April 2014: Broaching a Relationship Cut-off: Two Recent Stories

Emotional cutoff refers to the process of reactively separating, isolating, withdrawing, running away from or denying the importance of a family or other life-defining relationship. Cutoff typically gets expressed by “not speaking” to another for an extended period of time, and/or going out of one’s way to avoid someone.

Cutoff is prompted and kept in place by a mix of lower maturity and higher anxiety. Higher-maturity families and organizations experience less frequent and less intense relationship cutoffs. Low maturity families experience more intense chronic anxiety and are more vulnerable to relationship cutoff. It’s likely that all families experience some degree of cutoff.

Recently, I heard two intriguing client stories about emotional cutoff: A senior health care executive who cut off from his ex-wife; and a church pastor who participated in a cut off with the former pastor.

The Health Care Executive

Three years ago, James (not his real name) initiated a blame-laced divorce from his wife of 16 years, Carmen. Their 13-year-old daughter got caught in the middle, and the couple quickly reached a point where they were not speaking.

Like most cutoff situations, their reactive withdrawal from contact sparked other problems: missed opportunities to collaborate, “ripple effect” relationship disruptions, a heightened lack of good will, side-taking among extended family members, and not-so-secret accusations.

Observing this worsening situation, James gained exposure to family systems thinking and began wondering about his own part in the resentful separateness from Carmen. With the help of a neutral coach, James identified possible strategies he would consider in an effort to reduce his intense reactivity to his ex-wife.

He ended up sending a short birthday note to Carmen, thanking her for the many ways in which she helped their daughter face the challenges of early adolescence.

He reported back to his coach:

“I sent the note with a lot of trepidation. Though we hadn’t had a civil exchange in years, I took the plunge, and reached out to her sincerely. A week later, I received a surprisingly appreciative voicemail from Carmen. At a music recital for our daughter the next week, I noticed something different. We exchanged conversation about my daughter without the usual bitterness. It seemed to me that the emotional atmosphere between us had loosened a bit. This encouraged me to keep thinking about how my work on myself could have a positive effect.”

The Church Pastor

A long-standing pastor (I’ll call him Rev. Joe) at a vibrant suburban parish abruptly announced his resignation. The story line pointed to philosophical and leadership differences with a group of parishioners and elders. Rev. Joe was a brilliant preacher and widely-respected nationally in his denomination.

When Rev. Laura was appointed new pastor, and made some staff changes, Rev. Joe fired off a lengthy email concluding that she had undermined him. After a few terse conversations, an icy distance took hold, and the two didn’t communicate. Over the next year, the parish became uncomfortably divided in its support for their former and current pastors. When Rev. Joe was invited to officiate at the wedding of a key church member, the “bickering pastors” became a point of public (though whispered) conversation.

At that time, Rev. Laura thought back to her early training with Dr. Ed Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, and a protégé of Dr. Murray Bowen. She decided to stem her emotional reactivity to Rev. Joe and strategize a different set of responses.

This is how she described it:

“I decided to write a letter to Jim, stating simply and straightforwardly what I was thinking and experiencing. In that letter, I took responsibility for my own immature responses, and recognized his many contributions at the parish. I thanked him for leaving me a very forward-looking church, and made a point to welcome him back to officiate at funerals and weddings when these were requested by parishioners.”

“Almost immediately, a lunch invite came from Joe. When we met, the tone was open and cordial. He confided some specifics behind his departure: A small but vocal group of parishioners had worn him down, and he realized it was time for him to move on. He told me it was my parish to lead now, and that he wouldn’t be getting in my way. Given the months of bitterness, I thought it was gracious of him to say that.”

While it’s still too early to note long-term effects, Rev. Laura’s initiative clearly promoted a shift in the tenor of their interactions.

Persistence and stamina

In these cases, a simple act of reaching out through the written word proved enough to begineasing the grip of two emotionally-intense impasses. In addition, broaching cutoff requires persistence and stamina. Depending on the intensity of the separation, good will might return slowly, and reluctantly.

Making such an investment to reverse the emotional course of an important relationship can help regulate anxiety in a family or business. Outcomes are likely to improve when the party initiating re-connection:

  • Suspends blame

  • Considers the impact of the cutoff on other members of the family/business

  • Considers the impact of the cutoff on the next generation

  • Looks at his/her own part in continuing the cutoff

  • Acts based on principle, rather than on anger, fear or discomfort

4 Responses to “April 2014: Broaching a Relationship Cut-off: Two Recent Stories”

April 01, 2014 at 12:56 pm, Tom Merkel said:

Well timed thinking … I have lived through cut-off both in family and in my work life. It is hard to understand when one is in the middle of cut-off the collateral damage that ripples through the entire system. All in the name of self preservation. Thanks for shining the light on this topic.

April 01, 2014 at 7:39 pm, Rob Cattalani said:

Thanks John. I have experienced this on different sides in the congregational environment and these stories illustrate well how taking responsibility and initiative can bring about genuine change.

April 02, 2014 at 10:31 pm, Andrea Schara said:

Hi John. Very hopeful reports from people who dare to defy the emotional system – to step outside to do something difficult that goes against the grain – that is true leadership. Being able to be kind and compassionate to others when there is a long history of emotional bitterness and tension is inspiring. Bowen wrote of emotional cut off as occurring between the generations in family but the terms seems to have become common place. Its a beautiful descriptive term of what happens. it may very well be that all of the distance in marriage or in a work situation is the result of generations of cut off in the family. Good for those who can make it trough the cut off its not always easy and sometimes blundering into cut off can even cause more harm than good.

April 02, 2014 at 11:56 pm, Chris Perna said:

Rings true with me. I cut off a relationship with my older sister many years ago. I was invited to a nephew’s wedding where I would be forced to either not attend or confront the situation. With some encouragement from friends, I sent a short note to my sister before the event. She responded positively which set the stage for a reconciliation. We both regret the lost years and have rebuilt the relationship.

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