‘Just don’t think about it,’ ‘Stiff upper lip is best,’ What the mind doesn’t know the heart won’t grieve over’ and more recently ‘If you don’t know vote no.’ These expressions encourage us to ignore past hurts and wrongs which continue to haunt individuals, couples, families, and countries. They are the cause of distress which will not magically go away and will be passed down through generations. They are responsible for great pain and are often the reason people seek help. What are the constraints against speaking freely about the past?
Inside Constraints for the Person who has been Hurt
One solution to unbearable hurt and the negation of reality is to ‘forget.’ This may occur in those hurt as children who may report a total absence of memory before a particular age. Living in a dangerous, uncertain world where terrible acts are framed as normal and attempts to speak are punished, quickly teaches children to quarantine these memories. Revisiting distress, aloneness, confusion, and despair is often a dangerous process leading a person to wish to die rather than re-experience. There is also the process of reworking meaning attached to key events. Not only may a person have repeatedly been told that they deserve punishment or abusive conduct is normal, but this is processed through the lens of a child who easily believes they are culpable. Subsequent relationships in adulthood which continue to reinforce the original message which embed silence.
Inside Constraints for those who Caused Hurt
It is brave to face the truth when a person has hurt others, and it may be easier to avoid difficult subjects than attempt to understand. A person may take comfort in a belief that because it is never spoken, the matter has been forgotten and ‘we can just move on.’ Shame and guilt attached to acknowledging the past and beliefs that speaking will fracture the relationship further also promote avoidance. Fear of the consequences of admitting responsibility, punishment, shame, and public humiliation all promotes silence. Relinquishing power and truly allowing those who have been hurt to have a voice requires trust and courage.
Speaking freely about events that have occurred in a relationship can be difficult where one person has repeatedly negated the other’s reality to the extent that they no longer trust their perception and recall of events. There may be an established pattern where openly sharing thoughts and feelings is met with derision, aggression, and assertions that they are lying or attempting to manipulate.
Another constraint applies where a person chooses silence as way of asserting control where no other way of exercising authority appears possible. An inability or unwillingness to leave the relationship may make this seem the safest option.
Others may struggle to speak but at the first sign of conflict become frightened, immobilized, and inarticulate. This may be a function of learning in the family of origin where disagreement preceded dangerous conflict or relate directly to experience in a current relationship. For the partner it is impossible to tell if the silence is deliberate and further evidence of lack of care or signals genuine difficulty. Experiencing silence as deliberate obstruction will fuel attempts to speak and entrench avoidance.
And for a Nation?
A nation is not a couple or family but the current debate about an indigenous voice to parliament raises some of the same issues. It has required Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to speak of past abuses and current disadvantage and their hopes for a different future to people who are not necessarily sympathetic. It calls on the heirs to the dominant culture that took the land to face the hurt and anger of the dispossessed and their own shame, guilt, and ignorance. It means acknowledging that the hurt is not in the past but continues. People on both sides retreat into silence. Whatever the outcome, we will need to talk, about treaty, sovereignty, a shared future, and shameful past. There is no other positive way forward.