I've been seeing individuals of all ages in my consultation room for over 25 years. I hear about all kinds of emotionally distressing situations that are due to a variety of triggers, but one of the greatest sources of pain is being cut off by family members. Regardless of the reasons, people who are cut off feel shame, confusion, stress, and sometimes even depression and a feeling of being disempowered. This is particularly the case if no explanation is provided for the cutoff. Relatives may cut each other off for months, years, and sometimes even a lifetime with little to no explanation.
The following are some of the most frequent reasons why a relative is likely to cut another off, or to freeze them out of the family fold. This is not an exhaustive list. I am also not suggesting that cut-offs are healthy. Please keep that in mind as I enter this confusing set of family dynamics that go so dreadfully awry.
Some families have a history of cutting off members when they are disappointed, angry, or experiencing other less-than-pleasant emotions toward them. Perhaps you witnessed your mother do this to her mother-in-law while you were growing up. You then learn that cutting off relatives is an option, and you may follow suit when feeling similarly disenchanted by someone in your family circle. We all learn from what we see modeled at home.
2. Power and Control
In all families, there are dominant and less-than-dominant members. The dominant may lead the family in cutting off a relative simply to exert their high level of power and control. Where do you think kids learn about the playground dynamics of bullying? Bullies are often exerting the same modes of power and control on display in their homes.
Sometimes family members simply get exhausted and depleted by a relative. They may feel that they have put up with certain behaviors for too long, and they may feel hopeless that things can change. They may start by phasing out a relative and then handily place this person on the "do not interact with" list. Everyone has their own pain tolerance level and can only handle so much.
4. Rewriting Narratives
There are all kinds of family members who know a lot about your history and younger self. Perhaps you don't want to be reminded of your past. How do you go about rewriting your history and changing your narrative? One way is to shut out the family members who know all about your past. Eliminate them from your life, and you can rewrite your story without anyone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag. Avoid that relative, and your past is more likely to be left right where you feel it belongs—in the past.
Some of you are likely forced into a situation where you have to choose between a child from a former marriage or a new partner. Or maybe you are feeling coerced into choosing between a parent or a spouse. These are dreadful situations, but you all know someone who has been in this position. Common? Yes. Easy? Certainly not.
6. Perceived Slights
Sometimes a set of misunderstandings occur between relatives. If they don't get discussed, then can build up, and eventually break down relationships. It is tragic that such build-ups lead to breakdowns. I have never been a fan of avoidance, but for many discussion is synonymous with confrontation, and so avoidance is the unfortunate choice.
Financial issues are often the source of relationship difficulties. Money may not always be able to buy love, but it sure can lead to lots of bad feelings. Consider the dynamics of a family dividing an inheritance, or what often happens when families go into business together.
8. Caring for Elderly or Sick Parents
Do you want to see a family disintegrate? Watch what happens when a set of siblings try to share the responsibilities involved in taking a sick parent to medical appointments and/or visit an elderly parent who can no longer take full care of himself or herself. There are certainly families that come together and handle these sorts of situations beautifully, but this is also high on the list of reasons that relatives get disenchanted with one another.
Unfortunately, many people have been emotionally and/or physically abused by relatives. This damage cannot necessarily be repaired. In many, but not all, of these cases, cutoffs will be the result of a lengthy set of painful interactions.
10. Lack of Elasticity
Some families simply lack what I like to refer to as elasticity. They lack the ability to recover from difficulties and, like a rubber band, snap when stretched too far.
It is my hope and work as a clinical psychologist to help families discuss differences and mend fences. There are times, however, when there is so much history and damage that there is little desire and energy to repair relationships. It is my job to help individuals understand their role in family cutoffs, either as the person who is cut off or the one who has initiated the cutoff. Good luck to everyone as you try to understand your particular set of family dynamics.
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