I had a wonderful time presenting to physicians, nurses, social workers and psychologists at The Reading Hospital this spring.
The audience wanted to understand the meaning of emotional cutoff and the impact of this process on development and family relationships over the course of the life cycle.
Always true to my training as a family therapist, I began with my family genogram, and a story about my father’s cutoff from his family of origin. This happened when I was two years old and shaped the events in our family for many years to come. His alienation from his own family became the landscape of our life; it was always present. At certain times, like holidays, or life cycle events, like death, the impact was more acute. This relational rupture shaped how he was viewed by us, his immediate family members, influenced decisions, and had a grave impact on his health.
Emotional cutoffs are the natural mechanisms people use to counter high anxiety or high emotional fusion, also known as ‘too much closeness.’ A cutoff can look like physical or emotional withdrawal, avoidance of sensitive topics, physically moving away from family members or rarely going home.
Relationships may look “better” if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems remain, and are dormant.
Although people reduce the tensions of family relationships by cutting off, they risk making their new relationships too important. For example, the more a man cuts off from his family of origin, the more he may look 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.
Not all cutoffs are unwarranted, however. In some cases they are necessary, or preferred, as in the case of emotional or physical abuse.
There are circumstances when someone may be coached to ‘cut off.’ For example, consider the concept of ‘tough love’ or ‘letting someone hit bottom’ that is often suggested when a loved one is suffering with addiction. Post divorce families also struggle with physical and emotional cutoffs as issues of loyalty are prominent.
The words “cut off” imply a static state – a lack of motion or movement. However, to remain angry or to hold a grudge are in fact, actions.
Consider these verbs: to harbor bitter feelings, resent, brood, or stew.
Indeed, it is possible to become so wrapped up in the wrong that’s been done to you that you can’t enjoy the present. And there are significant health consequences. Anger, frustration and sadness increase the stress hormone, cortisol.
Experiencing these negative emotions instinctually prepares the body to fight. A prolonged state of fight increases levels of protein in the bloodstream which promote cardiovascular disease and stroke. But here’s the good news: Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack, improving cholesterol levels and sleep, reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
Chronic anger puts you into a fight or flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes then increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, and leads to improved health.
Perhaps in the next post I’ll write about the work of forgiveness and repair. But for now, a return to my own family story.
About ten years into the cutoff, around the death of my paternal grandparents, my father’s siblings began to contact him. These vaguely familiar men, my uncles, were welcomed into our home, and celebrated.
My father’s expansive capacity for forgiveness has stayed with me, and brought valuable lessons which I apply in clinical work with families: that despite dire circumstances, change can happen, and usually does.
We just need to take the long view – that is, a family life cycle perspective. We are constantly negotiating closeness and distance in our relationships over time; we readjust according to the phase of the life cycle. The warmth and closeness around the time of birth is juxtaposed with the ‘letting go’ required for launching into young adulthood.
The practice of compassion and forgiveness, for ourselves as well as those we love, will enhance our health and nourish our spirits as we face the challenges that will inevitably come.