I'm a yeller from a family of yellers

I thought it was normal to yell, but it hurts my boyfriend's feelings.

Published December 13, 2005 11:44AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been with my boyfriend for over a year, but we have been friends for nearly 10 years. We have a great relationship, but we fight about stupid things from time to time like most couples I know. When we fight about something, I will yell if it escalates. I'm not talking about banshee-like screaming on my end, but the normal raised voice that people use when they disagree.

I come from a long line of boisterous arguers. My loud Italian family shouts most everything -- from "Dinner's ready!" to our many grievances with each other. A raised voice has never bothered me and seems like an acceptable reaction to being upset about something. Plus, sometimes when a small thing upsets me I can "shout it out" and subsequently let it go, rather than keep it bottled in where it will fester -- yelling is a healthy release, if you will.

On the other hand, my boyfriend is extremely offended by any sort of raised voice. If we have a disagreement that escalates into shouting, he clams up. If he'll eventually talk to me about it, he tells me that I've really hurt his feelings.

Of course, I think I know the root of all of this. His parents divorced when he was young and his father (from whom he has been estranged ever since) was physically and emotionally abusive to him. This is basically the extent of my knowledge of the situation, but I can surmise that he witnessed a lot of fighting and raised voices in his childhood.

I'm trying to be understanding and I'm trying to make an effort not to yell. He means the world to me and I don't want to hurt him. But sometimes I'm upset and it's pretty difficult to avoid. I try, but I'm not perfect. Sometimes I forget and I yell ... and he reacts like I just killed his dog. I'm not ready to go to couples counseling about this, partly because I don't want to force him to talk about something that obviously makes him so uncomfortable.

So, Cary, what can I do about this while I continue working on my self-control? Should I change the way I argue or is there some way that we both can change a bit to accommodate each other?

Proud Member of the Loud Family

Dear Ms. Loud,

I have an idea. What if you and your boyfriend were to set out to desensitize him to your yelling, in a controlled, relaxed and playful setting?

I am not a psychologist. But I like experimenting. I think willing people can figure out a lot on their own about what is happening between them. So try this: You and your boyfriend sit in comfortable chairs and you talk in what he would consider a normal voice. Then slowly increase the volume of the voice until you are using the voice you would use if you were angry or excited. Ask him to let you know when the voice you are using starts to sound like the voice that gives him the willies. Stop there. What happens when you use that voice? Does his heart rate increase? Does he feel tension in his neck? Does he grow silent and want to leave the room? Does he start crawling around on the floor with a blanket in his mouth?

Do this a few times. Do it until he gets bored with your yelling and is no longer responding.

Or if that's too weird, try to catch it when it actually happens; next time you find yourself yelling, stop and see what's going on with him. Is his face pale? Is he having flashbacks? What the hell is going on down there in his lizard brain?

The purpose of this would be to take a little of the fear out of it. He might be able to step back and make a discovery: Gee, when you raise your voice, I actually visibly perspire! How interesting! It might make it less of a big deal. And it would allow him to focus on what he is habitually doing when you yell, in a way that he can't really do when he's concentrating on winning an argument with you. For instance, he might be contributing to his own unease by holding his breath. As an offshoot of this, he might also begin to notice when he is doing the same thing in other settings -- when his boss is suggesting ways he might improve his performance, for instance, or when the driver ahead of him is recklessly adhering to the speed limit.

Then, once he knows what he's doing physically, he could start doing the opposite. If he's been holding his breath, he could start breathing slowly and deeply. If he's tensing up, he could try to consciously shake off the tension.

There are other things you might do together. He might imitate your voice so you hear what you sound like to him when you yell. It might surprise you to hear what he thinks you sound like! Also, you might act out for him what you would prefer that he do when you yell. Give him a gesture, for instance, that is acceptable when your yelling annoys him. Let him make the gesture. Let him really give himself over to it! Maybe it's a gesture he doesn't think he's allowed to make -- something broad and Italian!

Here is another game you can play: When you are just sitting around with nothing to do, announce to him: "OK, now I'm going to yell. Ready?" The object of the game is to persuade him to give his assent to your yelling. You are not allowed to yell until he says it's OK. But there is a one-minute time limit. At the end of one minute, no matter what happens, you get to yell. But during that one minute he can do anything he wants to get ready except leave the room. He can put a pillow over his head. He can yell at the same time you yell to drown you out. He can try to persuade you not to yell. He can offer you money. He can get right in your face, but he can't touch you.

I don't think it's fair that you're the only one who gets to yell. But on the planet he comes from, he might not have been allowed to yell. Some pent-up yells might be lined up behind his face, waiting to get out. Letting them out might be fun, or it might be scary. It might open up weird emotional stuff and childhood memories. It might even open up some memories of abuse. Wow, what if that happened? What if he sank into something truly terrifying? Well, you might be in deeper waters than you expected. You might have to call in a specialist, a professional. But that wouldn't be the end of the world. In fact, it would probably be a good thing in the end.

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