Do You Have Any Family Relationship “Cut-offs”?

I want to mention a book that I read called “Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions” by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. Chapter six in particular discusses cut-offs which was FASCINATING to me.  Apparently research confirms that when individuals have cut-off from primary family that all relationships in their present day life suffer.  As a counselor, I really have thought about this concept for myself and my clients.

“Cutoff, linked with poor relationships, means that relationships in the workplace, friendships, and even romances will not be as smooth for people who are cutoff from their families of origin as they will be for people who are in contact with their family of origin.  Because the emotional systems of cut off people tend to be smaller, the relationships they do have are more intense.  A pattern of cutoff is like a cancer that spreads into all areas of life.” p.62

The book explains Bowen’s theory (under the wider category of family systems theory).  One important basic concept to this theory is that the family is one emotional unit and the basis for understanding the theory (like the cell is the unit for biology).  The author writes, “the basic unit of emotional functioning might not be the individual, as previously thought, but the nuclear family.”  All family members are seen as “a multigenerational passing and circuiting of anxiety.”  And “these families seemed to be involved in chronically high levels of self-perpetuating anxiety.” (p.6-7)

The other important term in understanding the basics of the theory is “differentiation” which has to do with “the struggle that arises out of the need to strike a balance between two basic urges: the drive towards being an individual–one alone, autonomous–and the drive towards being together with others in relationship.” (p.13)  I think the anxiety that circulates in the family unit has to do with how these two urges are integrated.

I like this quote, “Highly differentiated persons have a superior ability to calm their emotional states, while the less differentiated person can be immobilized by emotion.  The highly differentiated person, able to choose emotional states, can thoroughly enjoy them.  At the lower end of the scale, however, feelings and the thinking system are intimately connected and there is more anxiety to deal with.  Less differentiated families generate more anxiety, both chronic (coming down through generations) and acute (short-term).  At higher levels of differentiation of self, there is progressively less anxiety.” (p.24)

A final fascinating part of the theory is that “most people remain at the level of differentiation attained by the time they left home.” (p.25) So some improvements can be done of course, but the way that anxiety was managed by one’s family of origin is deeply embedded in the individual’s capacity to function in later life.

Some good questions about cutoff are, “what is my part in inducing the intensity of feeling that made cutoff inevitable?” and “is there anything I might do to bridge cutoff?” and “is there a way I can work to lower my emotional intensity so cutoff will not be inevitable in the future?” Then the book says:

“And of course, working to bridge cutoffs in one’s family of origin carries the greatest rewards for the self.” p.64

If this topic interests you and you want to team with a counselor to improve your relationships

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Remember, I want to help you live the healthiest life possible! –GreenLightHeidi

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