This blog highlights a presentation I recently gave at the Center for Family Consultation’s Winter Conference. It was on the nature of cutoff between parents and children.
We are all born into a relationship system and then spend the rest of our lives learning how to navigate it. Our behavior in the family is largely the outcome of automatic processes which are designed to help us manage the anxiety in the family. As anxiety increases, the behavior of other family members becomes a challenge. An automatic response is to distance from important others.
Institutions reinforce this behavior by encouraging individuals to keep a distance. Child protective services may remove children from families that are labeled as dangerous. Courts may restrain certain individuals from making contact with other people. Counselors may encourage clients to avoid certain people who engage in inappropriate behaviors. And clergy, who are leaving a congregation, may be told to refrain from contacting former parishioners. While most of these scenarios are temporary, some may become permanent, creating long-term consequences to one’s well-being.
We are social creatures with a limited capacity for isolation. A growing body of research confirms that there are negative health outcomes from isolation. Researchers like Steve Cole, John Capitanio, and John Cacioppo have shown that feelings of loneliness and the experience of isolation affects gene expression. In their study with rhesus macaques, genes affected by feelings of loneliness are ones associated with suppressing the inflammatory immune response system. With a compromised immune system, the experience of loneliness can lead to poorer health outcomes.
Researcher Stephen Suomi discovered that there is something else regulating the genes that suppress the immune system. In his research with rhesus macaques, Suomi found that the relationship system influenced the expression of genes and the behavior of the macaques. This research opens the door to the possibility that in humans (like other mammals) psychological, physical, and behavioral symptoms may be connected to challenges that occur in the family.
Murray Bowen researched families with schizophrenia. In his famous NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) study, he invited families with an adult child diagnosed with schizophrenia to live on a ward. He observed that human behavior was not so much the outcome of internal biological and chemical processes, but was influenced and motivated by a relationship process between parents and child. A concept he eventually called the nuclear family emotional process.
Bowen described how all behavior is part of a reciprocal, relationship process. Behavioral, psychological, and physical symptoms in an individual are the result of a disruption in the family. The individual with the problem is simply the symptom bearer of a larger relationship problem. We are responsible for what we do. But, Bowen observed how our automatic reactions to increased anxiety in the family make it challenging for individuals to be more responsible. As the level of anxiety increases, one’s behavior becomes more automatic. Cutting off from our family is an automatic response to heightened anxiety in the family.
“The life pattern of cutoffs is determined by the way people handle their unresolved emotional attachments to their parents. All people have some degree of unresolved emotional attachment to their parents. The lower the level of differentiation, the more intense the unresolved attachment. The concept deals with the way people separate themselves from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation. Much thought went into the selection of a term to best describe this process of separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying the importance of the parental family. However much cutoff may sound like informal slang, I could find no other term as accurate for describing the process. The therapeutic effort is to convert the cutoff into an orderly differentiation of a self from the extended family.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 382.
Phillip Klever recently published the results of a fifteen-year research project on cutoff in the family. [The article is not currently available for download. If you would like the link to the website for a future download, leave a comment below]. He studied the most extreme cases in his family of high symptomatology and low symptomatology. He found five couples on either end of the continuum of symptomatology (high and low), ten total, and studied them over a fifteen-year period.
Those in the high symptom category would on average have 2.14 health problems per person, they reported having 1-2 psychiatric problems, and were taking 1-5 medications per person. In the low symptom category on average there were .5 health problems per person, only 3 out of ten reported any psychiatric problems, and no medications were used to treat problems in the low symptom group. By year 15, four out of the five couples in the high symptom group were divorced. None of the couples in the low symptom groups experienced separation or divorce.
What’s striking about Klever’s research is the number of contacts individuals made with their extended family. Those in the low symptom group made more contacts to extended family members on average. Take for example aunts and uncles. Those in the high symptom group made, on average, 1.89 contacts per year to aunts or uncles. Those in the low symptom family made 7.77 contacts per year.
When looking at the number of cutoff relationships, high symptom families were cutoff from 42.7 percent of their extended family compared with 14.7 for low symptom families. Those with low symptoms were also more likely to attend funerals of family members and have more family members attend their wedding.
When parents and children cutoff from each other, it’s a problem. The emotional intensity that influenced the original cutoff between parent and child is now confined to the child who is isolated. When children are cutoff from parents, there are fewer places for the anxiety to go. With limited access to extended family, it is difficult for the child, who forms a new family unit with a spouse, to contain the level of emotional intensity they bring to this new relationship system. This child will more than likely marry someone with a similar level of intensity who may also be cutoff from their family. It is predictable that a child from the next generation will also cutoff from these parents, only to go on and repeat the pattern again.
“The more a nuclear family maintains some kind of viable emotional contact with the past generations, the more orderly and asymptomatic the life process in both generations” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 383.
There are many ways to address cutoff. Here are some ideas:
- Increase contact with more members of the family
- Develop more open, person-to-person relationships with each member of the family
- Become a more accurate observer of self and others
- Increase ability to recognize and control one’s emotional reactions in family triangles
- Learn more facts of functioning from the family history
- Become more objective
- Define principles, life goals, and beliefs and live by them
- Be more of a separate, well-defined self in relationship to other
- Learn to manage self while in close contact
- Work at differentiation of self in the relationship system
From some people, the thought of bridging cutoff makes no sense. The way they were treated can make it difficult to consider reconnecting. In the short-term, cutoff can make sense. But, long term, there are negative health outcomes for those who sustain cutoff from their family. In cases where bridging cutoff is a challenge, having a good coach can make a difference.
Having viable contact is about reducing anxiety by being in better contact with the family. Viable contact alone is not differentiation. However, it provides a path for the slow work of developing differentiation of self. Viable contact is about knowing and being interested in important others. At the same time, it provides an avenue for working on differentiation of self. It’s about learning to respect the thinking of others without defending, attacking, or disengaging while at the same time representing self to others.
Working on bridging cutoff can lead to open, viable, one to one relationships with important others, an increased ability to have a manageable number of life stresses, awareness of one’s level of anxiety, and the ability to self-manage one’s reaction to stress as one moves forward in pursuing life goals.