by David DeBord, PhD
Is someone in your family not speaking to another member of your family? Has it been going on for weeks, months, or even years? That’s a Relationship Cutoff. A relationship cutoff is when a member of a family quits relating directly and may sever the emotional connection to another member or members of the family.
Cutoff is reactive. It is a strategy to deal with tension between two or more people. It’s a way to manage pain in a relationship.
We may need to cutoff from a life threatening or abusive relationship. However most cutoffs are not lethal and can be bridged.
Cutoff is different than temporary distance. We may need to distance from someone to regroup and think through what happened, what our part in the problem was, and how we want to respond. However if distancing leads to cutoff in significant relationships, it can be detrimental to our relationships and others.
Relationship cutoffs tend to freeze the relationship at the point of the cutoff not allowing updates or possible reconciliation between people. Cutoffs increase our sensitivity to particular issues, a sensitivity we carry into other relationships. If my reaction to a particular issue in another relationship is out of proportion to the issue, then it’s not just about the other relationship. It may be due to a cutoff in my family of origin. The cutoff may increase stress in another intimate relationship because we look to another to meet a need the cutoff person met.
Cutoffs can be generational. We might not know members of our extended family because a member of a previous generation cutoff.
So how do you bridge cutoffs? One way is to be direct and go to the person you’ve cutoff and talk about your concerns. Use “I” language. For example, “I value our relationship and don’t want this issue to keep us from being on good terms.” That can be anxiety producing but if you know they are open to reconciliation, it’s the best way.
Another alternative is to reconnect at a more superficial level. Talk about safe topics rather than the issues which created tension. Look for opportunities for deeper connections and reconciliation.
A certain amount of acceptance of the other and their way of functioning in the family is required when seeking to bridge a cutoff. Acceptance doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to you or that you condone it. You can accept something you don’t like. It might be just accepting someone’s view of the world and style of relating that’s different than your own. One must manage one’s own reactivity and maintain a less anxious presence when seeking to bridge relationship cutoffs.
(Photo by Tom Woodward, courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons)