Getting Cut Off: when someone you love cuts you out of their life

When studying Bowen Family Systems I noticed a distinction in the literature between “cut offs” and “estrangement” when talking about families. For the sake of this article I am going to be talking about “cut offs” and the impact this has on the victim (or person being sent into exile from the life of the loved one).

Families develop their own system and ways of relating, communicating, celebrating and rewarding one another. Families also have ways of creating norms, that is, what is socially acceptable and what is not, and are known to impose sanctions to ensure members continue to operate (function) according to plan. Whose plan? I will get to whose plan further in this article.

All families have joint ways of doing things. A family system is like a large mobile and everyone has their place and with their weight and not moving around too much the mobile can stay relatively stable. If everyone stays put then the mobile won’t move. Families become very comfortable with this mobile. It can create a sense of stability, predictability and not only that it also makes it easier for members to know what others expect from them as well. Everyone knows their place. So what happens if change occurs?

This is where most “cut offs” take place. Something changes the mobile (the family dynamic) and it can almost be crisis inducing for some members.

Changes that impact the mobile include: Divorce, remarriage, step children, new babies, death, chronic illness, a member moving to another part of the country, a child with a disability, an adult with the onset of significant illness, financial crisis, job loss, Covid-19 restrictions, & the mental health of a member to name only some of the many examples of family change. Other observations from Family Systems experts note that these above noted changes are not the only stress-inducing variables within a family mobile system. In other words, it isn’t just negative stressors that cause distress for family systems, but also good changes cause significant distress as well.

For example, in families where alcoholism or other addictions are prevalent the alcoholic is often the obvious target of blame, ridicule shame and outrage, but it has been noted that once the alcoholic starts to make significant changes and gets the help they need to overcome their addiction the family mobile starts to become disrupted. Sabotaging the alcoholic’s recovery becomes prevalent from other family members. Family arguments, turmoil, fighting and such often happen creating the atmosphere conducive to creating addiction relapse. People know their place when the alcoholic is the bad guy. People don’t want to look at the turmoil they bring to the family when the alcoholic gets healthier. Dysfunctional families like predictability even if it is to predict ongoing chaos.

So what does all this have to do with when a family member “cuts you off” from their life? One simple word. “Control.” For whatever reason the person who is cutting you off (outside of you being a safety threat, such as a pedophile) is implementing a major attempt at control for something you may or may have not done that changed the mobile. Did you get healthier? Did you stop being a people pleaser? Did you stop cow towing to the image everyone wanted for you? Did you stop responding to those who manipulated you by pouting? Did you leave a unhealthy relationship that was killing you on the inside? Did you exercise your right as an individual to take a path that meant you were finally at peace with yourself? Did you start to embrace a way of life that brought you a sense of fulfillment. Not all change is bad change, but all change changes things.

Just know that when you make changes for your own good it will impact those in your family mobile. You can be certain that your change also means change for them. Some may have enjoyed the predictability you displayed when you self sacrificed everything in your life for them. While there is a time for doing so, for example when raising children they must be your top priority etc., but once your children are grown it is time to turn your attention towards what years you have left and how you are meant to spend those years. Just know that when you go through transformative change those in your family mobile will feel it, and while some will root for you not all will do so. ¬†True love supports you, cares for you and wants the best for you. Family members may forget the people in the mobile are also human and have been given God given gifts and talents. Too many people may think that your existence is only for their benefit. I’ve coached far too many people where doing good for them was met with accusations of selfishness, that they were being overly dramatic and the like. When good for me means bad for you there is a problem. Although when I sacrifice the good for me in order to satisfy the selfishness in you that is even worse.


Until next time,


Waves Design