Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dance of Anger

A friend lent me The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner.

The Dance of Anger is very much focused on anger from a woman’s perspective. But it is good to think about how things look from the perspective of the “other half”. Besides, there are certain similarities in the social position issues of women and gay men. In monotheist cultures, misogyny and queer-hatred are intimately connected. The homicidal misogyny of Philo Judaeus was how the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex relations got tied to Classical natural law theory via Plato’s (false) claim that animals only had sex with animals of the opposite sex, leading to St Paul showing off his Greek learning in Romans. (In the way of these things, showing off a false bit of Greek learning.) Just as the bizarre traditional (though not Scriptural) reading of Genesis 19 (that the sin of Sodom was all about butt sex, so male-to-male sex is worse than a man raping a woman) is also based on a profound misogyny.

The fundamental thesis of the book is stated in the first line of the first chapter:
Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to (p.1).
Dr Lerner explains how to use anger productively. (The underlying presumption being that we are dealing with moderately reasonable people rather than, for example, “emotional vampires”.)

She does this in nice, clear, language using plenty of example gleaned from her work as an anger-management therapist. She identifies the self-perpetuating, self-defeating cycles of anger (p.6). Using a series of very useful terms, such as de-selfing (p.20): sacrificing one’s sense of self to family dynamics, relationship dynamics and social dynamics. (See above comments about similar social positioning issues for women and gay men.) Or countermoves – what people do to attempt to get you back in your accustomed role if you start to move outside the role you have fallen into (p.34) which feeds those self-perpetuating, self-defeating cycles of anger.
Dr Lerner argues that it is important to identify recurring family patterns across generations to understand what is going on (p.36). Which is particularly important to work out it is “not just you” and – every bit as important – “not just them”. As it is to move away from the pseudo issues (p.37) which people fight over when the real points of anxiety and conflict are something else.

This can be quite a confronting book. For example, about moving away from engaging in the blame game. Or facing that repeating the same old fights protects us from the anxieties of change (P.44). Part of the process is to avoid both blaming the other or blaming our self. In particular, self-observation does not equal self-blame (p.45).

In a “stuck” relationship (whether between siblings, friends, children, parents, marriage or lovers) folk can underfunction (leave the decision making to another ) and overfunction (taking on responsibility for another’s actions) (p.50). A classic example of which is wives doing the “feeling work” for husbands (Pp 57, 107).

To move out of either role is typically needed in order to get to a more emotionally balanced place. But such a move is very likely to provoke counter moves. For all sorts of reasons, including social expectations about gender (p.96). It can be very hard for both parties due to issues such as separation anxiety (p.96)

One of Dr Lerner’s key points is that change requires us to be more of an expert on our self, less of an expert on others (p.102). One of her nice examples is being with a group of women in a trip to New York who react quite differently to an aggressive News York bus driver. She points out that the bus driver was not responsible for those different reactions. It is very important to separate reactions from putative “cause” (Pp 122-3).

Equally, it is important not to hold people responsible for someone else’s behaviour (P.132). The twist, however, is that relationships patterns are very real and not controlled by a single member (p.133)

Particularly as relationships are often triangles. “Thinking in threes” creates particular difficulties for letting go (Pp 166-7). And triangles greatly increase probability of escalating tension (p.169).

The final point is that
getting angry gets us nowhere if we unwittingly perpetuate the old patterns from which our anger springs (p.189).
Given such patterns include both things in your head and patterns of behaviour with other people, dealing with them can be genuinely confronting. But anger is a signal and The Dance of Anger is very useful text for understanding and decoding that signal rather than remaining stuck in the noise. A map of what to do to use the signal, rather than being lost in the noise.

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