Is Cutoff or Estrangement Good for You?

I read a piece in the New York Times explaining to us that estrangement is more common than you think and sometimes a great thing to do. Drop your family members off and walk away smiling. Now I am thinking about the long-term consequences of these actions.

Can you see the human family as though it were a grove of Aspen trees? Aspen Trees are connected over many miles and very cooperative. Perhaps as they are often clones they do not fear one another. We humans aren’t clones and often fearful and therefore not cooperative with our near and dear. The family connections that sustain us can also threaten us. We humans are just way more emotional and reactive to those we are related to, and much of our reactivity is dominated by generations of habitual responses.

Consider the Aspen: A single Quaking Aspen in Utah covers 106 acres of land and is estimated to weigh more than 6,000 metric tons. Aspen grove known as Pando (Latin for I spread) could be shoots from a clone as much as 80,000 years old. [1]


Consider the human: If you go back ten generations you are related to about 1024 ancestors. It is estimated that 80% of the marriages in history were between second cousins. Why? Because the population base was smaller, people lived in small communities and migrated within those same small communities.[2]


We are less sensitive to extended family members who lived many generations apart from us. They may have done the very things that we consider harmful and toxic today, like marrying a close relative. But we can accept them, as they are not relating to us today. They were different and we can respect that.

But a family under stress throws people out. Part of the reason may be that we are not as dependent on our near and dear as humans were before agriculture. Now people believe they can do without their families. Sensitive families feel “forced” to cut off from their root system to survive. Either you are like me and make me feel safe, or you are somehow different and are the enemy.

Great sensitivity, not rationality, leads to estrangement in important relationships. Sensitive people can tell you in excruciating detail how horrible it is to live with or be around people who are critical or disrespectful and so they feel that the only option is to cut off.

At least in my family, only a disciplined effort can reorganize the relationships system. First, people lower their automatic reactivity and take a better guess as to the upset. Maybe I am having a bad day, or I have a headache and now I am not as good at relating and figuring things out. If one can do this they can, over time, bring back into the family those who have been discarded. Can we consider the other side? Is there an evolutionary selective advantage to belong to a family unit which uses cutoff and sacrifices one or two of its members for the good of the whole family?

In 2014, 8 percent of roughly 2,000 British adults said that they had cut off a family member, which translates to more than five million people, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people. And 19 percent of respondents reported that another relative or they themselves were no longer in contact with family.[3]


As far as we know humans are the only species that have at least the illusion that we can alter our automatic guidance system. To do so we need both awareness of the guidance system and a backbone to go against the programming of the system. To some extent, anyone can become more conscious of the pressure from the system and become less reactive to it. Here is the hope for emotional freedom.

Bowen talked about the family reaction to death as one reason that anxiety increases. An emotional shockwave results when family members are less focused on self and more prone to project anxiety and blame on others, thereby sacrificing one or two of its members to increasing symptoms. Often, we see how following a death, sibling rivalry reverts to an earlier time. The way people were treated as children seems to drive conflict. Little things people say can hurt. They may remind people of the way mother or dad criticized them. Little things become big hurts and people feel unable to cope, get mad, and cut off.

Opening after the death of a family member. People come together for family meetings to talk about the will, or how to manage a family business or family resources, or the funeral. Even if there are no resources, people can be more aware of the system loss and take the loss as an opportunity to get to know their more far off family members and rebuild the relationship network. Death at its best can enable the resolution of old hurts and renew old or even strained relationships. If a family leader can begin to see the cutoff process as an impersonal event that may no longer serve him/her, then there will be less cutoff, more flexibility and greater resiliency through the system.

One person who understands the impersonal nature of a system allows others to see how family anxiety is distributed unfairly and can alter the automatic responses, providing a greater advantage for the group.

One example: When I was in my early thirties, my maternal grandmother died. It was 1973. I divorced three months later. My mother died shortly after that, and at that same time my brother had a nervous breakdown. I figured out that the best thing to do was to get a job in psychiatric hospital to understand how to relate well to my brother and manage my life. I had worked there for six months when I met Murray Bowen, MD. It was 1976. Both of my parents were dead and three of my four grandparents had died. My one remaining grandfather was 86 and would die in 1978. I was living in a cutoff family with little contact with other generations. My parents had been cut off from family because of their drug problems. I did not have a significant relationship available in my extended three-generation family.

Dr. Bowen came to talk about drug addiction at the psychiatric hospital. After being introduced he asked me to show him the way to the stage. Halfway there he stopped and asked me one question: “What should I say to the people?” I replied that his work differed so much from what people were used to hearing from mental health experts, that he should just talk about whatever he wanted to say. And, of course, he did. Bowen talked about life-long learning, improving relationships, and how mice can tell you more about drug addiction than people, because they do not lie. He said that if you could figure out how to de-twitch a mouse you could cure drug problems. At the end of the conference he took my name as an applicant to the postgraduate program, despite knowing I had only two years of college.

My first supervisor, Bud Andres, MD, asked who I had left to hang onto after my grandfather died. I looked at all the circles and squares on the family diagram and knew I would have to get to know people in my extended family who were complete strangers. I would have to learn to build a family and learn to relate well to strangers. I began to attend all the important events in the family: weddings, baptisms, graduations, confirmations, funerals, etc. Getting to know people in the family required an effort to become a more objective observer, listening of course, but more importantly being able to see where I stood with people, especially in a three-person triangle of shifting allegiances. The challenge: how could I listen to all sides, put others together and keep me out. How could I manage not to respond to negative comments or actions? Could I talk more openly without provoking others as much? Could I accept being blamed when I had decided to act on principle? There are many small steps to take in overcoming the urge to reciprocate and pay people back with distance or criticism. I am still vulnerable to these very human feelings. There are often deep feelings of mistrust and hurt that one has to overcome. But to the degree I can, the future is brighter.

Over forty years this once small bereft family has changed into a metaphorically speaking vigorous grove of Aspen trees. My two children have produced eight grandchildren who are becoming responsible adults. This year, four of the eight grandchildren brought significant others to Thanksgiving. Where there were eight now there are twelve. Altogether there were 24 people, including two new relationships.

Understanding family systems theory made a difference. It gave me guidelines to relate and stay connected. By overriding the demands of the system to become emotional and to react negatively, I am less stuck in habitual responses. Eventually the system knows this one is not going to run at the first show of upset, and it begins to change. One by one people do get beyond hurts and the endless seeking of love and approval and begin to accept the change. Cutoff or estrangement is simply a way to let the family anxiety converge on blaming someone instead of solving problems. Becoming more separate by not responding automatically to emotional input, can gradually change a whole system. Altering how we relate to “troubled people” everywhere is one step that anyone can take to increase the capacity for mindfulness, compassion, and resiliency in our families.


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