually reinforcing) rather than linear (A causes B or B causes A).  Once a pattern is established in a relationship, it is perpetuated by both parties.”

She gives us lots of wise thoughts about looking at our anger and learning how to break out of unproductive patterns.  This book is challenging and thought-provoking.

Review of another book by Harriet Lerner:
The Dance of Intimacy

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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