Katherine Kott and Laura Havstad continue their conversation about emotional cutoff and bridging it. Part 2 focuses on principles for bridging cutoff and begins with a discussion of knowing triangles and getting outside the emotional system.
Laura Havstad: So, Katherine, 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. So this post, the second part of our conversation on cutoff is about the use of the triangles to get through the cutoff and that’s where we’ll pick up here. I’ll focus on examples.
Bowen called the triangle the molecule of the emotional system. Having an idea about getting out of the triangle, and being able to execute getting out of the triangle into an outside position changes the relationship. This first example is a family where the parents are divorced with a tense relationship. One of the children entered a period of being insistent that he did not want to visit to the father–a common early life cutoff in the making. The mother was distressed not knowing what to do because she was feeling the child’s distress and blamed her ex-husband for it. She wanted to fix it for her boy, but she was supposed to get him to visits with the father and if she didn’t, there would be conflict with her ex-husband.
So what should she do? Should she make the child visit in spite of the child’s distress about it? Should she give the child permission not to go and take on the fight with her ex-husband? Should she go back to court to get the visitation agreement changed? None of these choices were appealing.
With coaching, this mother was able to step outside the emotional process of the triangle between herself, the child’s father, and the child. She approached her ex-husband in a person-to-person way. She let him know the child was objecting to visits and she said she didn’t really know what it was about. She went on to say she would like the child to continue visiting the father but she was not sure why their son was resisting. She just wanted to let him, the father, know, in hopes that this could get worked out.
That turned the problem around. The mother had stepped out of the middle and put the problem back squarely in between the father and the child. She took an outside position in that triangle, and appealed to the father in an adult sort of way, more respectfully than where her feelings would have led her. The mother shifted her relationship with the father and he did something that shifted his relationship with the child. The child just dropped his objections, and resumed visiting his dad without complaint. It’s a good example of how the detriangling one can give the other two a chance.
Katherine Kott: Right. Do you have an example of the adult child repairing the cutoff with parents?
Laura Havstad: Sure. I describe one from my effort in my family of origin. As a younger person I got into a cutoff with my mother. At a family funeral reception I reacted and corrected a misstatement my mother made about my husband. The context of emotionality in the family event amplified a small incident, which became big for my mother and me. It embarrassed Mom in front of her family. Leaving the reception my mother said, ” Maybe we should just not talk with each other for awhile.” The interruption of contact between Mom and me upset my father and he wanted to broker a repair of the relationship. His view, and that of others in the family was that an apology on my part would enable us to resume contact. I did not want to be the one to accept blame and I had long been confounded in this position in the family.
A dilemma that comes up a lot in cutoff is that in order to resolve the cutoff, someone has to submit to the other. There’s a “who is right and who’s wrong” problem, and someone has to give in to the other in order for contact to resume. I was encouraged to apologize to end the cutoff, in reality and/or in my imagination, by my spouse, coach, siblings and others. But while I wanted to end the discomfort for everyone, I primarily wanted to find a better way for myself.
Katherine Kott: Sure. That would be more in line with differentiation of self.
Laura Havstad: That cutoff had occurred in the fall, and it wasn’t until the following spring that events offered me the opportunity to respond with enough clarity that I could get into the outside position in the triangle with my mother and father. I wrote a letter to Mom saying that I had gotten a letter from Dad explaining to me exactly what I should say to make up with her. I said that Dad’s suggestions were so caring and observant of her feelings, and so poetically expressed, and that I was struck by how lucky she was to have a husband like him. That’s what I did. She responded to me for the first time in a while, with some irony, about the “ode to Dad ”I had written. But the ice had been broken and I proceeded to arrange a reunion at my parents with my brothers for Mom and Dad’s anniversary. Mom chided me sternly about “needing to talk,” but the tension had disappeared and we all proceeded to have a great and intimate celebration.
Katherine Kott: So you didn’t have to apologize and lose self in the process, but at the same time you were able, over a period of time, to demonstrate to your mother that didn’t mean that you didn’t care about her. You just couldn’t necessarily show the way you cared about her on her terms, or as you were told to by your father.
Laura Havstad: Yes. You know, I hadn’t really thought about it as showing her that I cared about her, but she probably did experience it that way. Bowen correctly pointed out how everyone sees it differently from his or her own position when someone’s making a differentiating move. I was able to not fuse into the triangle in my usual positions of either going along with what my parents wanted me to do, or opposing them over it. Either way.
Katherine Kott: Right.
Laura Havstad: My goal was to just keep making contact and proceed with being part of my parent’s life and being present and on board for the important things.
Katherine Kott: Sure, that makes sense.
Laura Havstad: Truth be told, my experience getting through the cutoff, the internal feelings go up and down, and the desire to cutoff requires resistance. It seems so much easier when that’s your emotional programming. This person didn’t treat you right, so why do you want to have anything to do with them? That’s the cutoff talking. The feeling is not one of caring.
Katherine Kott: You don’t want to go there because what you’re really focusing on is your own differentiation, being in contact but representing yourself. Not so much being focused on how what you do is going to make the other person feel. Because if that’s what you cared about, then you would apologize.
Laura Havstad: Yes, I think that’s a good way to think about it and that’s why the emotional system tries to influence you in that direction because it values togetherness, especially while you’re working on differentiation.
Katherine Kott: So was there anything else that you wanted to get in in this blog post, in this interview before we wind up?
Laura Havstad: Well I wanted to give one more example where it is the adult child who is resisting contact with the parent and how the parent used the triangle and got through the cutoff. In this one, the mother’s son is cutoff from her in reaction to being caught between her and his second wife. After unsuccessful efforts over time to get the relationship opened up again the mother got beyond having to pursue her son. She got into enough of an outside position that she could be emotionally neutral about the cutoff, which is difficult to do with someone you care about a lot. One thing she did was use the triangle with the son and his daughter from his first marriage. She said to her son, that even with his cutoff she was okay because she had the relationship with his daughter, and with her mother and her step dad.
Katherine Kott: Oh my. Makes me laugh a little. That’s pretty far outside.
Laura Havstad: Well it maybe sounds further than it was because the mother had a principle to care for the relationships important to her granddaughter from the son’s first marriage, and maybe that was part of the problem that the second wife had with her. It’s understandable. The critical thing getting through the cutoff with her son was the mother really being okay about it, as if to say, “This is where it stands, I have them and I don’t have you, and I’m okay. So be it.”
Katherine Kott: She had to be telling the truth when she said that.
Laura Havstad: I don’t know how much of that was strategic in that she would have had to override her actual feelings. But she had to be more resolved about where things were to take that outside position. And when she communicated that position well enough, the impasse broke and the son began to move toward her in a way he hadn’t for some time.
Katherine Kott: And that’s what Bowen would have hypothesized, right? That those kinds of moves are really what make the change.
Laura Havstad: Right. Using knowledge of triangles to get into the outside position can help you figure out more effective moves, to get out of the entanglements that produced and maintain the cutoff.
Katherine Kott: Well, that’s interesting.
Laura Havstad: It’s pretty instructive to read the example Bowen wrote about in his anonymous paper. In writing the anonymous paper he demonstrated the importance of triangles in emotional process and for differentiation of self. His relationship with his brother, who was avoiding him, is important in the example he used. Bowen got his brother to come toward him by altering his own typical behavior in the triangles he was in with his brother, parents, and other siblings. The way Bowen changed in the triangles made his brother angry. Getting through cutoffs can have this quality to them; you go into the eye of the storm. You are taking on the family anxiety. The family comes at you negatively because of stepping into the outside position. Bowen figured out how to be neutral about the predictable negativity towards him as he shifted his functioning in the triangles. The goal is to weather that storm without capsizing. Once the family reaction settles down it’s a new day.
Katherine Kott: And then somehow those cutoffs have been bridged in that process.
Laura Havstad: Yep, the contact can resume.
Additional Readings on Cutoff:
Bowen, Murray. 1978, “On the Differentiation of Self”. In Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Murray Bowen, Ed. Jason Aronson: NY. 467-528.
Titleman, Peter. (Ed) 2003. Emotional Cutoff: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. The Haworth Clinical Practice Press: NY.