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Emotional Cutoff

The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. Emotional contact can be reduced by people moving away from their families and rarely going home, or it can be reduced by people staying in physical contact with their families but avoiding sensitive issues. Relationships may look "better" if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems are dormant and not resolved.

People reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, but risk making their new relationships too important. For example, the more a man cuts off from his family of origin, the more he looks to his spouse, children, and friends to meet his needs. This makes him vulnerable to pressuring them to be certain ways for him or accommodating too much to their expectations of him out of fear of jeopardizing the relationship. New relationships are typically smooth in the beginning, but the patterns people are trying to escape eventually emerge and generate tensions. People who are cut off may try to stabilize their intimate relationships by creating substitute "families" with social and work relationships.

Everyone has some degree of unresolved attachment to his or her original family, but well-differentiated people have much more resolution than less differentiated people. An unresolved attachment can take many forms. For example, (1) a person feels more like a child when he is home and looks to his parents to make decisions for him that he can make for himself, or (2) a person feels guilty when he is in more contact with his parents and that he must solve their conflicts or distresses, or (3) a person feels enraged that his parents do not seem to understand or approve of him. An unresolved attachment relates to the immaturity of both the parents and the adult child, but people typically blame themselves or others for the problems.

People often look forward to going home, hoping things will be different this time, but the old interactions usually surface within hours. It may take the form of surface harmony with powerful emotional undercurrents or it may deteriorate into shouting matches and hysterics. Both the person and his family may feel exhausted even after a brief visit. It may be easier for the parents if an adult child keeps his distance. The family gets so anxious and reactive when he is home that they are relieved when he leaves. The siblings of a highly cutoff member often get furious at him when he is home and blame him for upsetting the parents. People do not want it to be this way, but the sensitivities of all parties preclude comfortable contact.


Example:

Neither Michael nor Martha wanted to live near their families. When Michael got a good job offer on the East coast, both of them were eager to move east. They told their families they were moving away because of Michael's great job offer, but they welcomed the physical distance from their families. Michael felt guilty about living far away from his parents and his parents were upset about it, especially Michael's mother. Michael called home every weekend and managed to combine business trips with brief stays with his parents. He did not look forward to the phone calls and usually felt depressed after them. He felt as if his mother deliberately put him on "guilt trips" by emphasizing how poorly she was doing and how much she missed seeing him. She never failed to ask if his company could transfer him closer to home. It was much less depressing for Michael to talk to his father, but they talked mostly about Michael's job and what his Dad was doing in retirement.

[Analysis: Michael blamed his mother for the problems in their relationship and, despite his guilt, felt justified distancing from her. People commonly have a "stickier" unresolved emotional attachment with their mothers than with their fathers because the way a parental triangle usually operates is that the mother is too involved with the child and the father is in the outside position.] In the early years, Martha would sometimes participate in Michael's phone calls home but, as her problems mounted, she usually left the calls to Michael. Michael did not say much to his parents about Martha's drinking or about the tensions in their marriage. He would report on how the kids were doing. Michael, Martha, and the kids usually made one visit to Michael's parents each year. They did not look forward to the four days they would spend there, but Michael's mother thrived on having them. Martha never said anything to Michael's parents about her drinking or the marital tensions, but she talked at length about Amy to Michael's mother. Amy often developed middle ear infections during or soon after these trips.

[Analysis: Frequently one or more family members get sick leading up to, during, or soon after trips home. Amy was more vulnerable because of the anxious focus on her.] Martha followed a pattern similar to Michael's in dealing with her family. One difference was that her parents came east fairly often. When they came, Martha's mother would get more worried about Martha and critical of both her drinking and of how she was raising Amy. Martha dreaded these exchanges with her mother and complained to Michael for days after her parents returned home. Deep down, however, Martha felt her mother was right about her deficiencies. Martha's mother pumped Michael for information about Martha when Martha was reluctant to talk. Michael was all too willing to discuss Martha's perceived shortcomings with her mother.

[Analysis: Given the striking parallels between the unresolved issues in Michael's relationship with his family, Martha's relationship with her family, and the issues in their marriage, emotional cutoff clearly did not solve any problems. It simply shifted the problems to their marital relationship and to Amy.]


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