The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Cutoff: The challenge of the parent/child relationship

Authored by John Bell, M. Div.

“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” Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 383.

Phillip Klever, LCSW, LMFT recently published the results of a fifteen-year research project on cutoff in the family.  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.

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.

Reprinted from a blog post by John Bell, M.Div. Use link below for access to the full post




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