I begin with two confessional caveats. One, Harriet Goldhor Lerner is my second cousin; we communicate by email, but have never met. Two, I am not Marriage Rules’ (Penguin, 2012) target audience even though my husband of 16 years and I have been in marriage counseling for two years.
In 1985, Harriet (she’s family, I can call her by her first name) took the world of women’s self-help, psychology literature by storm with the publication of Dance of Anger (Harper & Row). She followed this New York Times bestseller (over two million copies sold) with seven more titles. I loved all the “dance” books through Dance of Fear (2004), at which time I began to wonder if Harriet wasn’t treating her writing too casually by writing to an audience of like-minded friends and family.
The stated purpose of Marriage Rules is to share strategies coupled individuals can use to improve their relationships. Inspired by Michael Polan’s best-selling Food Rules, Harriet offers her readers 106 rules for better relationships, illustrated with her and her clients’ experiences in 200+ pages. Marriage Rules is a quick-reading, how-to manual. I applaud her for her commitment to and success at simplifying the complex, but I miss the richness and profundity of the dance metaphor. “Rules” doesn’t open the door to understanding relationships the way “dance” does.
Harriet’s choice of illustrative examples seems stuck in her own generational issues. Married in 1972, in a Woodstock-style wedding I didn’t get to attend, Harriet’s clients seem to argue most about sharing household chores (women’s work vs. men’s work) and feeling emotionally unfulfilled and unsupported. The women pursue. The men distance. The women are intense. The men cool. All of which sounds like traditional, emotional gender roles to me. So, where’s the feminism? Families of origin are the source of things “good, bad, and terrible.” Now, how do we boomers continue blaming mom and dad since we became parents ourselves? And how is it that everyone is so bent out of shape over laundry and dishes? Is this what marriages fall apart over? Really? What about serious stuff like money, health, drugs? I want to tell Harriet’s clients: If you think this is marital stress, y’all are a bunch of weenies. Talk about the worried well.
What resonated most for me in the book was the description of couples negotiating “the bottom line”—the point at which one partner refuses to tolerate the other’s behavior any longer—and the repercussions and reverberations that result from toeing that line. Although her clients’ experiences with roller-coaster feelings of remorse and regret rang true, the example from Harriet’s marriage with Steve—in which she let dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen sink for a week before he put his foot down—well, that fell flat.
Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D. has an extraordinary wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise in the psychology of personal relationships, which she gained during decades of great growth in the field. I would have liked to see her write another book, one that is grounded in metaphors rich enough to support more than a 1970s-oriented feminist rule book. Take me back to the dance, please.