The Sound of Silence: The Effects of Suppression, Emotional Illiteracy, and Lack of Self-Awareness in Scenes from a Marriage

There is a famous lyric Paul Simon croons out with Art Garfunkel, bemoaning the stealthily infectious nature of suppression in society. “Silence like a cancer grows,” they warn, “…no one dared disturb the sound of silence.” It is this silence that represents the conscious restraint dutifully exercised by Swedish couple Marianne and Johan. We are introduced to their marriage at a point in their lives in which the years of false calm and emotional regulation have disintegrated into mutually eroding, pent-up dissatisfaction. This societally dictated, yet self-enforced dispassion spreads in Marianne and Johan, affecting every aspect of their lives, not just their dyadic conflicts, which are often left unresolved. In his six-episode series, Scenes from a Marriage, director Ingmar Bergman offers a close-up examination of the deterioration of their confrontation-fearful marriage, establishing the concepts of emotional suppression, emotional illiteracy, and lack of self-awareness as the root of the couple’s estrangement. Set in 1970s Sweden, Scenes chronicles a marriage in the midst of a cultural shift in Western society. “In place of the old norms of self-sacrifice, avoidance of conflict, and rigid gender roles, there were ideals of self-development, open communication of negative and positive feelings, intimacy, and more flexible roles. This trend toward individualism, emotional expression, and androgyny is documented by research on the mass media, surveys of public opinion, and other studies” (Cancian, Gordan). For Marianne and Johan, the silence of their suppression becomes something deadly—a drain of vitality which limits the very fullness of their life and their defining sense of self. Scenes spans a tumultuous decade of their relationship, together and apart, as one succumbs to this silence and the other overcomes it, ultimately subscribing to the idea of marriage defined not by self-sacrifice, but self-fulfillment. Director Bergman once said, “In this country, we are afraid of our anger.” Accordingly, the tension plays out between Marianne and Johan through passive aggressive comments and their exercise of “heroic silences,” rather than directly addressing issues. The first episode is titled, “The Art of Sweeping Things under the Rug,” in which much miscommunication arises due to their aversion to aggression. Marianne and Johan’s self-suppression is a continuation of their childhood experience with societal suppression—they now obediently play out their assigned gender roles, making up the contemporary behemoth—the professional couple. At one point, Marianne says quietly, “I wish we weren’t forced to play all these roles we don’t want to play.” The two are constantly shown discussing their mothers and taking into account the reactions of their families and friends before making their decisions together. Marianne claims she suffers from a maternal persecution complex. Later on, when Johan unexpectedly leaves Marianne for Paula, Marianne worries what they will tell those around them; Johan finally explodes and says to tell them the truth—that he has left her like a coward. He complains bitterly and wearily that he no longer cares what society thinks. He is sick of the obligations in living with her, the roles they have to fulfill; he is overwhelmed and deadened by the immense responsibilities in their lives and in one extreme move, packs up and leave with his secret lover, Paula, who represents a freedom from societal restraint. Johan’s drastic measure reveals the intensity of the basic human need to communicate—particularly for Western societies. Research shows that the benefits of expression (and the negative effects of suppression) on cognitive functioning are tied to the respective cultural value placed on self-expression (Kim, Sherman). “Research on culture and social support shows that European Americans more frequently use and benefit from talking about their thoughts and feelings with close others in seeking social support compared with Asian Americans. What is expressed…implicates the self for people from the European American cultural context because they live and participate in a cultural context in which internal attributes define who they are.” This constant suppression leads to a theme of detachment that Bergman references throughout the film, suggesting that suppression of emotional expression can lead to a deadening of senses and a loss of connection with reality and life. Their suppression, or silence “like a cancer grows,” trickling into every aspect of their daily lives and careers, affecting their passion toward everything, not just marriage. Marianne begins losing touch with herself; her lack of intensity leads to a dulled perception of reality, causing her to feel as though she is not truly living. This dull ache is brought to the forefront when Marianne and Johan are juxtaposed with their best friends—the violently, passionately alive Katarina and Peter. Later, Marianne ruminates, “We’re pitiful, self-indulgent cowards that can’t connect with reality and are ashamed of ourselves. There’s no affection, joy, or love in our lives.” Marianne, a divorce lawyer, later finds her words expounded upon by Mrs. Jacobi, one of her clients, who contemplates aloud—“The life I’ve led has stifled my potential [to love]. Something peculiar is happening. My senses are starting to fail me…” Like Marianne, Jacobi feels that she has never been truly alive, and now, her senses are atrophying as well as her emotions. Jacobi visibly distresses Marianne by making mortality suddenly a very real and looming concept. The extent of the effect of emotional suppression on Marianne can be seen as particularly damaging once historically grounded. “In the Western cultural tradition, expression of thoughts, preferences, and feelings is considered to be a way to express one’s selfhood, and thus, freedom of expression becomes a powerful sign of individual freedom. Self-expression…is defined as ‘assertion of one’s individual traits.’ Consequently, one important aspect of individualism is called ‘expressive individualism,’ in which individuals express their inner thoughts and feelings in order to realize their individuality” (Kim, Sherman). Marianne’s inability to express herself is thus intimately tied to her freedom of choice (or lack thereof), and the series opens at a point in Marianne’s life where she is starting to realize her loss of self in an overwhelming and terrifying way. During several instances, Johan also makes references which reveal a conscious effort to detach himself in order to overcome life’s obstacles—“If I dwelt on it…I might be paralyzed by fear,” “You need to put a lot of effort into not caring,” “Let’s have a pleasant time and not focus on life’s injustices.” In a short-lived disagreement, Marianne pointedly asks Johan, “You never want to finish discussions, do you?” Yet Johan’s tendency to avoid pressing issues is subtly revealed in Marianne as well. More than once, she gets a sudden urge to travel and begs with Johan to escape all their problems for a while. The beginning episodes are scattered with several such foreboding hints toward the instability lurking beneath the marriage’s forcedly peaceful façade. Marianne and Johan have subscribed to the early 20th century beliefs that “marriage means self-discipline,” or that “the first rule for a loving marriage is ‘to please the one I have chosen,’” as seen in a sample of marital advice articles from 1900-1979 studied by sociologists Cancian and Gordan. Interestingly enough, a later article in the 1970s (during which Scenes takes place) argues that such a marriage “leaves no breathing space for two individuals to retain their own personalities.” Nonetheless, most marital articles in the 1970s “still encouraged self-sacrifice more than self-development and still assumed that women were responsible for maintaining a loving relationship.” Women were (and continue to be) socialized to a complex emotional culture through such media, which introduced and enforced norms of emotional expression and cultural constraints. In the fourth episode, Marianne reflects, “I wish that for once in my life I could really just lose my temper. It would really change my life. I’m just on the verge of tears.” Later on, during a violent confrontation, she finally erupts, “When I think about what I endured, I could scream!” She bitterly recounts to Johan the quiet desperation of her life, and the impossible burden of society’s demands and expectations. She is brutally honest, once on a roll, declaring to the broken Johan how it is a “goddamn relief to finally say this to [his] face.” The series implies that an extended surrender of expression is an equivalent loss of humanity, and that long-suppressed aggressions must inevitably boil to surface. As Marianne wearily says afterward, “If there’s one thing I appreciate, it’s being alive. We’re almost human.” The result of this silencing suppression is an emotional illiteracy, or Johan’s term for their lack of emotional intelligence, which undermines the characters’ efforts the few times they actually attempt to reconcile their differences. To Marianne, “sometimes it’s like husband and wife are talking on telephones that are out of order.” At one point, Johan reflects on their lack of education in emotion, realizing their ignorance in emotional intelligence obstructs their earnest attempts at conciliation—“We’re emotional illiterates. We’ve been taught about anatomy and farming methods in Africa. We’ve learned mathematical formulas by heart. But we haven’t been taught a thing about our souls. We’re tremendously ignorant about what makes people tick.” His discontent suggests that this marital arrangement of self-sacrifice and self-suppression adversely affected the male spouse as well.Johan’s affair with the volatile, hugely jealous Paula “[teaches him] how to fight” and “how to talk,”—emphasizing that only through expressing disagreements and anger can a couple grow in compatibility and intimacy. “It is inevitable that spouses will act against each other’s desires and interests fairly frequently, since their partner’s desires will often be unknown or will conflict with their own” (Cancian, Gordon). Such lessons in emotional intelligence for both Johan and Marianne gradually edify their ability to connect thoughts to emotions, helping them “better ‘hear’ the emotional implications of their own thoughts, as well as understand the feelings of others from what they say” (Mayer; Geher). Late in the series, Marianne discusses marital conflicts for the first time with her mother, who admits how she and Marianne’s father kept silent rather than address their issues, instead waiting till their forgot their differences. They never nursed their differences. A 1977 article, “The Varieties of Intimacy,” speaks to Marianne’s mother’s longings, arguing that “how intimate a couple is…depends on how they ‘negotiate’ the difference between their individual desires” (Cancian, Gordon). Marianne’s mother describes the marriage as entering a contract entirely in her husband’s favor, and how from that, she would at times hate him for his advantage. Like Marianne, her mother feels that she has entered a contract of (primarily female) self-sacrifice. Yet, she also muses that the silence was hard on Marianne’s father, “a vibrant personality,” again insinuating that this oppressive marital setup takes its heavy toll on both parties—across generations. Personal maturity and self-understanding, or “know thyself,” are concepts often cited by marital therapists as integral to marital success (Gottman & Notarius). It is this private self-consciousness which brings about greater self-disclosure resulting from “heightened self-attention” (Young). By the fifth episode, failures in his career have led Johan to see himself as “a deadweight, an inconvenience, an unproductive, expensive unit.” He believes the professional world to have no use for his technical skills, and cannot adapt fast enough at this point—“I’m so goddamn tired.” While reminiscing with Marianne, Johan shares his analysis of their marital failures—“Every domicile place is only temporary—security must come from within. Material things were so important, we became dependent on rituals. Our sense of security was anchored in externals.” Yet, with the security from both his public and private life eroded, Johan finds himself struggling with his self-awareness. “I hardly know who I am. Someone spat on me and now I’m drowning in the spittle.” He realizes he has no sense of self to hold on to in the face of setbacks, and instead, begins losing track of himself and finds it overwhelmingly difficult to maintain resilience. In previous scenes, he explains his admiration for Paula, who lives for her passion; it fills the emptiness inside her. Johan feels that he lacks this raison d’être—“I want something to long for.” He lacks this self-defining passion to give meaning to his existence. “You find yourself expressing thoughts to fend off the emptiness inside. Has it ever struck you how much emptiness hurts? This void inside me is physically painful…it stings like a burn. Or like when you were a child and you had just been crying, and the whole inside of your body aches.” Thus Johan fades away more and more so, whereas Marianne, through several waves of self-realization, gradually attains a strong sense of emancipation and self-awareness—the latter of which brings about a newfound verve for life, and a discovery of her own greatness. While looking back at old photographs, Marianne experiences a huge self-realization which will jumpstart her unstoppable growth through the remainder of the series. It is here, in paging through her past, that she realizes in her entire life she never knew who she was. It is here, as the camera peruses through sad-eyed memories, that Marianne’s voiceover finally puts into words an understanding of her character as a product of her upbringing. In this scene, Marianne’s self-analysis verbalizes and encapsulates the resigned human spirit that both she and the audience discerned from the beginning, but had never fully diagnosed until now. As Marianne examines and ruminates on her past, the impact of her childhood begins to dawn on her—she always did what she was told, was well-adjusted, almost meek. She recalls asserting herself once or twice and being punished for any lapse from convention—“life thwarts a small child’s attempts to assert itself.” She quickly learned to be agreeable and predictable; conditioned by the weight of society, she found that such behavior yielded rewards. There was nothing she thought about more than sex, yet she never showed it, not for her entire adolescence. She believes she succumbed to guilt, and let herself be brainwashed. She laments her forgone dream of going into the world of theatre—she gave it up when she was laughed at for wanting to be an actress. She never led a dramatic life. She bemoans societal upbringing as “the constant erosion of your personality,” and worries aloud if she is hopelessly lost; if it is too late. She grew up in “that snug world, taking everything for granted,” but there’s an “implied cruelty” in the safety and convention of their childhood—an oppression. While sharing her epiphany with Johan, Marianne laments having never broken free of their families, and though she believes they may have had true love, she regrets accepting society’s rules to regulate it. Suddenly, she is realizing that love is not enough, that “romantic attraction, good intentions, and happiness in courtship” are not “sufficient foundations for marriage” (Nielsen, Pinsof). Marianne later questions whether her failure to reject this repressive, self-sacrificing contract of marriage prevented her from truly, fully experiencing love, and she regrets not having lived a relationship on her own terms sooner. “Sometimes it grieves me that I’ve never loved anyone. I think that I’ve never been loved either. It distresses me.” She states that she lived a false life on society’s dictated terms, putting on an act, faking all her relationships with men so far, aiming only to please, only ever thinking, “What does he want me to want?” It was not even unselfishness, she berates herself, but cowardice—stemming from her fear to discover and establish her identity in the face of others. She realizes she accepted “the cultural definition of love as service to the other, through obliteration of individual rights and desires” (Cancian, Gordon). Marianne ruminates on playing a role not indicative of her individuality. By subscribing to “the ‘proper’ experience and expression of emotion” of her time—suppressing her anger and accepting the definition of love as self-sacrifice—she has allowed societal rules to reinforce her powerlessness, and impede her self-actualization. Such conventional restraints rendered her “plain” and “not fired up,” and yet now, she confesses to Johan, for the first time, she is excited by the prospect of living truthfully, and finding out exactly what she wants in life. Now, empowered to develop true emotional and social independence, she cannot help but wonder what could have been, had she taken advantage of her resources from the start, maximizing her potential as she should have. This marks the beginning of Marianne’s discovery of her own limitless potential and life’s possibilities, a gateway opened by her rejection of societally perceived boundaries. In defining marriage on her own terms, Marianne follows a Western trend of the late 1960s and 1970s, in which “women’s autonomy and assertion were encouraged by the new conception of love as an open expression of feelings and marriage as a partnership in self-development” (Cancion, Gordon). As Strindberg (oft quoted in Bergman’s films) once said, “I dream, therefore I am.” Throughout the film, Bergman seems to emphasize that those who do not have dreams of greatness beyond themselves are not actually alive. Scenes is ultimately a contemplation on what it means to truly, fully live. During the last episode, Marianne signs the divorce papers, and echoes a line from the first episode, saying to Johan that they must cast aside their masks and refuse to play the parts others have assigned to them. She explains how she has been constrained by society, having had the limits of her life and opportunities dictated to her. These sentiments are reflected in a 1973 article in Reader’s Digest, explaining women’s dissatisfaction with marriage as “they are finding it harder and harder to accept their illogically subordinate role, harder to sacrifice their fulfillment to that of their husbands” (Cancion, Gordon). Now, newly empowered, Marianne confesses how tempted she is to return to Johan—back to what she knows, the safe familiarity of their traditional marriage & lifestyle—but she doesn’t want to be tempted into the safe past again, not when there is so much to be gained in her independent, emancipated future. To Marianne, there is still a very palpable fear of falling back into her old ways—those constrained by suppression, illiteracy, and unawareness. She urges Johan to live his own life, to follow her example and free himself from the past and then start a new life on his own terms. Relishing in her self-possession, Marianne exults to her former husband, “We’ve discovered ourselves. Think of what awareness we’ve gained. I persevere. I enjoy myself. I rely on common sense and my gut feeling. Time has given me a third partner: experience.” Works CitedScenes from a Marriage. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. 1974. DVD. Criterion, 2004. Cancian, Francesca M., and Gordon, Steven L. “Changing Emotion Norms in Marriage: Love and Anger in US Women’s Magazines since 1900.” Gender and Society 2.3 (1988): 305-342.Geher, Glenn, and Mayer, John D. “Emotional Intelligence and the Identification of Emotion.” Intelligence 22 (1996): 89-113Gottman, J., & Notarius, C. “Marital research in the 20th century and a research agenda for the 21st century.” Family Process, 41. (2002): 159-297Gross, James J., and Richards, Jane M. “Emotion Regulation and Memory: The Cognitive Costs of Keeping One’s Cool.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79.3 (2000): 410-424. Kim, Heejung S., and Sherman, David K. “‘Express Yourself’”: Culture and the Effect of Self-Expression on Choice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92.1 (2007): 1-11Young, Richard D. “The Effects of Private Self-Consciousness and Perspective Taking on Satisfaction in Close Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48.6 (1985): 1584-1594