Silence: Contemporary relational and Freudian perspectives

Each contributor will offer his or her reflective meditations on silence in the analytic encounter

By Jill Salberg
Can we speak about what cannot be heard but only experienced? Can we capture silence in the clinical work (a firefly perhaps) and portray it in writing? This discussion is an outgrowth of a not-quite-formulated idea of Melinda Gellman’s. She had noticed that silence as a topic of interest or concern has seemed to drop out of the psychoanalytic conversation that we have with each other at meetings and in journal articles. In conceptualizing this roundtable she wanted to ponder this with a group of analysts who represent many differing theoretical positions and to put them in dialogue with each other. Each contributor will offer his or her reflective meditations on silence in the analytic encounter. They have written brief but illuminating essays, each one capturing some aspect of the experience of silence, its presence, its absence, and some of the interplay thereof.

Our field has generated many theories, and along with these approaches, it has developed stereotypes. I would like to make a brief mention of these stereotypes and suggest that our panel today will redress some of these, hoping to reinvigorate intellectual conversation. The topic of analytic silence might bring to mind the caricature of the silent Freudian analyst, neither speaking nor answering questions. It might also include the Kleinian analyst, who is always interpreting and talking. And not just any talk, but specifically about breasts and penises and devouring and ripping apart with greedy destructiveness or deep despair over injuring the beloved—a definitely not so silent analyst. The Kohutian self psychology analyst is mirroring and reflecting back to the patient what feels far less like talking, perhaps rephrasing or returning a kind of recognition of what the patient has been saying. Then there is the caricature of the relational analyst, also often talking and enacting and self-disclosing, all while engaging the patient. No wonder we may be missing a bit of silence around here!

How accurate are any of these stereotypes? Like anything in life, there is a grain of truth to all of the characterizations, with each one capturing some of the paradox about the benefits and dilemmas in all analytic encounters.

As an introduction to the panel, I want to recall something about our early ancestors, specifically Freud and Ferenczi. I believe that silence for Freud was perhaps not as harsh a boundary as some later analysts from the postwar generation would have had us believe. In my reading of Freud I find him surprisingly unorthodox, weaving silence into the warp and weft of the fabric of the talking cure. He will ask patients to say whatever comes into their minds, but then can easily have a long conversation with them about some point he finds interesting and important. Here is but one example from his analysis, in 1933–1934, of the poet H.D., Hilda Doolittle. She writes,

The Professor himself is uncanonical enough; he is beating with his hand, with his fist, on the head-piece of the oldfashioned horsehair sofa…Consciously, I was not aware of having said anything that might account for the Professor’s outburst. And even as I veered around, facing him, my mind was detached enough to wonder if this was some idea of his for speeding up the analytic content or redirecting the flow of associated images. The Professor said, “The trouble is—I am an old man—you do not think it worth your while to love me.” (1956, p.21)

I want to counterpose this with Ferenczi, who refers to himself as an enfant terrible (p.127) in his essay “Child Analysis in the Analysis of Adults” (1931). In this essay he starts by defending Freud from accusations of orthodoxy by opponents of psychoanalysis. Ferenczi embodied paradox, writing first, “I urged the patient to deeper relaxation and more complete surrender to the impressions, tendencies, and emotions which quite spontaneously arose in him (p.129).” But then a few lines later he announces, “Now in certain cases it transpired that the analyst’s cool, expectant silence, and his failure to manifest any reaction had the effect of disturbing the freedom of association (p.129).” My sense is that Ferenczi was, without overtly stating as such, arguing for flexibility and freedom in the analyst’s relationship with silence and with speech.

We can see a disruption in our caricatures: Freud is quite noisy, pounding his fist and beseeching his patient, while Ferenczi, in many ways the birth mother of enactments, can either proffer a cool waiting silence or acknowledge its limits.


Doolittle, H.D. (1956). Tribute to Freud. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Ferenczi, S. (1931). Child analysis in the analysis of adults. In M. Balint (Ed.) Final Contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis (pp.126-142). London, UK: Hogarth Press.

About the Author

Jill Salberg is faculty and clinical consultant at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She has written on Freud, gender, termination and the intersection of psychoanalysis and Jewish studies. She is a contributor and the editor of the book Good Enough Endings: Breaks, Interruptions and Terminations from Contemporary Relational Perspectives.