Two posts ago, we talked about how couples try to diminish tension between them (nuclear family emotional process), and yesterday we talked about how they inadvertently pass that tension along to their children (family projection process). When children become the unwitting recipients of their parents’ tension, they often react by cutting themselves off from it when they grow up. We call this process emotional cutoff.
The concept of the emotional cutoff refers to the way people separate from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation. The process of separation can involve isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying the importance of the parental family. How adult children separate reflects their unresolved emotional attachments to their parents. Everyone has some degree of unresolved attachments, and the lower the level of differentiation, the more intense the unresolved attachments.
Something Old, Something New
When people exchange vows at the altar, they tend to view themselves as starting something new together. They don’t expect to have much conflict, and what conflict they do have, they expect to resolve better than the generations before. Few couples consider that the patterns in the multigenerational family systems from which they come can help them understand the origins, course and eventual outcome of their own interpersonal conflicts.
Cohesive and Fragmented Families
There are two types of multigenerational family systems. In a cohesive family system, the family members live close together, with substantial contact between the generations. Typically, there is substantial leakage of anxiety from the extended family into the partnership, and the primary contribution to the conflict of a partnership in a cohesive system results from the intrusiveness of extended family members.
Cohesion is becoming less common in our culture. It is more common that a partnership ends up cut off from both partners’ families of origin, in which case, the couple is on its own, without people in the multigenerational family system to turn to for support or emotional connectedness. This kind of configuration is called a fragmented family system.
Cutoffs and Cocoons
In a fragmented family system, two kinds of cutoffs are possible: a complete cutoff and a ritualized cutoff. In a complete cutoff, the couple has little or no contact with either of their families of origin, often as a result of a dramatic conflictual event, but sometimes due to a less dramatic drifting out of contact because of physical distance or the death of the person whose role it was to hold the family together.
This kind of drifting often leads to the ritualized cutoff, in which families manage their conflicts by placing rigid structure around their time together. Because of a sense of duty, they may celebrate special occasions together, or may have regular patterns of phone or personal contact, but nothing of personal significance happens in these contacts.
This kind of configuration often creates a cocoon phenomenon, in which a couple is isolated from the multigenerational unit. This decreases the leakage of problems from the extended family unit, but also prevents the couple from being able to turn to family members for help in dissipating anxiety and upset in times of stress.
Cutoff and Dependency
The more intense the cutoff with the past, the more likely the individual will have an exaggerated version of his parental problem in his or her own partnership, and the more likely the children will execute an even more intense emotional cutoff when they grow up and move into adulthood.
The person who runs away from the family of origin is as emotionally dependent as the one who never leaves home. The one who remains in close proximity and contact but handles unresolved attachments to parents with internal defense mechanisms tends to develop internalized symptoms under stress, resulting in psychosomatic illness or depression. The one who puts physical distance between him and his parents is more inclined to impulsive behavior, and is vulnerable to duplicating the pattern with the parents with the first available other person. Running away can then become the mechanism of choice when problems crop up in the partnership.
The Antidote to Cutoff
The antidote to a cutoff is an orderly process of differentiation of a self from and within the family of origin. Those who are able to do a reasonable job of this find that the conflicts in their life partnerships diminish without direct intervention.
Cutting the proverbial apron strings is harder for some than others, due to a variety of factors. In a healthy system, children are encouraged to take increasing responsibility for their own lives, and to let go of their parents’ influence over time. For parents, letting go of the adult child is often difficult, but if they have been doing so in a developmentally appropriate fashion as the child was growing up, this process can be a celebration, a graduation, rather than a tug-of-war.
Consider the patterns in your family of origin. Were you encouraged to think for yourself, to take charge of your own life? Or were you encouraged to adopt the thinking of your parents in order to be accepted? Consider how your answers to these questions impacts your interactions with the members in your family of origin and with those in your nuclear family today.