What can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring?
I received the following question via Facebook. I have changed some of the details in order to write up my reflections as a public blog.
“My question relates to my mum and my younger sister who have been in conflict. My mum is avoiding my sister because she doesn’t want to have a difficult conversation and also believes my sister is in the wrong. I’ve encouraged her to try and stay connected to my sister and to have another conversation with her to see if they can resolve things, but she isn’t willing. She still feels very hurt by things that were said in the past. Any ideas of how else to encourage her to resolve things with my sister? What’s a mature action I can take in this situation?”
It can be heartbreaking to witness ruptures within our families – to have 2 people that we love dearly not talking to each other. The more that they avoid each other the stronger the ill-will seems to grow. Both family members can triangle us into their complaints about the other and we can find ourselves impossibly sandwiched in the middle. We can try hard not to take sides and to encourage each family member to reconnect and talk through their misunderstandings but predictably this mediation effort hits dead ends. Neither party is willing to give up their position about the wrong they feel has been done to them.
Observations of such circumstances reveal that the effort to change others and convince them to make amends is rarely productive. Relationship hurt and the resultant anxious defensiveness is unlikely to shift in response to another’s pressure. If there have been intergenerational patterns of people cutting off in the face of disagreements it will be especially hard for such programming to change. Distance and avoidance has become the default in the face of tension.
A family is an emotional unit – like a single organism. This means that any change one person makes will affect other’s experience of the family. So what can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring? The following are some examples of options. It must be remembered however that each family has some unique ways of playing out tensions and alliances. Hence each of us has to work out what particular adjustments are useful to make in how we respond to each family member in the strained side of the triangle (in this instance the sister and mother are the strained side of the triangle with both aligned with the person who asks the question about the dilemmas they face). None of this can be rolled out as a technique.
Rather any change effort needs to make sense to the person seeking to make adjustments; and it needs to connect with their inner convictions if they are to contribute to the wellbeing of the unit.
- Keep contact with each family member who is not talking to the third.
- The effort is to relate from self not in an effort to change another.
- Ensure the contact is person to person and not a vent about the third person. If venting begins it may help to say: “I know you are grappling with how to deal with your upset with X but I’m committed to our time together to be a catch up on each other.”
- If the push to complain about the other continues it may help to say something like: “Mum when you talk angrily about my sister it affects me quite negatively. I care deeply about you both. Your venting about X leaves a vacuum in our relationship. I find the focus on my sister is making it harder for me to really connect with you the way I want to.”
- If the protest comes again it may be helpful to speak from conviction saying: “I’m not willing to go there Mum. I don’t want to be part of creating frustration in our time together.”
- In response to one family member not being invited to a family event it may be useful to say: “I understand you are making this call based on what you feel but I’m not OK about fully participating in a family gathering when my sister not invited. I will drop in briefly to acknowledge the event but won’t stay for meal time while ever this is the situation.”
- Another option is to make transparent that each party in the tension is communicating with you about the other. Such openness about how each expresses their challenges to you can be a gesture of handing the issue back to the relationship where it has opportunity to be worked out. It’s a kind of reversal of the direction of communication. An example might sound like: “I heard from X last week that they are a bit stuck knowing how to move things forward after the fallout. I let them know how you are also sharing a similar impasse. I conveyed that I have no idea what it will take for the two of you to get unstuck but that I am interested to see what solutions you eventually come up with.”
Back to the original question: “What’s a mature action I can take in this situation with my mother and sister not speaking?”
The key is to remember is that ‘cut offs’ are a common way of relieving intense negative emotions in a relationship. A period of distance is just predictable in families with a tendency to handle offences with stonewalling. The distance provides substantial shorter term reduction in anxiety and over whelmed emotions. If you get caught in being the triangle ‘meat in the sandwich’ you contribute to fuelling the ‘cut off’. Similarly if you participate fully in events and conversations that exclude the other you are accommodating to it. Above all be patient – these patterns are embedded in the ways previous generations dealt with transitioning from family of origin to family of creation. There is no quick fix to a pattern that has helped (albeit not maturely) families to cope with relationship stress over centuries.
Note about Emotional Cut Off – 1 of Bowen theory’s 8 concepts
Emotionally cutting off to relieve internal discomfort has its roots in the way people leave home. If they distanced from their parents in establishing their adult life- not being real and open in negotiating this life transition with each parent- the foundations for future impulsive ‘cut offs’ are laid down. (We all have varying degrees of this with our parents – Bowen called this: unresolved emotional attachment) Working on meaningful relating back to parents can reduce the likelihood of this pattern being repeated in the current generations.
Dr Bowen writes: “The concept deals with the way people separate themselves from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation (FTCP : 382).”
Dr Kerr writes: “People reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, but risk making their new relationships too important. For example, the more a man cuts off from his family of origin, the more he looks to his spouse, children, and friends to meet his needs.”
For a full description of this pattern read: Bowen Theory Eight Concepts or Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.