Life Transitions, Relationships

The Complicity of Women’s Silence

I had started the year with the self-directed research project of studying male depression and toxic masculinity, a seemingly-increasingly-timely subject for our times, between what we witnessed with the rise of a shifting attitude towards rape culture and gendered power dynamics (that may have started within the gaming community to some extent, but has spilled the river banks, as it were, into more mainstream conversations), the political circus south of the border and all of the gendered power struggles that surfaced there, and now we see systemic hatred and “Us versus Them”-isms reaching levels of violence we haven’t seen in a generation and a half as entire groups of people start to find their voices and push back against systemic intolerances both subtle and overt.

This plays out on the microcosmic scale in the therapy office with clients coming in to give voice to their own experiences, often for the first times in their lives. Recently I have been privileged to sit with a number of people who have been struggling to get out from under patterns of behaviour that, over the course of a lifetime, have led to what a friend of mine refers to as “complicity in their own subjugation”. Some of these clients are men, and it’s been refreshing to see them recognize their own patterns, relating them to traditional masculinity binds they been resisting (consciously or unconsciously) most of their lives, and struggling to *be* better partners.

On the other side of that equation are the women, trying to find their voices in a world that has left both men and women increasingly unsure of the roles they’re “supposed” to play once we start to strip out some of the traditionally-gendered underpinnings and expectations… but without replacing them with clear new guidelines. Terry Real, in “How Can I Get Through to you: Closing the Intimacy Gap between Men and Women”, writes:

Since Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking research, the idea that girls approaching adolescence “lose their voice,” that they learn to back away from conflict and swallow the truth, has become virtually a cultural axiom. But it takes factoring male development back into the analysis, understanding the patriarchal cultural influences on both sexes, before it occurs to us to ask the next critical question: When girls are inducted into womanhood, what is it exactly that they have to say that must be silenced? What is the truth that women carry that cannot be spoken? The answer is simple and chilling. Girls, women–and also young boys–all share this in common: none may speak the truth about men.

[…] What is the open secret that everyone around the man sees but from which he himself must be protected? It is the dance of contempt itself,
the dynamics of patriarchy as they play out, unacknowledged, inside the man’s skin.

–pg. 90-91

Real goes on to describe what I am seeing time and time again play out with my own clients as they struggle to establish some sense of autonomous self and rediscover their own voices, bubbling up through the mud of years or decades of complicit unhappiness.

Pia [Mellody] observed that there wasn’t one form of childhood abuse, but rather two. What Pia called “disempowering abuse” is the one we can all readily identify. It is made of of transactions that shame a child, hurt him, physically or psychologically, make him feel unwanted, helpless, unworthy. What Pia has called “false empowerment,” by contrast, is comprised of transactions that pump up a child’s grandiosity, or at the least, that do not actively hold it in check. Pia’s genius was in understanding that falsely empowering a child is also a form of abuse. Failure to supply appropriate guidance and limits does a grave disservice to a child, and represents a serious breach in parental responsibility. The combination of these two kinds of abuse lie at the core of the conspiracy about men.

–pg. 93


Anna and Mirriam* are two clients I have met recently, both women in their late 60s or early 70s, who are on the brink of leaving their respective marriages. Their stories are remarkably similar, and in them I hear not only echoes of my mother’s experience, but residual resonances with my own process of trying to sort out who I was/am supposed to be in relationship with men. Both women have been married for 40ish years, raised families, sacrificed many of their own dreams to raise children and support their husbands’ careers over their own aspirations. Like my mother, they’re of a generation that was taught rigid, gendered expectations about the roles we play. Both Anna and Mirriam are meeting with me because they are deeply, profoundly unhappy in their marriages. They both feel like they’ve “tried everything” over the years to get their husbands to change, or to try to find their own space within the limited confines of those gendered roles. As one might expect, the reality of retirement as it throws married couples back into each other’s space on a 24/7 basis after years of a careful balance between one sphere of control being external to “home”, and the other being the home and family sphere itself, is excruciating.

These women, and probably millions like them across the world where such gender-biased roles still have influence, feel desperate to be seen and heard as something other than an adjunct, an accessory, to their partners’ worlds. Men, who often define themselves more by what they DO than who they ARE, struggle with the transition to retirement because it takes away the bulk of their life’s worth of “doing”, and therefore also threatens their self-definition. Unsurprisingly, many women in this age range are likewise struggling as newly-retired husbands attempt to exert the control they are used to having outside the home, in a sphere that for probably decades has NOT been their principle domain. The resulting power struggle drives a wedge between partners, or widens a gulf already dug by decades of silent tolerance for a thousand tiny but unresolved hurts, and eventually, someone (usually the woman) winds up in therapy, or the lawyer’s office… or both. To understand who this pervasive silence saps the love and intimacy out of a marriage, we turn to Terry Real again:

Repudiating the inner vulnerability that is made up of equal parts of humanity and trauma, boys learn to punish in others what they dare not risk showing themselves. It is this unacknowledged superimposition of grandiosity on shame, this burying of hurt boy inside hurting man, the sweet vulnerable self wrapped in the armor of denial, walled off behind business, work, drink, or rage, the hidden “feminine” inside the bluff “masculine”, that is the truth about men that dare not be uttered. And why must it remain unspoken? Because women and children fear triggering either extreme grandiosity or shame in the men they depend on. They fear that the very act of naming these states, of unmasking their effects, will escalate them. And their fears are far from groundless. And yet, while speaking may trigger explosion, the destructive power of silence works like a slow-moving poison, infecting not just the women who still themselves, but the sons and daughters who watch as well, passing on to the next generation…burdens no youngster should be asked to carry.

–pg. 95

Women like my clients are maintaining silence because all attempts in the past to introduce themselves as equal partners to be seen and heard, or to request, require, demand, beg for emotional connection and intimacy with their partners, have been met with various forms of rejection, abuse, or violence. Over the years, their cries have muted to whispers and silence, and then one day, when they’ve felt they’ve had enough, they begin to look for a door marked exit. The strong ones deliver ultimatums to often-stunned partners who claim to have not seen any indications there was anything wrong, admissions that will often send wives desperate for connection into intense emotional spirals.

“I’ve been shouting myself hoarse for forty years,” said Mirriam, “and he pats me on the hand and tells me I’m over-reacting to nothing, that it’s all in my head.”

“He looks through me like I’m not even there,” Anna whispers through her tears. Even with me, she has trouble holding her voice at a normal conversational tone, and seems surprised when I voice anger on her behalf, though grateful that *someone* can.

Grandiosity pushed to extremes ends in homicide, shame in suicide. Both states are potentially lethal. This double-edged threat stops the truth in a woman’s mouth. Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hurting someone she loves, she backs down. Caretaking is, after all, her mandate, her primary training since birth. … The problem for women (or anyone inhabiting the caretaking side of the dynamic) is that while their empathic connection to the disowned “feminine”, the vulnerable, in the other is exaggerated, the connection to their own vulnerability, to self-care, is attenuated. In this way, many women, caring more deeply for the little boy in the man than the man does himself, find themselves bathed in sympathy for that hidden boy even while being psychologically, and sometimes physically, harmed by the man.

–pg. 99

Having women partners call them out for bad behaviours in relationship threatens many men’s self-identity and brings either a rage or shame response, so women, especially those who might have already encountered those kinds of response patterns in family or early relationship experiences, learn to be hyper-vigilant to such moods. They caretake situations to avoid rocking the boat and, along the way, suppress their own needs in the name of maintaining not just family “harmony” and in no small measure, their own personal safety. It’s no small wonder then that forty years into marriage, the box at the back of the closet into which they’ve been stuffing their own dreams, desires, wants, needs, finally starts to overflow like a boiling pot. One of the first things I do with sitting in witness with these clients is normalize the process by which we become silent, and in recognizing the normalization, begin to explore how they feel on a general level about the pattern of silencing they’ve experienced. It’s often much easier to begin such exploration at a general, cultural level before a client feels safe owning such experiences, such intensity of feeling, for themselves. It’s hugely common for women clients to be unable or unwilling to recognize or own their own anger, for example. They will use disarming or diminutizing language to express something cognitively, and in that we discern the stories they’ve been telling themselves, the unconscious scripts they’ve been following, for YEARS. And we know they’re cognitive layers trying to distance or disconnect from the actual feeling, because probably 4 times out of 5, at this point a client will completely dissolve somehow into an intense emotional reaction that is largely at odds with the cognitive overlay.

It’s a very difficult process to admit that one has a voice, let alone (re-)learn to use it. For many of these clients, these women, who have been suppressing for decades, the ship on which any hope of repair rests has sailed. That’s not to say things cannot change for the better, but the lion’s share of the effort involves training frightened women to take emotional risks in the face of a partner who is potentially unraveling in their own way as life transitions change everything they knew, and if the partner isn’t dealing with that internal turmoil effectively themselves, a client suddenly introducing new, unexpected boundaries where previously none existed and demanding respectful adherence and (gasp!) CONSENT where previously none has been necessary, is more likely going to make things worse before anything gets better. We cannot force truculent partners to change, especially if we look at them through the lens of gendered baggage trapping us all to some extent in the roles we play and better understand what’s potentially happening on the inside of their heads while we’re beating against the barricades on the outside.

I have never not been honest with a client facing this kind of effort: we cannot predict how the change process will go, and we cannot guarantee the partner will be as willing to engage the change process as you are… if at all. Some women will understandably find the process of departure a simpler and more palatable choice; some will stay and fight for their marriages and, more importantly, their spaces and voices within them. And it’s important to recognize, from a therapeutic position, that these role-based issues are not strictly limited to an older generation, though some of the entitlement-based expectations are more entrenched; my younger client couples are finding an easier time exploring and expressing a more equally-distributed power base, and women in general are finding more of their own voices. But even with my 20-somethings, I see residual cultural baggage around women being able to ask for what they want and need, cropping up to stunt some of their intimate interactions. We’re not out of the woods yet, especially as younger men are currently being trapped between legacy cultural traditions surrounding “masculinity” and a more feminist approach to equality and egalitarianism that’s leaving them without a clear way forward into self-esteem and self-identity — a chaotic state they then carry forward into their relationships in troubling ways.

But we do have tools now, and language, for sorting through the years of silence and suppression. Getting clients into therapy where these experiences can be validated is the hard part for the client; sitting with them while they confront the choice of staying the same and coping, or leaving and starting over at any age is often the hard part for the therapist. But it is a great privilege to be the space, the safety, and sometimes the first voice allowing and encouraging these clients, these women especially (but the men as well who are also struggling to give voice to what they themselves have been burying for most of their lives), to speak up. In many ways, these clients are the ones who best illustrate how it’s less about the “therapeutic interventions” we professionals bring to the exchange, and entirely about making space for the relationship to be pre-eminent instead. So many of these clients have never felt, or forgotten what it feels like, to be seen and heard for themselves in all their beauty… and all their pain.

And thus, the work begins.


* — Names are changed to protect client confidentiality.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.