Emotional isolation is traumatizing for human beings. You’re not wired for it; it’s a danger cue for your nervous system. — Dr. Sue Johnson
The issue in intimate relationships, partnerships, marriages that are in distress, says Dr. Sue Johnson, is not that there is conflict. It’s that the conflict is occurring in a milieu of emotional disconnect.
Some call it “the silent treatment,” “playing games,” “the cold shoulder,” or “shutting down” but they’re all the same—punishment. How, instead of punishing, can we meet the “danger cue” of disappointment, of hurt with forgiveness? How do we keep the emotional connection—that is, the trust—between us, even in the midst of conflict?
How interesting, someone pointed out last night in the midst of a medium-salsa-hot discussion about the hotly discussed American Dirt, that two rising movements are prison abolition movements and cancel culture. Interesting, that there is an urge for expansive forgiveness for those we realize are at the losing end of the power structures, while at the same time an unflinching un-forgiveness towards those who have or achieve some measure of platform or power and misuse it, misbehave, or make a sincere misstep.
Having developed a recent and severe allergy towards simplification, I hesitate to say that there’s anything worthwhile exploring any sort of comparison between the two cultural waves.
Except, perhaps, we are realizing that, on one hand, the systems of punishment we have are indeed punishment as Dr. Johnson defines in in relationship—an act of retaliation (born from our own instinctual animal brains, our natural or remembered fears, or our wounds) that doesn’t leave open the possibility for reintegration or reconciliation, but simply a punishment that perpetuates the trauma of social isolation.
And, on the other hand, we have realized that there are those whose abuses of power have escaped accountability, and the righteous online mobs try to hold them accountable. We have, maybe, not gotten any closer to reconciling among ourselves, we’ve just redirected the punishment. It’s not a true or complete solution. But the solution maybe is perhaps something that takes place on much smaller levels.
Subsidiarity is the least sexy tenet of Catholic Social Teaching, and it’s the one most often used (in America) to argue against any action of the Fed. But I think what it means, in this particular context, is that whatever mending can be done has to be done today, in this small space between you and your neighbor—the one next to you, who you are punishing. And that, in this case, the polis really is built of small acts of forgiveness, the emotional connection that springs from our deepest relationships of trust. Without these, we cannot live with our neighbor, we can’t even live with ourselves.