Why bridge cutoff?
Very difficult relationships can lead one to ask why bridge cutoff. Karl Pillemer discusses this in-depth in his book Fault Lines. This post borrows ideas from that book. His work is based on extensive interviews and research. In my opinion, he adds a lot of practical thinking to the theory of cutoff.
In Bowen theory, emotional cutoff is a process that occurs between generations. It is a particular type of emotional distance and was so significant that Dr. Bowen made it one of the eight concepts in the theory. It would be impossible to talk about cutoff without discussing other concepts of the theory. Differentiation of self is another core concept and is fundamental to bridging cutoff.
Cutoff has a cost
It is important to remember that cutoff has personal and system-level impacts. One could think of it as a loss of a limb. No matter how one recovers, the body is always compensating for the loss. I think emotional cutoff is worse because it’s not as final. There is constant uncertainty about the relationship. But the cost isn’t just for the individuals involved in the relationship. Often all the other family members, for generations, get caught up in the cutoff as well.
However, sometimes efforts to bridge cutoff are just not worth it. If the relationship puts a person at risk, for example. Bridging cutoff with someone who has a severe substance use issue, is doing illegal activity, or is physically violent would be examples. Each person has to decide for themselves how much effort they want to make.
Bridging can bring benefits
It is very important to remember that an individual bridging cutoff is doing it for themselves. This is part of one defining self. How do they want to be in the relationship? How important is this to them? Are they really ready to make the effort? A half-hearted effort, being done based on what others think and say, could backfire.
The idea of “accepting” the other person, or “accepting what is” comes up in this work. Accepting does not mean agreement. One can accept (it’s more than understand) that the other person is different, but they don’t have to agree that the other is right or that what they are doing is okay. Acceptance means that one doesn’t try to change the other or expect the other to change. This approach might limit the circumstances for when the two might meet. For example, I won’t engage with you if you are intoxicated. But I could meet for a coffee if you are sober.
Acceptance doesn’t mean I’m okay with the situation or that I like it. When it is raining, I don’t have to like it. I’m certainly not going to change the weather. So I accept it is raining and I decide how I’m going to be. Am I going to go out, and if I do, what will I wear?
Many cutoffs result from arguments and individuals just not making some effort to connect again. Maybe one’s thinking has an aspect of “I would like to” or “maybe I should” around the relationship. If so, then it would seem that there will be regret later on if the cutoff isn’t bridged. One can ask themselves if the other person died today would they regret not having figured out how to connect?i
Get a family, get resources
When one isolates from their family, they have lost “a family”. Family get-togethers and holidays are lost to the individual. One can end up losing shared, meaningful experiences like births, graduations, weddings, and funerals.
Family members can be great resources. From cooking advice, to vacation ideas, to how to deal with kids, and so many other aspects of life. And it’s not just the individual that loses out. Their whole family could lose out. I’ve shared ideas with my nephews about careers, for example. If I had stayed cut off from my sisters, this would have never happened.
Get a lifetime of experiences
Staying connected with family over decades creates a lifetime of shared experiences. Experience enriches one’s life. It enriches the lives of everyone in the system, possibly for generations. I think of experiences that I would never have had if I hadn’t worked at connecting with and staying connected with family. My family members definitely enriched my life.
Defining self is key
The most important long-term benefit to bridging cut-off is that one gets to work on defining self in a challenging relationship. I learned a lot about myself as I worked through the cut-off I had with my family. This was about me looking at my part in the relationship and working on my part. As I did that, the relationships became more enjoyable. I stopped trying to change others. I got better at just listening and simply sharing my thoughts. My sisters’ IQ has increased over the years :-). In fact, I came to appreciate how intelligent and thoughtful they really always had been.
My situation was more of a drifting apart and not as challenging as it might be for others. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to do the work for themselves. The effort was more than worth it for me.
Thank you for your interest in family systems.
Please send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a longer video by the author Karl Pillemer: Fault Lines video.
Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.
Listen to this video from Family Matters: handling cutoff