According to Harriet Lerner Ph.D. in a recent article, she wrote for Psychology Today entitled
“Men lose their voice in marriage far more than women do. They may distance or stonewall, telling themselves, ‘It’s not worth the fight.’ They may remove themselves emotionally from the relationship, and then feel devastated when a partner leaves them ‘out of the blue’.”
I didn't lose my voice in my marriage. I lost my voice in childhood. I lost my voice so early I didn't even know it was gone—almost like I never had a voice. Raised by old-school parents who struggled to parent, and who didn't allow a lot of discussion about feelings, my voice never fully developed. Our family was not a democracy. If anything was wrong, you either prayed to Jesus or you stuffed it. I had no sense of any other option when it came to discussing my feelings with my father. My relationship with my parents felt unsafe, and one contributing factor to feeling unsafe was talking too much.
Prior to my own experience with his violence and neglect, I watched my mother for years plead her case to my father only to learn that to talk back to him was not only useless, it was dangerous.
“Mom, please shut up before you get all of our asses whipped.”
“Who broke… Whatever?”
“I don't know.”
Those are good responses for anyone in an abusive relationship. They helped me survive my childhood and have remained difficult to relinquish to this day.
Voicelessness is a symptom of shame. Show me a man who is voiceless and I will show you a man who is ashamed. Shame pressed my mute button years before I got married. In a healthy family, different members are available to talk, provide emotional support, and help mitigate the ill effects of poor relationships with parents. Comfort can be found in them when unavailable from primary sources. I didn't have that luxury. I turned to the streets. I played sports from sunup to sundown to avoid feeling shame about what I was experiencing at home. Avoidance, distancing and stonewalling were my coping strategies that later led to drug use and other addictive behaviors to numb toxic shame. They became a way of being for me. I gave up on trying to discuss my emotional life with my parents or any other adults for that matter. My relationships didn't work that way.
On the playground, my behavior spoke volumes. I could conceal my frustration on the football field, baseball diamond, and basketball court by outperforming my peers thus gaining the acceptance I craved. Later, in the dope house, I expressed myself fluently. “Let me get another one.” My beliefs about both men and women while dormant hindered my ability to connect with intimate relationships I later discovered.
I didn't have much experience with healthy relationships. Superficial friendships built around my secrets made me a great candidate for becoming abusive once I got married. I was afraid of intimacy, of being too close to anyone. Marriage created the perfect conditions that triggered the very same behaviors that I used in my family of origin. I perceived my wife as an authority figure. I was an immature communicator. And, as a result, problems I encountered as a child manifested themselves in the family I created. Intimacy made voicelessness more uncomfortable and difficult to hide. It exposed the flaw in my game. I developed passive-aggressive tendencies from my inability to speak truth to power. I had an aversion to the authority figures in my life and I acted out behind their backs. Marriage forced me to continue what I practiced in all of my previous relationships. There was nothing wrong with marriage.
Alexithymia is the condition of having no words for feelings. Just like my father, I, too, had no words for feelings, except anger and happiness. By the time I arrived at couples therapy, it was rendered ineffective. I would have benefited more from visiting a veterinarian. I cried throughout the entire experience. My software was defective from childhood. It took the destruction of my marriage for me to break free from my previous programming and learn to take responsibility for my voice.
Men can use their voice and still end up voiceless. To compensate for perceiving themselves as powerless victims in relationships with women many men compensate by communicating from an anxious position, yelling and screaming in an effort to dominate or “win" arguments with their partners. That type of communication in relationships often has the net effect of rendering men voiceless in many ways. Yelling and screaming serve to divert the conversation away from the shame the man may feel, and it can emotionally flood and terrorize his partner. The inability to discuss shame and to thwart your partner from expressing his or her needs or concerns renders communication ineffective.
A more insidious problem resulting from voicelessness is how it undermines forgiveness. Without the ability to protest when wronged, any effort to forgive is bogus and rendered ineffective. You have to give yourself the opportunity to voice your outrage and move through that stage before you can let go and try to forgive. Any effort to bypass that stage is like trying to walk before you crawl. To deny your feelings is a denial of your feelings.
Voicelessness cost me much of my childhood and ended my marriage. It has taken individual psychotherapy, domestic violence education, and 12-Step recovery to help me clear my throat.