Harriet Lerner is one of the most popular voices of contemporary relational psychology. Also a respected writer and speaker, Dr. Lerner is the author of 12 specialty books, and not only, already translated into 35 languages. Among these is the bestseller The Dance of Fear that, more than three decades after its publication, remains one of the most current guidelines for the rescue of couple, family, friendship or professional relationships. We talked about her revolutionary vision of relationships with Harriet Lerner, but also about her books dedicated to children that she co-wrote with her sister, how she decided to become a psychotherapist, how it is to live with another psychotherapist and about her next book, which through the same skillful narrative style and power of synthesis comes to change our perspective on what it means to apologize: Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
I love beginning most of my interviews with professionals in the field of Mental Health asking this question: What lead you to start a career in psychology?
No doubt my career choice had to do with the fact that my mother put me in therapy before I was three. My family was poor but my mother obtained a health insurance policy that provided weekly therapy sessions for one dollar. Unlike other parents of the day who considered therapy to be a last resort of the mentally ill, my progressive mother thought it was a learning experience. I decided to become a psychologist before entering kindergarten and I never veered from this decision.
I read you saying in an interview „It takes two to tango. It takes only one to make things a whole lot better.“ Coming from somebody with your experience, I think this could be a life-changing message for many hopeless partners and even for many psychotherapists who often find themselves in their offices in the situation of having to manage relationship problems with only one of the partners in therapy. For our more skeptical readers, would you care to expand a bit on your idea?
When anxiety and stress hits, even the best relationship will get caught in two much distance, intensity, and just plain hard times. While it’s the ideal that both people in a relationship are motivated to work on their part in a problem, this is often not the case in real life.
While it takes two people to couple up, it takes only one to change their steps in a relationship pattern that’s bringing them pain. I often have just one person in my consulting room, and I may prefer that. If one person can engage in courageous acts of change — and maintain the change over time–the old pattern can’t continue as usual.
Not that it’s easy. We all want change but we don’t want to change first — a great recipe for relationship failure. Women often ask me, „Why do I always have to do the work? It’s not fair!“ It’s not about fairness. If you are unhappy in a relationship, you are the only person you can change. No one else will do it for you.
I could never leave „The Dance of Anger“ out of our discussion – the bestseller self-help book that sold more than 3 million copies and was translated in more than 30 languages. It is there where you share the most interesting and helpful view of anger and of the way this shapes all our relationships. Why did you write this book?
Anger is an important emotion that deserves our attention and respect. Just like physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger can preserve the very dignity and integrity of the self.
But most of us have little experience using our anger as a vehicle for positive change. Instead we silence our anger, or vent it in a way that leaves us feeling helpless and powerless. Women, who engage in non-productive fighting, complaining and blaming, suffer as deeply as those who can’t get angry at all.
Anger is a tricky emotion. It signals that something is wrong, but it doesn’t tell us what the real issue is or how to approach the problem in a growth-fostering way that leads to positive change. I wrote The Dance of Anger to help women identify the true sources of their anger, and then to take new steps in a relationship that is stuck in too much distance, intensity, or pain.
More than three decades after the publishing of „The Dance of Anger“ do you think it is just „a woman’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships“ or it is a book universally applicable to men and women around the world?
Today the book is read by men and women in almost equal numbers. Often men read the book because their therapist tells them to. Then they find themselves on almost every page. I know because they write and tell me so. While socially constructed gender roles are a powerful force that shape our live, humans are more alike than different.
This is a personal one: how is it to be part of a couple where both partners are psychotherapists? Do you think there are certain differences from other couples?
My husband and I met in graduate school in clinical psychology and there’s no doubt that our shared training and our understanding of relationships continues to bring us closer together. Of course, being well-trained psychologists has never prevented us from getting stuck in downward spiraling fights or behaving like idiots. But I’ve always valued having a shared profession, along with our many separate spheres of interest.
Do I think there are certain differences from other couples? I don’t know how to answer that. All couples are different from each other (and are also the same) so I don’t think of our both being therapists and psychologists as a distinct shaping force that distinguishes our marriage.
We know that you have written, together with your sister, biologist Susan Goldhor, two children’s books: „Franny B. Kranny. There’s a Bird in Your Hair!“ which was Children’s Choice Award winner for 2002 and „What’s So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?“. How did it happen and how was it to work with your sister? I ask you this because only the thought of working with a sibling has the capacity to frighten many of us. How was it for the two of you?
It’s been great fun. A children’s book is a short and simple project and we were inspired. We wrote What’s So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed? on a two hour bus ride we took together. It was that quick. It’s a better book for our doing it together.
In contrast, I would never co-author my adult books with anyone. New authors often think having a co-author will make their job twice as easy, but the opposite is more often true.
I could not have co-written any of my books. It’s hard enough for me to get clear with myself on what I want to say and how I want to say it. This is a task I can only do alone, although I certainly get lots of feedback along the way.
In January 2017 you will launch your new book „Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts“. You also talked about how the hurt party get through to the wrongdoer in your recent TEDTalk and I think it left many of us wanting more, especially in a culture where the other one is always in the wrong. Could you tell our readers how you came to write about this and why are apologies so important in our relationships?
There are so many injuries that occur in marriage, family and friendship, and so many questions I wanted to delve into. I love telling stories (including funny and heartbreaking ones) from my personal life and clinical work.
How do we restore broken or compromised connections when the simple apology isn’t enough? How do we get past life draining anger and resentment when the wrongdoer will never care about our feelings, orient toward reality, and take responsibility. Is forgiveness always a good thing? What drives the non-apologizer—and the female over-apologizer? How can we de-code apologies that are inadequate, blame-reversing, and downright sneaky and mean?
When we don’t get the apology we want and deserve it can put a crack in the very foundation of the relationship. The courage to apologize, and the wisdom and clarity to do it wisely and well, is at the heart of effective leadership, marriage, parenting, friendship, and personal integrity, and what we call love. It’s hard to imagine what’s more important than that.