Emotional Cutoff and Bridging It: A Conversation–Part 1

On September 11, 2017, Katherine Kott interviewed Laura Havstad about the concept of emotional cutoff in Bowen theory.  The topic came up in clinical practice for Dr. Havstad, trying to think about a parent stymied in a cutoff with an adult child. Katherine Kott agreed to try and help lay out some thinking about cutoff and bridging it in this interview. Here’s part 1 of the conversation which begins by defining cutoff between the generations. The conversation then begins to address some principles for bridging cutoff that emerge from understanding crucial aspects of the emotional system. Principles for bridging cutoff will continue in  Part 2, which be the next post here.

Katherine Kott: How about talking a little bit about what Dr. Bowen might have been describing when he talked about cutoff and what he hypothesized might happen as a result of bridging cutoff?

Laura Havstad: Bowen family systems theory  came together in the early 60’s and it wasn’t until 1975 that Dr. Bowen added the concept of emotional cutoff as the seventh concept. The concept of cutoff builds on the concept of emotional distance as a way of reducing emotional intensity in relationships. People deal with relationship complications  by putting emotional distance between them, physically or via intrapsychic mechanisms. The emotional distance provides relief from the anxiety generated by the complications of undifferentiation .

Bowen had a goal with the concept of cutoff  to have a separate concept for the relationship between the generations, to address the emotional process when young adults leave their parents in order to go forward in their own lives. That crucial separation of the young person from the family of origin can go more or less smoothly depending on the underlying emotional attachment to parents and how unresolved it is. Bowen observed that cutoff provides short-term relief from relationship intensity, but it leads to an even more intense version of the problem in the new relationships established by the young person, and for the parents. By bridging the cutoff, the intensity of the problems are mitigated for both generations.

Active relations with parents and with the extended family creates a relationship network that can be used to manage anxiety without symptoms. This resource for moderating anxiety is afforded by the triangles and, if lucky, through person-to-person relationships. For two nuclear families at the same level of differentiation, one with an open relationship system and the other cutoff, there’s a real difference in how the life course of those two families will go. In the nuclear family that is cutoff from the extended family, all the mechanisms for managing anxiety are taxed extra hard. And it’s those mechanisms that once they’re overloaded, lead to symptoms in family members.

Phil Klever recently published a study in Family Systems showing that the nuclear family with contact in the extended family has fewer symptoms.[1] Bridging the cut-off and making emotional contact with parents and the extended family moderates the intensity of the emotional process in the nuclear family unit. All the problems are easier to manage and there is less break downs into symptoms.

Katherine Kott: So you described two kinds of cutoff. One intrapsychic and the other physical. Maybe you could give an example of each of those, then what would bridging that cutoff involve.

Laura Havstad: With the intrapsychic mechanisms for cutoff, people stick around. They can be in physical proximity and even living together. But the relationship is not open; it’s a closed relationship where it’s not possible for people to be themselves with one another. Much of what is going on within the person stays hidden. And so there is a kind of pseudo-self relationship as a way of managing to co-exist in proximity. And so sometimes, when the cutoff can’t contain a growing problem, people end up with physical symptoms. People can even break down into psychosis as a way of isolating, to manage the discomfort of the emotional entanglements that emerge from undifferentiation.

With physical distance, people move, they leave, they limit visits. Contact of any kind is infrequent if at all, and superficial. In AA they talk about moving away to deal with problems as “doing a geographic.”

Katherine Kott: Right, right. They say, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Laura Havstad: Yes, and even more so, one could argue.  Cutoff from the family of origin actually intensifies the repeating  patterns. But the cutoff  works in the sense that people can get immediate relief from the pressures of unresolved attachment that arise in the family of origin. But then they have more vulnerability to the pressures in their other relationships. So the relief is limited with cutoff. Some people solve this repeating dilemma by giving up on relationships almost entirely.

Katherine Kott:  Cutoff, whether it uses physical distance or intrapsychic mechanisms is about adult children somehow trying to manage the unresolved attachment or the intensity of their relationship with their parents or their siblings.

Laura Havstad: I recall Bowen talking about it more in relationship to parents but it makes sense to think about cutoff as a reaction to the problems of the emotional unit in which all family members play a part, so that would include siblings. I think many of us tend to use the term cutoff whenever there is a near total lack of contact between people, just extreme emotional distance. But Bowen wrote that he meant for the concept of emotional cutoff, to refer to the process between the generations of young people leaving home to start on their own. And this cutoff between the generations results not only in cutoff with the family of origin, but also with extended family members who are connected to the cutoff parents and siblings. The absence of these family relationships plays out then throughout the lifetime of all involved.

Katherine Kott: So if person suspects that they perhaps have participated in this process and they want to do something about it, and they are thinking about, “well what would it take to bridge the cutoff in my family?” How would they go about doing that, or how would they think about making contact with someone who has distanced from them or the other way around? What about a parent whose child has moved away using physical distance to avoid contact and the parent wants to try to establish contact?

Laura Havstad: Often cut-offs can be the product of a more gentle drift apart and it’s fairly easy to reestablish contact because both sides are willing and open to it. This is often a gratifying experience for people who get an emotional payoff quickly.

The problem comes when somebody really isn’t willing. One can get into the position of trying to make contact, and the other one finds a way to distance. So the one who wants the contact gets into a pursuing position, while the other one is distancing. This is frustrating for the one who wants to bridge the cutoff but pursuing the other isn’t working. People can try a lot of different things to appeal to the other that just don’t work.

The stubbornness of a cutoff reflects the intensity of the unresolved attachment. And the more unresolved it is, the more sensitive people are and the more allergic they are to each other. The distancing one is the more uncomfortable one and it can be hard to understand for the pursuing one. Maybe it’s  especially hard for parents to understand why their children are cutting them off. I think the youngsters tend to know what they’re reacting to in cutting off. But they’re not willing to communicate about it because of the reactivity they’re afraid of encountering in the parents’ reactions.

Katherine Kott: Upsetting the parent or something like that?

Laura Havstad: Yes, it could be upsetting. They might hurt the parent or make the parent angry, or disappoint the parent. Or in trying to be open, it could  be disappointing and distressing  if the parent’s response is one of disapproval or disrespect.

Katherine Kott: So if the parent is the one that is trying to reestablish contact, the parent then needs to be thinking about what he or she is communicating to their son or daughter?

Laura Havstad: Yes, to be sure. Parents can improve the odds for more openness by being conscious of staying on their own side of the ego boundary. That is, if the parents can express their thoughts without attachment to them, aware that they might be projections, products of their own mind. Part of the basic problem underlying the cutoff is the projection process, in which the parent has focused on the offspring more as the source of the family anxiety, rather than the recipient of it, and this is biased. It can be hard to gain some detachment about one’s own assumptions and it can be constructive to convey that the parent knows that what they think is often subjective and not always factual. Finding a respectful  way to reveal their own thoughts that may have been hidden can also clear up underground tension. This can become a new emotional position a parent can aim for, to make space for genuine emotional contact to occur. The adult child can work on this too in their attitudes to the parent, if they are the motivated one. It is a process over time. But the strategy can ultimately be inadequate to build the bridge through cutoff.

Katherine Kott: And then, continuing to pursue is going to have the opposite effect of more cutoff. It’s like magnets that are repelling each other instead of attracting each other.

Laura Havstad: Right.

Katherine Kott: So then is there another concept from Bowen theory that could come into play here? For example, triangles?

Laura Havstad: Yes, absolutely, triangles.

So it’s been said before that differentiation of self occurs only in triangles. And, getting through a cutoff has some things in common with an effort towards differentiation. If one can understand the triangles they can be used to get through the cutoff and that’s where we’ll pick up next. We’ll get into more about bridging cutoff in part two of this conversation. To be continued….

[1] Klever, Phillip (2016). Extended family relationships: A comparison of high and low symptom families. Family Systems: A Journal of Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences, 11(2) 105-132.