Excerpts from DANCE OF ANGER | By Harriet Lerner
CIRCULAR DANCES IN COUPLES
When Getting Angry Is Getting Nowhere
Six months after the birth of my first son, I was vacationing with my family in Berkeley, California. Browsing through a secondhand bookstore, I came upon a volume by a foremost expert in child development. My heart sank slightly as I noted that my baby was not doing the things that the book said were appropriate for his age. “My God,” I thought to myself, “my child is slow!” I flashed back on the complications that had characterized my pregnancy, and I froze. Was something wrong with my baby?
When I saw my husband, Steve, later in the day, I anxiously told him my fears. He responded with uncharacteristic insensitivity. “Forget it,” he said matter-of-factly. “Babies develop at different rates. He’s fine.” His response (which I heard as an attempt to silence me only upset me further. I reacted by trying to prove my point. I told him in detail what the book said, and I reminded him of the problems I had experienced throughout the pregnancy. He accused me of exaggerating the problem and of worrying excessively. Nothing was wrong. I accused him. of denying and minimizing the, problem. Something might be wrong. He reminded me coldly that my mother was a “worrier” and that, clearly, I was following in her footsteps. I reminded him angrily that worrying was not permitted in his family, since problems were not to be noticed. And then followed more of the same.
We repeated this same fight, in its same form, countless times over the next six months as our son continued even more conspicuously not to do what the book said he should be doing. The psychologist who tested him at nine months (at my initiation) said that he was, in fact, quite slow in certain areas but that it was too early to know what this meant. She suggested that we wait a while and then consult with a pediatric neurologist if we were still concerned. ,
Steve and I became even more rigidly polarized in our fights, and we fought with increasing frequency. Like robots, we took the same repetitive positions, and the sequence unfolded as neatly as clockwork: The more I expressed worry and concern, the more Steve distanced and minimized the more he distanced and minimized, 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.”
We were stuck. Our years of psychological training and intellectual sophistication went down the drain. It was clear enough that what each of us was doing only provoked a more vehement stance in the other. Yet, somehow, neither Steve nor I was able to do something different ourselves. “Your baby is fine,” a top pediatric neurologist in Kansas City reported blandly. Our son was almost a year old. “He has an atypical developmental pattern. There are certain babies who don’t do much of anything until they walk.” Sure enough, our son began to walk (right on schedule, no less) without having crawled, scooted, or in any way moved about preceding this. And so ended our chronic repetitive fights.
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.
GETTING STUCK — GETTING UNSTUCK
How do couples get stuck? The inability to express anger is not always at the heart of the problem. Many women, like myself, get angry with ease and have no difficulty showing it. Instead, the problem is that getting angry is getting nowhere, or even making things worse. If what we are doing with our anger is not achieving the desired result, it would seem logical to try something different. In my case, I could have changed my behavior with Steve in a number of ways. Surely, it was clear to me that my anxious expressions of worry only provoked his denial, which then provoked more worry on my part. For example, I might have taken my worry to a good friend for several weeks and stopped expressing it to Steve. Perhaps then Steve would have had the opportunity to experience his own worry. Or, I might have approached Steve at a time when we were close, and shared with him that I was worrying a lot about our baby and that I hoped for his help and support as I struggled with this. Such an approach would have been quite different from my usual behavior, which involved speaking out at the very height of my anxiety and then implying that Steve was at fault for not reacting the same way as I. Steve, too, might easily have broken the pattern of our fights by doing something different himself. For example, he might have initiated a talk in which he expressed concern for our son.
We all recognize intellectually that repeating our ineffective efforts achieves nothing and can even make things worse. Yet, oddly enough, most of us continue to do more of the same especially under stress. For example, a wife who lectures her husband about his failure to stay on his diet increases the intensity or frequency of her lectures when he overeats. A woman whose lover becomes cooler when she angrily presses him to express feelings presses on even harder, her problem being not that she is unable to get angry but that she’s doing something with her anger that isn’t working and yet keeps doing it.
Even rats in a maze learn to vary their behavior if they keep hitting a dead end. Why in the world, then, do we behave less intelligently than laboratory animals? The answer, by now, may be obvious. Repeating the same old fights protects us from the anxieties we are bound to experience when we make a change. Ineffective fighting allows us to stop the clock when our efforts to achieve greater clarity become too threatening. Sometimes staying stuck is what we need to do until the time comes when we are confident that it is safe to get unstuck.
Sometimes, however, even when we are ready to risk change, we still keep participating in the same old familiar fights that go nowhere. Human nature is such that when we are angry, we tend to become so emotionally reactive to what the other person is doing to us that we lose our ability to observe our own part in the interaction. Self-observation is not at all the same as self-blame, at which some women are experts. Rather, self-observation is the process of seeing the interaction of ourselves and others, and recognizing that the ways other people behave with us has something to do with the way we behave with them. We cannot make another person be different, but when we do something different ourselves, the old dance can no longer continue as usual.
The story of Sandra and Larry, a couple who sought my help, is a story about getting unstuck. While the content of their struggles may or may not hit home, the form of the dance they do together is almost universal. For this couple, like many, was caught in a circular dance in which the behavior of each served to maintain and provoke that of the other. Once we are part of an established twosome — married or unmarried, lesbian or straight — we may easily become caught in such a dance. When this happens, the more each person tries to change things, the more things stay the same.