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Relationships

Cut Off and Cut Out: Healing Disrupted Family Relationships

Cutting people out may curb meaningful connections long-term.

Key points

  • Cutting others off, as we've seen in the British Royal Family and perhaps our own, often has its roots in past generations.
  • Extreme distancing can give a false sense of resolution, which can impair future relationships when left unresolved.
  • Cutting out others when we face difficulty means other relationships may become more intense.

The world cheered this week when brothers William and Harry, grandsons of Queen Elizabeth II, reunited to pay tribute to her, their granny in a Windsor walkabout.

Seeing them together again after many public years apart inspires hope during a time of mourning and loss. Privately, joining together takes strength of courage and conviction. Surely, accepting flowers and tributes, as well as walking behind their grandmother’s coffin brought back painful memories of their mother, Princess Diana’s passing.

We are not privy to the royal family's private concerns, nor perhaps should we be. Rest assured, they are a family like all others.

"Cutoff" is actually a family systems term describing a direct or indirect withdrawal from a relationship or emotional familial connection. It’s a concept that explains how people manage (or don’t) unresolved issues with parents, siblings, or others within a family.

When people do stay in touch but avoid sensitive topics that stall growth and understanding, problems go underground in this form of cutoff. The issues fester and bubble up in their intensity. Typically cutoff occurs by reduced contact, which people believe will lead to less stress. That is not typically the result.

Out of sight, out of mind may be the cliché one relies upon, but those who study family systems know that cutoff can drive continued anxiety much more than curing it. Cutoff also affects the strength of relationships moving forward. Broken bonds can often find interesting patterns buried in one’s family past.

“When people reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, they risk making their new relationships too important,” according to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. The Center’s website explains that while new relationships are smooth at first, the patterns people have tried to escape actually emerge to generate unrealistic expectations or needs that weren’t met before; in other words, tension.1

In It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, Mark Wolynn writes that blame is the conventional path that troubled families become mired in. Yet, when they repair, understand, and possibly reframe relationships, they can be at peace.

“Broken relationships often stem from painful events in our family history and can repeat for generations until we summon the courage to let go of our judging minds, open our constricted hearts, and regard our parents and other family members with the light of compassion,” he writes.2

Mapping Cutoff in a Family’s History

Monica McGoldrick was the lead author of Genograms, a book that includes intriguing insights and visual depiction of patterns such as cutoffs in many famous families.3 The precedents of cutoff and triangles (another systems concept)4 have “an extraordinarily long history within the Royal Family, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the next generations,” she writes.

Of particular interest to those who watched The Crown may be the section that explores how Victorian rigidity and rules influenced subsequent generations, such as King George V (Queen Elizabeth II's grandfather), who refused to even meet with someone who was divorced.

His son, King Edward VIII (known as Uncle David), abdicated the throne in order to marry a twice-divorced American and was essentially cut off from the British Royal Family as they lived in exile for the rest of their lives. Thus, “the triangles of Diana and Charles became involved in were part of a much longer story," explains the authors of Genograms.

Finding a therapist who understands family systems and their impact on present and future unions can lead to better interpersonal outcomes. Clients can map their family relationship history as part of in-session work or do so out-of-session, with book recommendations or handouts provided.

It’s never too late to learn the concepts described here. One of my favorite recommendations to clients is Extraordinary Relationships, in which Roberta Gilbert, M.D., writes, “Because the emotional systems of cut-off people tend to be smaller, the relationships they do have are more intense.”5 This means that if you don’t figure out things with your family of origin, the anxiety may seep into your current relationships because it has fewer places to go.

The cutoff is known as the extreme distance approach. Of course, emotional or physical distancing may be necessary when there’s danger of abuse, harassment, and/or violence, which should never be tolerated.

Yet, as we therapists see all too often, clients overuse words such as "dysfunctional" or "toxic" when they would be better served to roll up their sleeves and do the work to improve a relationship. It’s that heavy lifting that people frequently avoid with an excuse, or blame the one from whom they choose to distance.

Next time you think of choosing to separate yourself from a family member, remember the concept of cutoff and all that broaching it offers for satisfying relationships now and in the future.

References

1. thebowencenter.org/emotional-cutoff

2. Didnt-Start-with-You-eBook

3. Genogram-Book

4. thebowencenter.org/triangles

5. loriannoberlin.com/books

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