The Dance of Anger
by Harriet Lerner (Book Review)
Often one or both people in a marriage surrender to a form of “intimacy” that requires a loss of self instead of a true partnership based on love and respect. Or they begin to experience their times apart as isolating and distancing. In either one of these situations, bitterness grows, together with anger and resentment. How can couples learn to communicate effectively their individual values and desires and needs, as well as continue to grow into a healthy and loving partnership? I found the book The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner to be extremely helpful in answering this question, particularly for women.
Anger is Inevitable in Close and Committed Relationships
It just is. What you do with it is what matters. This reminds me of what the Psalmist says in Psalm 4:4 – “In your anger, do not sin. When you are in your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” According to Lerner, women deal with feelings of anger by acting out of two different styles of relating: “nice lady” or “bitch.” Though these styles look different from the outside, both styles accomplish the same end result: they protect others, blur our clarity of self, and ensure that change does not occur.
How to Use Our Anger
We can use our feelings of anger to gain greater clarity about the source of our anger as we learn to take a new and different action on our own behalf. This means that we define a clear self, instead of just protecting another person or keeping the relationship harmonious. When we keep our anger inside, not expressing our true desires and needs, in constant submission to another, we are acting “as if having a relationship is more important than having a self.”
“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.” There is a theory that if we just “get it all out” instead of keeping anger pent up inside, we will be more healthy and less anxious or unhappy or depressed. However, if we fight and scream and yell in anger, but continue to submit to unfair circumstances or live in a way that betrays our values and hopes, feelings of depression, low self-esteem, self-hatred, and self-betrayal are inevitable.
Good Questions to Ask
- “What am I really angry about?”
- “What is the problem, and whose problem is it?”
- “How can I sort out who is responsible for what?”
- “How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless?”
- “When I’m angry, how can I clearly communicate my position without becoming defensive or attacking?”
- What risks and losses might I face if I become clearer and more assertive?”
- “If getting angry is not working for me, what can I do differently?”
We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance can no longer continue in the same predictable pattern.
Instead of reverting to these styles of managing anger – silent submission, ineffective fighting and blaming, and emotional distancing – we can learn how to use our anger as a starting point to change patterns rather than blame people. If we do not use our anger first to clarify our own thoughts, feelings, priorities and choices, we can easily get trapped in endless cycles of fighting and blaming, and trying to change a person who does not want to change. We need to develop and maintain calm, non-blaming positions in order for lasting change to occur.
Christian Counseling for Dealing with Conflict and Anger
If you would like to learn how to understand the source of your anger, how to express your anger effectively, and grow in your own understanding of self, or if you need help dealing with continual conflict and anger in your relationship, speaking with a trained Christian counselor can give you insight into yourself and the options open to you.
“Alone,” courtesy of Lee Haywood, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)