Differentiation and Emotional Cut-offs

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Kamaljith K V. Image links to source.

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Kamaljith K V. Image links to source.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on September 15, 2013.

Murray Bowen’s theories on differentiation of self and emotional cut-offs provide an excellent lens for viewing the complex relationships that exist between family members who were raised in quiverfull and Christian patriarchal families. In such situations, family roles are artificially skewed by religious influence and the necessity for sibling-parenting due to sheer numbers in the family.

Bowen’s theory on differentiation of self describes how people are inherently dependent on each other. At the same time, each individual needs to balance how much to conform to a group for acceptance (a universal need) and to what extent to be emotionally independent in order to deal with unavoidable conflict without having to take sides or dissolve emotionally. (You can read more about Bowen’s theory here.)

Bowen’s theory of emotional cutoff describes how sometimes people with complex relationships in their families may choose to create distance from family members or declare a permanent separation from them. The theory explains that this is not always a good solution because there are patterns of relationships that are formed in childhood that dictate how the individual relates to new people in life, because they may look to new people to fill emotional roles that are inappropriate to the relationship.

I left my quiverfull family when I was 17. I was the oldest daughter (second child) of nine. For a while I remained in contact with many of the people who contributed to the safety of the patriarchal environment, including my father and leaders of the church he attended.

Acceptance in a group is a universal need, but a problem arises when the cost is too great.

I had not really found a new group yet at this point, but the cost of acceptance in the former group was to return home and submit to my father. That was not an option for me.

*****

Conflict happens, it is unavoidable in order to take part in social connections. By conflict I do not mean drama or arguments. However, not everyone will agree with everyone else. Thus there needs to be a way of dealing with this between friends or loved ones without meltdowns and emotional cut-offs, simply because instituting an emotional cut-off when the going gets rough is not a sustainable method of remaining in social connections. Even if you were surrounded by people who were willing and able to float in and out of contact on a whim related to an emotional incident, at some point a complete lack of trust will be reached and one side will not be willing to reconnect.

If a person flees from painful social and family connections to others, they will come to new relationships with a greater emotional need than is typical in a friendship. They may find others who are also looking to fill that greater emotional need in themselves, which is how co-dependent relationships are formed. This is also not a good solution because co-dependence will eventually harm someone, whether one side moves to a new co-dependent relationship and drops the other, or if they sink too far into their emotional relationship to the detriment of their own mental health.

The goal of differentiation is to avoid emotional cut-off but also stay away from inappropriate emotional connection while remaining in acceptance in a group.

For me when I left the patriarchal system, I had to find a new social group to obtain acceptance from, while learning how to avoid the pitfall of an inappropriate emotional connection. Those inappropriate connections did take place, but eventually I learned what was happening and how to avoid it.

Differentiation means being able to be a whole person in spite of what is going on for other people or what negative stimulus is experienced.

There is a saying that other people are not responsible for how you feel. This does not mean that people can treat each other poorly by any means, and if they are involved in a social contract that states that they will treat each other well, they are bound by that contract. Triggers and negative stimulus will happen all the time in life; it is impossible to exist in a safe vacuum without these. The bottom line though, is that you are responsible for how a trigger makes you react. Everyone is at a different place, and there cannot be an expectation that everyone will be able to take responsibility all the time. Self-awareness and growth takes time, and people deserve the help that is required to get there.

When I was working on my social work degree, I provided counseling to women who had experienced domestic violence. This was obviously a very triggering experience for me, but I was working with two very wise women who suggested that rather than hide from what was triggering me, I actively face those triggers and deconstruct them. This means that rather than dissolve emotionally when I heard a sad situation, I perform my job in that room and help the survivor process what had happened, and then later when I became sad about it, acknowledge why I was feeling sad, that it was because something happened to them and I could relate to it, instead of just feeling sad and then taking that sadness into other relationships.

There are a very large number of intricate relationships in my family. Some of us do not talk at all. Some of the siblings talk rarely. I have made it clear to a few of my siblings that if they have something that they would like to talk about, they can text me and let me know what they would like to discuss and we can do that, but that I will not take surprise phone calls from them. Interestingly, the siblings I have that arrangement with do not text and let me know when they want to discuss something. They try to call and I let it go to voicemail, and they do not leave voicemails. They just try again and again, and I usually send a text asking what is going on, and get no response.

I have one sibling I get along very well with. We do not share exactly the same views on everything, but we certainly respect each other’s right to hold different views. We spend time together but respect each other’s space. We have fun times but only discuss the past when we both agree to do so. I have another sibling who has quite a different lifestyle than I do, but we still get along. We discuss what is different about our views without the intention of getting the other to change her mind. We do not spend much time together because our different lifestyles put us on such different time tables and locations that it is rarely possible.

I have another sibling with which I have a more confusing relationship, and we have a relationship when she wants one. Currently she does not, although she didn’t end a relationship in a dramatic fashion, more so she faded out of my life. I have three younger siblings who still live with my mother. I do not see the two little brothers much because I do not go to my mother’s house. I do see my youngest sister on a regular basis, and we have a good relationship.

My relationship with my mother is complex; I am not spending social time with her. I do not have a social relationship with my father. On the few occasions I have seen him in the last several years, I have taken a moment to make sure he knows I think he is an abhorrent human being. I’m not loud about it, but he knows. I have refused opportunities to meet with him in the past several years to discuss our relationship, and he doesn’t try anymore. As far as I know, it has been quite some time since he has even mentioned my existence to anyone. I have sometimes seen him around town without talking to him.

In the past, I would have described some of these relationships differently. Some of what happens in these relationships is triggering. However, I believe that I am responsible for how I feel after interactions with my family. I don’t think I always was responsible. I had to learn that I was responsible and learn how to take care of my own emotions, so there was a time that I was not responsible. There is also the chance that at some point there will be such an overwhelming amount of negative events and triggers that I could lose responsibility for a while. However now that I know, I am still responsible to eventually move on or to get help to do so.

People need acceptance, and people need other people. They need to take part in a social contract where they receive help and help others. It facilitates such relationships if they can take responsibility for their own emotions and be whole people in spite of what happens. No one can be perfect all the time and shouldn’t feel pressured to try to be perfect. People can work toward emotional independence and an ability to stand firm in their own heads even when everyone around them is doing something that they shouldn’t.

Learning about yourself is a powerful enterprise.

One comment

  • Excellent post in regards to Bowenian theory. As a family therapist this angle has always intrigued me but I’ve found it is about as effective as the readiness the family/individual has to examine their families of origin. Some are truly not ready, and so I can respect the challenges in using a Bowen strategy with these populations. Once that willingness is established, however, I especially love the way it can be used as a way to examine desires for future family legacy as well. It’s often easier to discuss the the future they can control than the past in which they had very little control. Thanks for sharing.

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