Until about a year ago, I’d never really heard my boyfriend raise his voice. This was partly because we’d been living apart for our first two years together, so we’d avoided a lot of the quotidian challenges that make people snap at each other. But it was also, in large part, because he is gentle and considerate almost to a fault. Everyone says, “Oh, he wouldn’t hurt a fly,” but he wouldn’t even hurt a fly’s feelings.
Still, he’s a human being with a stressful job, and once we moved in together I found that there were times when he would express general frustration by slamming cabinet doors a little harder than necessary, or by talking to me with evident tension in his voice. And every time, even though I knew I was in no danger, I would be utterly paralyzed with fear. Usually I would try to keep my voice bright and even, but I’m sure it was obvious I was doing this out of self-preservation: Don’t make any sudden moves. Other times, I shut down.
He took this amiss at first. When someone is self-evidently terrified of you, and you haven’t really done anything to inspire that level of terror, it’s hard not to be mystified and maybe a bit hurt. And shouldn’t people get to blow off a little steam, when they’re clearly not being threatening or violent or even especially loud? Finally, he tried to explain to me that “it isn’t about you,” at which point I got my emotions in order and started responding with more equanimity. Just kidding! I burst into tears.
Because, of course, it wasn’t about him either. I was fully aware that my reactions were out of proportion to his anger, which was mild and controlled and not directed at me. But I’m 37 years old and I was raised as a woman in America; he’s not the first man to get angry at me, and I know how dangerous male rage can get. Just as his frustration was mostly something he brought home from work, rather than something I’d caused, my fear response was mostly something I’d hauled into the relationship from outside: from my personal past, and from the culture at large.
Indeed, I’ve hauled that baggage into every relationship—not just romantic ones, but even a fleeting interaction with a man on the street. Fear of male anger is a burden, but it’s also protective, like a heavy suit of armor that you patch with new metal every time it gets a ding. The armor only gets heavier over the course of your life, but you put it down at your peril.
I’m hardly the only one clanking around inside a shell of instinctual fear. In fact, so many of us are lugging around this burdensome armor that we often forget we’re wearing it; we just think that walking around is more tiring for us than it is for men. Recently, the popular Facebook page Vellum and Vinyl posted a series of images, sourced from Tumblr, in which several people raised as women discuss how terrifying it is to hear a male voice raised in anger. One of the overwhelming responses, both in the thread and in the reactions, was revelation and relief: This is everyone? I thought it was just me. “As a woman, I had no idea it affected other women like this. I thought I was weak,” says one Tumblr user. “I’m glad I’m not the only one,” says another. The Tumblr post that precipitated the discussion—which is tagged “#unrestrained male anger is my greatest fear #even more than rats”—has amassed more than 500,000 notes since it was posted in late 2014.
Sometimes we can track down the original source of the fear, the experience that made us start hauling around a helmet that eventually grew into a full suit of plate. Maybe we were trained in childhood to avoid provoking an easily angered dad, or maybe we had a physically or verbally abusive partner who taught us either to cower or to freeze. (My instinct to deal with terror by trying to either go completely silent or maintain an abnormal cheeriness can be traced directly to a particular boyfriend, who would get extra angry if I did “that wounded thing” when he yelled at me.) But there doesn’t have to be a precipitating incident; sometimes it’s just because we’re paying attention to what’s happening in the world. “Not every woman has been harmed by a man she trusted, but every woman KNOWS someone who has,” says Tumblr user anexperimentallife. This is why we never take off the armor of fear: As heavy and constraining as it is, you never know when you’ll need it.
Some Tumblr users on the thread cautioned male readers not to get defensive: “Note to guys: It really, REALLY doesn’t matter if you’re thinking ‘but I would never,’” says elfwreck. “History is littered with the bodies of women who believed a man ‘would never.’” Some of the men, she notes, also thought they would “never” until they did.
But of course, male readers did get defensive, and the frame of their defensiveness is telling. One Vellum and Vinyl reader, Jimmy Tiblier, said that he would “like to believe” that his wife and daughters aren’t afraid when he raises his voice, but “I do know they both respect me enough to never anger me to that point either.” If women are afraid of men’s violence, in other words, isn’t the problem that they got the men all riled up? “To all you women out there who are so ‘afraid,’” Jimmy writes (because women’s fear is fake, presumably), “I wish you the best and hope you realize this problem can be somewhat controlled by not doing the little things to trigger a man’s anger.”
This is the world we go armored against: the one where the response to “I’m afraid of your anger” is “well, don’t make me mad and we won’t have a problem.”
In truth, this instinctual terror really isn’t fair to men, the kind and considerate men who really wouldn’t hurt a fly. The culture of patriarchy isn’t fair to anyone. It’s sad for both men and women that we can’t meet them with an unhelmeted face, no matter how trustworthy they seem. Especially when boys are often taught that anger is the only expressible emotion, it must be terribly difficult to find out that even your mild anger causes panic in people you love. It sucks when people think you might hurt them and you wouldn’t—but it sucks way more to live in deeply ingrained, constantly reinforced fear of being hurt. If you bristle at being asked to control your tone of voice due to factors beyond your control, well, I’m sympathetic: Nobody likes being drafted against their will into a culture of violence. We’ve been drafted into it too, but as the victims instead of the perpetrators. It’s a deep injustice to everyone that disproportionately kills one side.
When I stopped blubbering and explained to my boyfriend why my response was so out of proportion, he was so alarmed that he promised not to raise his voice again. I was worried that I was asking too much—but in the year since, he actually hasn't. That doesn't mean we haven't had respectful disagreements; it just means that he now understands that his anger has more cultural weight behind it than he'd realized before. I put up my visor, he blunts his sword, and we avoid accidentally blundering into one another.
What can men do, if they’re just now learning that they cause more fear than they know? Speak more quietly than you think you have to; learn to express negative emotions with precision rather than volume. Listen to women about our personal and cultural trauma, and don’t automatically blame us for it. And learn to love how we look in our armor, because it’s the most naked we’ll ever be.