Let’s talk. I’ve been seeing individuals of all ages in my consultation room for over 25 years. I hear about all kinds of emotionally distressing situations that are due to a variety of triggers but I have to talk to you about one of the greatest sources of pain and that is often related to being cut off by family members. Regardless of the reasons why, people who are cut off feel shame, confusion, stress and sometimes even depression and a feeling of being dis-empowered. This is particularly the case if there is no explanation provided for the cutoff. Relatives may cut each other off for months, years and sometimes even a lifetime with little to no explanation.
In an effort to clarify the reasons why this occurs I would like to provide you with some of the most frequent reasons why a relative is likely to cut another off or to freeze them out of the family fold. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and may, of course, be followed by a part 2. I am also not suggesting that cut-offs are healthy. Please keep that in mind as you read on.
So for many of you out there I would like you to hear me out as I enter this confusing set of family dynamics that go so dreadfully awry.
1. Modeling. Some families have a history of cutting off members when they are disappointed, angry or are experiencing a variety of other less than pleasant emotions toward them. So, perhaps you have witnessed your mother do this to her mother-in-law while you were growing up. You then learn that cutting off relatives is an option and you may follow suit when feeling similarly disenchanted by someone in your family circle. Look, we all learn from what we see modeled at home.
2. Power and Control. In all families there are the dominant and less than dominant family members. The dominant may lead the family in cutting off a relative simply to exert their high level of power and control. Think of bullies and victims here. Where do you think kids learn about the playground dynamics of bullying? Bullies are often exerting the same modes of power and control that are on display in their homes.
3. Exhaustion. Sometimes family members simply get exhausted and depleted by a relative. They may feel that they have put up with this for too long and they may feel hopeless that this will change. They may start out by phasing out a relative and then handily place this relative on the “do not interact with” list. Look, everyone has their own pain tolerance level and can only handle so much.
4. Rewriting Narratives. There are all kinds of family members who know a lot about your history and younger self. Perhaps, you don’t want to be reminded of your past. How do you go about re-writing your history and changing your narrative? One way is to shut out the family members who know all about your past. Eliminate them from your lives and you can re-write your story without anyone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag. Avoid that relative and your past is more likely to be left right there where you feel it belongs-in the past.
5. Loyalty. Some of you are likely forced into a situation where you have to choose between a child from a former marriage or a new partner. Or, maybe you are feeling coerced into choosing between a parent or a spouse. These are dreadful situations but you all know someone who has been in one of these types of situations. Common? Yes. Easy? Certainly not.
6. Perceived Slights. Sometimes a set of misunderstandings occur between relatives. If they don’t get discussed then they build up and break down relationships. It really is so tragic that build-ups lead to breakdowns. I have never been a fan of avoidance but for many discussion is synonymous with confrontation so avoidance is the unfortunate choice.
7. Money. Financial issues are often the source of relationship difficulties. Money may not always be able to buy love but it sure can lead to lots of bad feelings. Consider the dynamics of a family dividing an inheritance or what often happens when families go into business together.
8. Caring for Elderly or Sick Parents. Do you want to see a family disintegrate? Watch what happens when a set of siblings try to share the responsibilities involved in taking a sick parent to doctor appointments and/or visit an elderly parent who can no longer take full care of him or herself. There are certainly families that come together and handle these sorts of situations beautifully but today I am discussing the reasons that relatives get disenchanted with one another and this is undoubtedly high on the list.
9. Abuse. Unfortunately, many among us have been emotionally and/or physically abused by relatives. This damage cannot necessarily be repaired. In many but not all of these cases cutoffs will be the result of a lengthy set of painful interactions.
10. Lack of Elasticity. Some families simply lack what I like to refer to as elasticity. They lack the ability to recover from difficulties and like a rubber band snap when stretched too far.
It is my hope and work as a clinical psychologist to help families discuss differences and mend fences. I sure try. There are times, however, when there is so much history and damage that there is little desire and energy to repair relationships. It is my job to help individuals understand their role in family cutoffs either as the person who is cut off or the one who has initiated the cutoff. Good luck to everyone as you try to understand your particular set of family dynamics.
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