The Power of Finding Your Voice in Relationships
Using your voice to make a new beginning.
Posted Feb 20, 2020
I have encountered more than a few heterosexual couples who operate on the traditional premise that when there is a disagreement, one of the two, in many cases the woman, backs down. While it might seem entirely un-PC, behind closed doors, it still goes on. Many men still refuse to wash a dish.
This configuration, with its throwback power alignment, can hold up for a certain period of time. But it seems, the person who had been willing to self-sacrifice reaches their limit, and the pair finds their way to a couples therapist.
When a birth or a death or other major event occurs, life is often thrown into disarray, and a couple often needs to reconsider and reconfigure how they relate to one another. One partner may realize that they can no longer tolerate “second class” status. For example, taking on the role of a parent sometimes awakens a need to feel recognized—by offspring, partner, and perhaps most importantly, themselves—as a person with an enhanced desire to exercise decision-making power. Feeling ‘less-than,’ having no voice, or limited voice, feels as outdated as a flip phone; they were clumsy and cute but not yet smart.
When the arrival of a child triggered the change, a female client explained:
“When it was just him and me, I was OK with letting him decide where we ate or even where we vacationed. It didn’t matter that much to me, and in some ways, it made me feel like the bigger person to let him have his way. But once we had a baby, I didn’t want our child to grow up thinking that a woman’s place was below a man’s. I’d complain out loud, especially when my kid was around. I was determined to be respected, and I wanted my child to witness me standing up for myself. I shifted from being passive to caring passionately about whether I had a voice in the conversation.”
Her partner said that he welcomed her developing a stronger voice, but did what he could to sabotage its development. He criticized her in front of the kids and yelled when she defended herself. He undermined her authority in situation after situation. Afterward, in private, he would apologize. And then do it again. Their treatment took months, and they worked hard to change behaviors and create new understandings.
I counseled a different couple who had a miserable—especially for her—balance of power. Again, the man claimed the upper hand in situations requiring planning and physical strength, most decisions around finances, and household chores. She went along with it, although their relationship had been hemorrhaging whatever goodwill or sense of emotional safety it ever had. And then he cheated on her.
In processing her hurt and anger about the affair, she told him that if they were to stay together as a family, she needed to feel accepted and valued and that her point of view was not only tolerated but welcomed.
She needed reassurance from him that he was committed to helping her feel good about herself in the relationship. Without this, the relationship couldn’t succeed.
She insisted on a new beginning and said:
“I don’t want to dominate him, not really, except sometimes when I’m angry about things in the past. I need to feel I can take up space, be who I am, not have to compete to have my opinion and preferences count. When I pack bags for a long weekend, I don’t want him to criticize me for not doing it his way.”
Over time, both partners generated compassion and curiosity. They helped one another believe that what they had together was a hybrid of new, renewed, and sometimes, better than anything they’d had before. Healing took time and resolve. Not every couple can accomplish this after an affair, but some do. Nothing can grow without nourishment. Emotional nutrients like kindness, compassion, curiosity, empathy, and so on stimulate health. These are the qualities that can activate and expand a couples’ potential for healing and deepening their love.