Finding Your Relational Voice

“There can be no voice without relationship, and there can be no relationship without voice.”

-Carol Gilligan

What is Voice?

In my work with couples, I speak frequently about the critical importance of developing a relational Voice. Voice, as I use it here, is the capacity to say what we see, what we feel, and what we want. In short, it is the ability to speak our truth. Truth is the lifeblood of relational living because it is what allows us to know and be known. Without the capacity to access our truth, and the skill and savvy to communicate it using our Voice, there can be no relationship. When our Voice is silenced, we don’t share in the lives of others, we have “places” in them. And when we silence another’s Voice, intentionally or not, we suppress the very essence of relating.

One reason I find Voice to be such a powerful metaphor in relationships is that it is often not metaphorical at all. Speaking the truth — especially the kind of difficult truth that our relationships seem to insist upon — can be physically challenging. To give voice to truth is, to paraphrase Alan Fogel, “make the breath audible.” This intimate link between breathing and vocalizing means that Voice itself is sensitive to threat the same way breath is. We lose our Voice, sometimes literally, when the prospect of communicating our truth is experienced as dangerous. Chronic tension between partners can constrain both breath and Voice, and in extreme cases, couples may behave as if the very right to breathe has become conditional. It’s no wonder such relationships are often described as “suffocating.”

The good news is that we can learn to have more of a Voice, and we can learn to act in a manner that brings out our partner’s Voice. The better news is that these two skill sets are not mutually exclusive, requiring that we sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Instead, our Voice and our partner’s Voice are two sides of the same coin. That’s because we simply cannot reach for what is real in our partner if we are not being true to ourselves. Voice protects our own truth even as it honors another’s. Recovering it is an act of love — of Self and Other — and a deeply spiritual one at that.