A man refuses to speak to his sister for 15 years. The reason? At the time of their mother’s death, he was left alone to care for her as she died. Then, to add insult to injury, her sister questioned his family loyalty.
After years of criticism and rejection, a wife decides not to speak to her in-laws anymore, a decision that causes chronic problems in her marriage.
The child of a closely-knit family moves across the country and only communicates with the family through greeting cards on holidays.
These are all examples of emotional cut-off, a process in which one or both parties in a relationship effectively terminate that relationship in response to uncomfortable feelings between them. It’s not uncommon within families.
To understand emotional cut-off it is necessary to understand the concept of emotional fusion. Fusion has to do with the degree of emotional reactivity that exists between people.
If our reactivity to each other is so powerful that I cannot define and hold my own position as a self in our relationship, I might feel I need to “cut-off” in order to feel functionally independent.
If my feelings in reaction to you are intense and unpleasant enough, I may “cut-off” from you rather than dealing with my own strong feelings. Once I am “cut-off” from you, I no longer feel I have to deal with our relationship. It relieves my anxiety.
The problem with emotional cut-off is that it is a short-term solution, which creates a long-term problem. People grow, emotionally, through working our relationship hassles. In the process, they achieve “differentiation,” the opposite of fusion.
First, I can tell the difference between me and you. I don’t have to react blindly to things you do or say. Second, I can differentiate my emotions from my reason. I can choose my responses rather than reacting automatically. This is emotional maturity.