Understanding how a voice disorder can impact your relationships

When anyone develops a vocal disorder that impairs their ability to effectively communicate, they may experience depression and find themselves socially isolated as a result of their vocal limitations. They may also experience financial instability because the condition may impact their career or ability to get a job. This disorder, if not carefully navigated, can also impact the personal relationships of those living with the disorder, including their spouse, children, parents and friends.

Your voice is a part of who you are

Since the voice is a signature part of who we are, it can affect your self-image. And as much as we may not want to admit it, our view of ourselves is shaped by how others see us. The book, Easier Done Than Said, Living with a Broken Voice by Karen Adler Feeley, includes this quote from someone living with spasmodic dysphonia (SD).

“Individuals look at you like you’re crazy. They cannot understand what you are saying. If your voice is shaky, you are immediately classified with low self-esteem, no confidence, nervous, and not taken seriously.”

At the onset of a disorder that impacts your ability to communicate, like SD, you have to navigate and refine your role with family, friends, coworkers, members of your community and your medical team. You must reconstruct many of your social behaviors and navigate to your new normal. In lay terms, you have to adjust and come to terms with what has happened to your voice and it can have a great impact on the personal relationships that are so important to you.

Let your family support you!

More importantly, you need the support of those around you to make navigating this loss easier.

How your family and friends can help you through the stages of adjustment

A major change, like the onset of SD, any vocal disorder or any disability for that matter, means that the person will likely be struggling with what is happening to them. It is also likely that they will undergo a series of stages of adjustment until finally reaching acceptance of what has changed before they can fully thrive. These stages are normal and acceptable; however, they are not neat and orderly. People progress through the stages at different paces and may skip stages altogether. The following discusses each stage and provides guidance on how family and friends can provide support. 

These stages are normal and expected, however, they are not neat and orderly. People progress through the stages at different paces and may skip stages altogether.

Validation is key

“When a loved one comes to you for support, the number one best thing you can do is to clearly validate their feelings. Validation is an acknowledgment and recognition of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree, but if we care about the other person, we do need to explicitly accept how they see the situation and their reaction to it”. 1

Validation is “the simplest way to convey the most important messages of emotional support – I see you, I understand, I care about you, and I’m here for you. What does explicit validation look like? It may be as simple as looking someone in the eye and saying, “I understand how upsetting that would be.” Other examples include: 2

  • “I can see that you’re very (angry, upset, sad, etc).”
  • “What a frustrating situation.”
  • “It must feel (_________) to have someone do/say that to you.”
  • “Wow, that must be really hard.”
  • “I can see how much this affects you.” or “I can see how hard you are working on this.”

Don’t give advice unless asked

You’re job is not to fix the problem, they are in the process of turning to you for emotional support. Do not offer advice, downplay the significance of how they feel or make them feel inferior by telling them what they should do. Instead, ask questions, listen attentively and validate their feelings.3

1,2 3Formula for Providing Emotional Support