Couples therapists are trained to observe, understand and illuminate patterns of behavior, particularly ones that get us into trouble. Many of these patterns emerge when we attempt to regulate our nervous system (cope). Like Tolstoy’s famous quote regarding how unhappiness in families is unique to each family, we, as individuals, also function in uniquely unhappy ways to manage distress and conflict. 

My recent reading of Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger reinforced this idea. A classic, Lerner’s book was first published in 1985, and she was one of the first to propose that we over-function and under-function in our relationships. In a marriage, for example, one partner might be the financial decision maker, the other the follower, or the house manager and inhabitant. As Brent Atkinson states in Developing Habits for Relationship Success, mismatches often exist in couples; they are not problematic. Awareness of these patterns gives us insights and tools to get unstuck, particularly when our relationship is gridlocked. 

Lerner’s book is subtitled A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. However, the book transcends gender and elucidates the many ways behaviors within a relationship can be flawed. She speaks to the socialized tendencies in women to over-extend themselves for others, and the impact patriarchy has had on how we love. Lerner also gives excellent examples of where people succumb to automatic patterns of over-function and under-function. She provides thoughtful questions, research, and solutions to improve our understanding of how to be balanced in the ways we show up for each other (and ourselves). And though Lerner’s focus is on women, it’s important to emphasize these patterns are equally applicable to male partners and family members. I see men experiencing these patterns in my work as a couples therapist and in leading Men Helping Men, an men’s group devoted to the exploration and thoughtful discussion of matters of the heart. 

Lerner’s text asks an essential question: Who is responsible for what? 

As couples therapists, we might come close to dogma for relationships, but ultimately, what works in one relationship, might not work in another. So, as partners in a system, we have to decide what we are willing to take responsibility for. Our upbringing contributes to our handling dysregulation, boundaries, comfort levels, and more. Some of us will try to cope by shutting down (auto-regulating). Others will tend towards aggression and pursuit of our partner to help fix things. Ultimately, we tend to try to regulate stress and anxiety based on what we experienced in childhood—what we did or did not witness or receive from caregivers growing up. We play with power, dominance, caregiving, leading, following, reactivity, and proactivity in parent-child dynamics; sibling relationships; friendships, work interactions, intimate relationships, and more. But while our backgrounds create conditions, (fortunately) relationships are people growing machines. Awareness of how we dance with anger, anxiety, and other emotions contributes to how we inhabit our relationships. 

Our behaviors are not who we are but what we do, which is a distinction worth investigating.

Lerner also discusses how emotional fusing (or anxious attachment) within families makes it difficult to take on others’ feelings (so we blame them for what we are feeling). She reflects: We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings and without blaming ourselves for the reactions that other people have in response to our choices and actions. She further relates that women are often taught the opposite is true; as I would argue, many of us are within dysfunctional family systems.  

Lerner is excellent at emphasizing that reactivity is the enemy within relationships, not the feelings we experience. She encourages thoughtful processing of who does what when. And ultimately, deepening our understanding of our default positions in our over-functioning and under-functioning habits. 

The more we are in touch with how we experience our roles and responses in a relationship, the more we can humanize ourselves and our partners. This increases awareness of our problematic tendencies and offers alternatives for more considerate, healthy, and improved ways of being in relationship. Lerner states that connectedness, empathy, and regard for others are healthy behavior in a relationship; the problem arises when we are excessively reactive to other people’s problems. She asserts that over-functioning can even block our partner’s growth. She proposes that we are prone to making countermoves—ways we adjust ourselves to achieve relational homeostasis, resorting to unhealthy behaviors. Per Lerner:

The single most important factor is not whether we fight or not; whether our voice is raised or calm; it is the growing inner conviction that we can no longer continue to over-function…When we do not put our primary emotional energy into solving our own problems, we take on other people’s problems as our own.

These ideas are essential to individual awareness and allow us to cultivate sustainability and connection.

Like what you have read? Join me in Men Helping Men. A forum where I am devoted to supporting men in broadening their emotional experiences and bandwidth, talking more about feelings without giving advice. 

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