Is your anger a force for good in your relationship? What happened when you last got angry? Was it a positive experience, or not? When you grew up, how did your family handle anger? How did your partner’s family deal with anger?
Clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner’s authoritative book “The Dance of Anger” has sold over 3 million copies. She’s one of the world’s most trusted experts on the subject of relationships. Her work has inspired untold numbers of people, including Esther Perel and Brené Brown, on big topics like anger, intimacy, courage, fear and trust. Harriet deeply explores how to make your anger a force for growth. In addition, she also helps you to identify and change the stuck patterns of interaction in your relationship.
Read on to discover what Harriet Lerner has to say about changing your own steps in the dance of anger.
What is anger? Can it be useful? Anger is not necessarily a negative emotion. It’s one of the many emotions which make us human.
Anger serves two purposes:
1) It helps you define your “self”, and become clear about who you are, what you believe, what you stand for. Harriet says: “The pain of our anger preserves the dignity and integrity of the self”. In other words, when you’re feeling angry, that probably means that there is some place where you are ignoring your needs and betraying yourself.
2) Anger is a vehicle for personal, social, and political reform. It signals the necessity for action and change. It alerts you that some initiative needs to be taken to maintain your integrity.
Unfortunately, many of us use anger in relationships in very unskillful ways.
Here are two main unhelpful anger patterns:
1) Pursuing/inflating/being “one-up”. Here you get caught in cycles of fighting, complaining and blaming – expressing anger easily, but ineffectively, so nothing useful is accomplished. If anger is just a way to blow off steam without bringing about positive change, then it’s not serving its purpose.
2) Distancing/deflating/being “one-down”. Some of us avoid anger and conflict altogether, mismanaging anger in unhelpful ways. This leads you to avoid any clear statement of self that rocks the boat of your relationship. It temporarily buys you peace, but you’ll pay the price by becoming bored and disconnected in your relationship. If you never rock the boat, you’ll end up with a dull relationship. You need to learn to have healthy conflict so that you respectfully rock the boat. If you can’t be fully yourself, then you can’t fully meet your partner, nor can you have a healthy, vibrant relationship.
Is there a connection between gender and ways of handling anger? Despite all the useful personal, social and political advances made by feminism, research shows that our culture is still more comfortable with women who are guilty, apologetic, and self-doubting. Too often women who are angry and want to challenge the status quo are negatively branded as “angry feminists” or with even more derogatory terms. Nevertheless, managing anger wisely and well is a common challenge for all of us, regardless of gender.
How to use your anger as a force for good in your relationship
The important question is: how do we change non-productive to productive anger? Anger is difficult to handle because evolution has wired us for fight, flight or freeze/appease reactions to threat. In order to turn anger into something useful, we need to become good observers. The first step is noticing the signs that you’re getting angry. This is the time to notice your own defensiveness and/or withdrawal. Avoid speaking at that time. Instead take a responsible time-out.
An indispensable next step is to calm down. Observe yourself and the other person. What are your warning signs of anger? When you’re in full-blown anger, that’s definitely not the time to resolve a situation. Notice the physical changes within you that alert you to your fight, flight, freeze/appease reactions. This includes signs like: a change in your heart-rate, feeling flushed, sweaty palms, tunnel vision, selective hearing, raised voice, inability to think or speak, desire to run or hide etc. Do you start to get defensive or scared?
When you notice any change of state, do your best to remember that something within you needs to be recognized. Take space, take a responsible time-out, get clarity on what’s going on for you. Focus on self-soothing. Don’t focus on being right/winning, or on being wrong/losing. Focus on getting yourself back to a place of connection to yourself and to love/compassion for your partner. Remember your partner struggles with anger, just as much as you do.
Once you become more able to observe what triggers you to anger, you are empowered to change your part in the patterns. Do something different. Become curious rather than furious. This may lead to diverting toxic anger and converting it into a force for good, a vehicle for growth. It takes great courage and clarity to change your part in a negative anger exchange.
Be prepared to deal with countermoves and resistance to change. Countermoves are ways that your partner tries to hook you back into the old patterns when you are trying to change. They’ll give you many “don’t change” messages, because it makes them anxious to see you change. If you know the patterns of interaction between you, prepare ahead for what they will do to try and maintain the old pattern.
Don’t expect to get approval and applause when you’re changing yourself. When your partner resists your efforts to change, practice not taking it personally. Practice standing firm so you’re not hooked into the old pattern. Can you do that in a way that is kind and compassionate to yourself as well as to your partner? One simple way is to repeat internally “It’s not about me, I don’t have to agree”. Realizing that you and your partner have different perspectives will help you be able to listen better when you ask about their anger.
Not taking it personally is the hallmark of maturity. Maturity recognises that your partner’s reactivity is a sign of their anxiety in the face of your change. Take a position which is true to yourself, which defines your stance and be prepared to hold your ground firmly.
One big challenge in dealing with anger is defining a bottom line. A bottom line is the place where your beliefs, priorities, and values are not negotiable under relationship pressures. You define a bottom line not by creating an ultimatum, but by offering you and your partner a pathway for change. It’s easier to be angry at your partner than to get really clear about what you stand for. Start with small things like “You know, that hurt my feelings” and stop there – say nothing else. Be simple and clear. It takes courage to operate out of your best thinking and your core values. This is what it means to “grow up” and be an adult in your relationship.
What if you don’t know what your bottom line is? How do you get clear about your position? It takes guts to acknowledge that you aren’t clear about how to proceed, to not know your position. An example could be “Your drinking is not acceptable to me and I’m in therapy struggling to get clear about how long I can live with this. The truth is that at this point I’m not clear about how long I can tolerate your drinking. And I’m working on it”. Here your anger is a warning sign that something’s not right, even though at this time you may not yet know what to do. It’s OK not to act until you’re clear on your bottom-line position.
The best way to get your partner’s attention is to change yourself. If you’re always pursuing your partner, you’ll get their attention much more if you start going out with friends, getting involved in a hobby, getting your own life back on track. If you’re often distancing from your partner, practice stating clearly, in a non-blaming way, what behavioural change you require from them. Change your own behaviour. Try out a new you which is congruent with your deepest values and integrity. The most powerful thing you can do is start doing something small that you believe in and keep at it.
If you need help in decoding your anger, your partner’s anger, or the stuck, angry patterns in your relationship, call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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Adapted from Neil Sattin.