Banished Anger: Unconscious Punishment and the Silent Treatment

Freud has fallen out of favor in most intellectual and therapeutic circles, in part because he has become more associated with his wackier theories (penis envy?) than those that have become absorbed into our bedrock understanding of how people work. Like many seminal theories that someone had to actually arrive at, those that have become assimilated into our basic assumptions about life are no longer seen as momentous contributions; they now seem rather obvious, the air we breathe. This is the case with Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, the basic idea that we are largely unaware of the internal forces that shape many of our emotional states and govern much of our behavior.

In the therapy groups I run, in the marriages I treat, in the therapy relationships I’m a part of, and in all my own personal relationships, I see again and again how we are unaware of what truly compels many of our behaviors, and how often we impact others in ways we would not consciously have chosen.

Often even we are unaware of the extent of our most energetic drives, such as aggression. When we are told by someone we care about “I am feeling X because you are doing Y,” we may sincerely deny the full extent of our role in the dynamic, because even if we can recognize that we might be doing Y, we might not at all recognize that, unconsciously, we are doing Y precisely so that we might induce X in the person we feel not just a need to defend against, but also some shadowy desire to injure. That is, we might have no conscious relationship at all to our own aggression. And the less conscious we are of our aggression, the more likely it is that the aggression will be expressed passively and ineffectively.

Ah, passive aggression. Everyone hates it, but it’s so commonly deployed. Why?

Other people can be quite scary. We have all been profoundly hurt by each other, and we all know that we will be hurt again. Obviously the psyche has a way of promoting behaviors designed to counter the threat of other people, particularly people with whom we feel the most vulnerable. What’s less obvious is that many of these behaviors are designed to counter the threat of others while simultaneously allowing us to retain a sense of ourselves that remains consistent with our self-concept. That is, we might behave in a way that is aggressive, that is hurtful to others, that shuts others out or shuts them down, but we might find a way to do it that would appear – not just to others, but to ourselves - to lack any aggression at all.

One particularly nasty example of this that I see often is the silent treatment, sometimes referred to as stonewalling. The silent treatment is an often unconscious – and particularly aggressive - form of passive punishment. Typically we deploy it when we are feeling wounded by some essential person in our lives; we might feel that that person has somehow broken our implicit contract (“you broke the terms of our engagement”), so in response we tear the contract up (“we no longer have any terms of engagement at all”). The silent treatment is particularly aggressive because it is particularly painful for the receiver, who becomes utterly erased in the transaction. In fact, the receiver is not even a receiver, since there is nothing to receive: where there was once presence there is now absence; where there was once something to engage there is now a vacuum; where there was once the assertion that “you did this” there is now the assertion that “you don’t exist.”

This vacuum can trigger in the person being shut out a kind of existential dread, particularly if the silent treatment is deployed by a spouse or, worse, from a parent towards a child. The silence communicates that “you don’t matter, I don’t need you, I have no desire to repair this.” It often induces in the recipient a primal fear of being ostracized, cast out, abandoned. 

So often though the person deploying the silent treatment, or some less egregious form of disengagement, feels they are taking the high road. They might justify the behavior by asserting that they remained cool, rational, above the fray; they removed themselves from the ugliness of the exchange rather than contribute to an escalation of the pain. And the point here is that such a person might truly believe this. In denying their desire to injure they might pass a lie detector with flying colors.

And yet beneath the rational and rationalizing mind is an animal instinct system that holds within it a capacity for tremendous aggression; a part of us that is utterly disinterested in nuance and instead sees the world in you vs. me, and when faced with a choice between you or me will choose me every time. I am not darkly asserting that this capacity is our essence, our core; I have however observed time after time that our essence, our core, contains this part alongside many others. It is a part that sufficiently frightens us, and that is sufficiently outside the boundaries of who we want to know ourselves to be, that we often relegate the expression of it to the unconscious, even when we are being faced with the fact of its expression in the form of some else’s hurt.

My call here, as it so often is, is towards awareness. Not uncommonly, as we become aware of the unconscious ways our aggression finds expression, we gain increasing control over how we behave with the people most important to us. What we feel and the behaviors we choose given those feelings are two completely different things. Awareness of our emotions and motivations itself often does little to change the power of our internal states; it does however empower us to choose more effective ways of expressing our hurt and anger, and ultimately of making our needs known. The more effectively we exhibit control over how we express ourselves, the more likely we are to signal to other people that we are safe, that they too can lower their more primitive defenses, and join us in the world of truly grown up people.