I’ve had all this interaction recently with this particular gentleman who is involved in a couple of restraining orders and requests for no contact. The ladies who have asked him not to contact them have explained that their requests for no contact are an attempt to set definite boundaries and be clear that disrespectful treatment of them is unacceptable. Since they do not believe it is possible for him to contact them in a respectful manner, they don’t want him to contact them at all. “But,” the gentleman countered, “My
boundaries require more contact!” This is so hilarious to me in the way that it points out the difficulties with just setting boundaries and speaking from a self-defining perspective that I think about it all the time. Sometimes, anxious interactions are not as simple as just taking focus off of blame and returning it to self-definition.
I guess, in honor of the holidays, this is sort of a review about a book about getting along with family, aka managing anxiety. I just finished reading The Dance of Intimacy, and I was going to actually review The Dance of Anger (I know, the titles just make my skin crawl, but whatever) because I think Anger is a better book and it seemed like Intimacy was almost the exact same book but not really as good, but it turns out that unbeknownst to me I actually already reviewed Anger a while back. And TONS of overshare! So, you’re welcome. They might actually be equals, and I just read Anger at a point in my life where I felt particularly guilty about self-definition, so it was more meaningful in validating my attempts to self-define. N E Way, I don’t dislike Intimacy, but, you might as well read Anger instead.
The books are about how any relationship we have – and by relationship, I just mean interaction with people, not necessarily romantic relationship – involves a given level of anxiety. And, often, we manage the anxiety either through over-functioning and pursuing or through under-functioning and distancing. Both of those options are reactive to the anxiety in the relationship, rather than self-defining. So, they actually undermine our attempts to understand who we are and be appreciated for that within the relationship and our attempts to understand and appreciate the other person.
The covers and titles of these books are very off-putting to me, but having read them, there is something that is interesting to me in the gendered nature of the books that is expressed in the titles and covers. Lerner approaches psychology and the study of relationships from a clearly feminist perspective, but she acknowledges and explores the idea that women are expected to shoulder the weight of maintaining and growing relationships. She doesn’t beat this idea into the ground, or approach it with outrage, but she takes it into consideration in a really comforting way.
I think acknowledging that is important because I think the imbalance can cause bitterness on either side. If it is unmanly to cultivate intimate relationships and manly to distance, men have to counteract society or wait for a woman (or man who is more comfortable counteracting society) to pursue them in order to have emotionally meaningful relationships. If the burden of pursuing emotional intimacy is on women, women have to counteract society in order to maintain self-definition in relationships. It isn’t fair to either gender. When I’m talking about the gendered expectations, I’m not assuming that any romantic relationship would be heterosexual, and Lerner doesn’t assume that either. I’m more talking about how each individual typically has to overcome their own social conditioning in all of their relationships, than how they have to overcome the other gender’s, if that makes sense. Two homosexual men in a relationship, therefore, would both presumably have a challenge in overcoming a socialized tendency to emotionally distance, particularly if that was emphasized in their families of origin.
Lerner expresses her choice to direct the books to women as an acknowledgment that it is just a reality that women are expected to manage relationships and are more likely to seek help to do so. While both Intimacy and Anger were written over twenty years ago, I think it is unfortunately still accurate to say that remains true today. I’m not trying to be bitter or bitchy about that, and I don’t feel bitter or bitchy about it, it is just unfortunately my experience that it is generally assumed to be masculine to distance and feminine to pursue intimacy.
Mostly, what I’m thinking about the covers and titles, though, is that they are there to catch women who have lost self-definition into some kind of generic Precious Moments of femininity. I’m positive that this is judgey of me, which I’m sorry about, but the aesthetics of them are just so stepford to me. In Intimacy, Lerner tells the story of reading a letter to the editor in Ms. magazine from a woman who explained that she needed to cancel her subscription because it caused her husband too much anxiety for her to read the magazine. I think these covers and titles are the brown paper bag that Lerner used to cloak her really academic analysis of relationships and advice to women to put themselves first in an acceptable cover that evokes the idea of traditional femininity. I mean, not that I think it is unacceptable to be drawn to the covers or titles, they just signal traditional gender roles to me, where the content of the books actually undermine them. I like that a lot. I think it is evocative of the 1950s melodramas, which I love.
In general, I like the substance of the book, and the stories are engaging, but it is pretty repetitive, especially if you have already read Anger. I skimmed a little by the end, to be quite honest. At the same time, it was a good refresher on the importance of acknowledging the actual sources of anxiety. It is pretty easy to say, look at my terrible, under-functioning roommate, all my problems are because of her, or, our family just needs to help little Joey get through his ADD behavior, and not acknowledge the actual sources of anxiety in our lives. Lerner talks a lot about anniversaries that we subconsciously remember – of divorce or illness or other huge stresses – and also how stressful events in our families of origin can be something that we displace onto other parts of our lives in order to manage. Since those are the type of thing I am already blocking, it is nice to have an outside person to remind me to locate the actual source of my anxiety. In sum, I really <3 Lerner, and I want to be like her when I grow up.