Emotional Cutoff

37 Commentsby   |  10.05.09  |  Uncategorized

            Consider the following individuals with respect to their families of origin. Person A is a highly differentiated person while Person B is largely undifferentiated. Which is more likely to demonstrate emotional cutoff from their family? A brief etymological analysis would seem to indicate the differentiated person is more likely. Both of the words “different” and “cutoff” indicate separation. Right? Wrong! In actuality, the undifferentiated individual is more likely to experience emotional cutoff from one’s family of origin. An explanation of this follows.

            “Emotional cutoff is a concept in systems theory that describes the way people manage the undifferentiation (and emotional intensity associated with it) that exists between the generations” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 271). Cutoff is an attempt to reduce discomfort caused by chronic anxiety associated with emotional attachment to one’s family of origin. Bowen goes so far as to propose that “all people have some degree of unresolved emotional attachment to their parents” (Bowen, 1978, p. 382). Cutoff is an emotional resource to separate oneself from the past and focus on the present. Cutoff occurs as frequently by parents to adult children as vice versa. It may be accomplished by physical distance but “the amount of physical distance is not equivalent to the amount of emotional distance that exists” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 272). One may continue to live in close proximity to one’s family of origin while maintaining severe emotional distance, while on the other hand, one may live across the country from one’s family of origin and remain in close emotional contact.

            Gilbert describes the process of cutoff as follows. Undifferentiation between an individual and one’s family of origin creates an inevitably anxiety producing fusion of selfs. Because of the intensity of feelings involved in such a relationship, emotional reactivity is high causing “knee jerk” reactions. The emotionally reactive response to fusion is emotional cutoff. (Gilbert, 1992).

           Because it has the capacity to reduce anxiety, Kerr and Bowen (1988) describe it as neither inherently good nor bad. However, they also attach the warning that since the family of origin is often the best support system, cutoff may reduce anxiety when there is a deficit of stress from other sources but, when facing increased personal stress, cutoff can contribute to the level anxiety due to the absence of that support system.

           Perhaps no song quite makes as strong a plea against emotional cutoff as Journey’s famous anthem “Don’t Stop Believing.”  While faith and perseverance are important, Kerr and Bowen’s alternative to cutoff is, not coincidentally, similar to Bowen’s prescription for seeking further differentiation from one’s family of origin. They proposes that one seek emotional objectivity about one’s family of origin and to see oneself as part of the system (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Some questions to consider:

      “What is the difference between being emotionally cutoff and being emotionally independent of one’s family of origin?”

      “When or how is cutoff healthy? Do you agree with the assertion that it is neither good nor bad?”

       “Why do you agree or disagree with Bowen’s notion that all people have a measure of unresolved conflict with their family of origin?”

        Finally, a riddle: “Is the performance in the video a quintet or a solo?”


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.

Gilbert, R. (1992). Extraordinary relationships: A new way of thinking about human interactions. New York: Wiley.

Kerr, M. E. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on bowen theory. New York: Norton.


  1. Jacqueline Roberts
    9:06 am, 10.12.09

    (1) Being emotionally cutoff and being differentiated (independent from one’s family of origin)is very different. Being emotionlly cutoff from one’s family involves complete undifferentiation or emotinal disengagment. Whereas being differentiated from one’s family of origin involves indepdence, with a healthy amount of emotional attachment.

    2) I agree that being cutoff cannot be taught of in black and white terms such as good or bad. For example, in families where neglect, incest, or physical abuse is prevalent being emotionally cutoff maybe be healthy. If an individual has to remain cutoff from certain family members or their entire family to stay safe, then cutoff is a healthy option. However, emotional cutoff can also be unhealthy to individuals that are undifferentiated and come from an enmeshed family system.

    (3) I definitely agree with Bowen on this one. In everyone’s family there are problems that manifest, and never get resolved. Additionally, individuals usually take these unresolved issues into their new family system, continuing the multigenerational progression.

  2. Tara Stephens
    4:07 pm, 10.14.09

    In regards to these questions, I agree with Jacqueline.

    Cutting oneself off from their family is an attempt at relieving oneself from the anxiety experienced that can’t be dealt with otherwise. Differentiation is, like Jacqueline said, an independence complimented with a healthy emotional attachment.

    I don’t agree with the assertion that emotional cut-off is neither good nor bad. I believe that our families are our basic support structure and a blue print to help us learn how to deal with life in almost every aspect. To emotionally cut off from one’s family is to throw off a tool that God has blessed us with. But, I do believe that there are times when I believe that emotional cut off is the healthiest option for an individual who is faced with extreme life circumstances, like Jacqueline said, in incest, physical abuse, and also intense emotional abuse.

    Conflict is a natural part of life and not all of it can be resolved especially with one’s own family. So, I agree with Bowen that all people have a measure of unresolved conflict with their family of origin.

  3. Amie Campbell
    6:23 pm, 10.16.09

    I think cut-off can be healthy. Like Jacqueline, I can see situations where for a person’s safety, and maybe even their emotional health, a cut-off may be the best option. I would say that it is still a tough spot in which to be. As Tara pointed out our families are designed to be our primary support system. I would say that in cases of abusive relationships that the support system has already been damaged. Now theoretically, these relationships can be mended, but I would say that it might be easier (and possibly better?) for an individual to become cut-off (or maybe just very distant) from their abusers and to then work to develop an extra-familiar support system to replace those damaged relationships.

  4. Scott Rampy
    11:57 pm, 10.18.09

    Question 2 is generating the most discussion: “When or how is cutoff healthy? Do you agree with the assertion that it is neither good nor bad?”

    This is the question with which I have the most difficulty. I am caught between two positions. One which Jackie, Tara, and Amie each seem to share is that given specific circumstances, emotional cutoff may be healthy and therefore, neither inherently good nor bad. Considering they have Bowen’s own personal backing on this position (Kerr and Bowen, 1988), it is hard to argue with them.

    I would like to press the issue further however. Although conscientious of the probability of error when making broad generalizations, I have the tendency to see emotional cutoff as inherently dysfunctional, or “bad”. Yes, even in cases where “neglect, incest, or physical abuse is prevalent”. Perhaps this sounds cruel or absurd but lend a patient ear (or eye for this format).

    If one is emotionally cut off in situations such as these, that would tend to indicate that they have detached from these stressors in such a way as to leave them unresolved, undealt with, “bottled up”, or buried in the back closet of one’s emotional psyche. When considered in this way, does this sound healthy? In my experience, as much as one tries to distance themself from wounds such as these, they ultimately cannot keep from being affected by them until dealt with on a likely painful level. The function of cutoff is to prevent one from having to deal with hurts in such a manner. Yes, this is unpleasant and unfair for the victim, yet that is part of the reason why the offense is so heinous to begin with. It was inflicted upon an innocent, undeserving person and leaves lasting injury upon the victim. If this were to be discussed in terms of differentiation, one with a higher level of differentiation would be able to recognize and consider the hurts that have been caused while achieving a level of being emotionally unreactive to them. This is the opposite of emotional cutoff from painful injuries.

    A complicating factor in this discussion, as Amie pointed out, is when cutoff is considered in terms of a personal relationship. This discussion begins to encroach on forgiveness theory. Perhaps a mediating view between the trio of responses above and my own response is that while cutoff from the event and ensuing emotions is (always?) unhealthy, that does not mean that the interpersonal relationship with the perpetrator can or should go back to its original state as if nothing ever happened. Perhaps in this way cutoff in terms of interpersonal distancing is in fact healthy to the effect of limiting potential for further injury.

    Regarding question #4,I must say I am disappointed that nobody has taken the bait of attempting to answer the riddle. Any takers?

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  5. Blake Berryhill
    8:49 am, 10.23.09

    Good post. I would like to comment on the last line: “They propose that one seek emotional objectivity about one’s family of origin and to see oneself as part of the system (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).” The question I have is this: Is there such a thing as emotional objectivity? If one is part of a human system, then there is an inherent emotional attachment to that system. There may be varying degrees of emotional attachment (hate on one end, love on the other). Emotional objectivity seems to land on the side of indifference. Even in this case, indifference is the emotion not to feel emotions. What I am trying to say is that I do not agree that with the definition that people can be emotionally objective.

  6. Amie Campbell
    4:43 pm, 10.23.09

    Question #4: Solo, used multiple video feeds compiled together.

  7. Scott Rampy
    10:24 pm, 10.23.09

    If I understand how Kerr and Bowen mean emotional objectivity, especially in a discussion of cutoff, Kerr and Bowen may respond as follows. I believe they would agree that emotions will be a part of any system of human interaction. Objectivity refers to the ability to make rational decisions despite bias towards one action or another. Therefore, emotional objectivity would be the ability to make a rational decision regardless of emotional stimulus.

    This is also not the same as indifference. Emotional indifference indicates disregard for emotions. On the other hand, emotional objectivity recognizes and notes emotions, however is not ruled by them.

    Emotional objectivity occurs every time one’s emotions tell him to react in one way and the individual decides to behave the opposite way of their emotions. For example, there are two kids on the playground. One of them is a bully picking on the other one. If the victim is completely ruled by his emotions a fight may ensue. On the other hand, if he is emotionally objective, the victim of the bullying may decide to walk away despite the intense urge to punch the bully in the mouth.

    In regard to the family system and cutoff, an individual who is not emotionally objective may cutoff from their family given enough incentive to distance from them. On the other hand, one who is emotionally objective notes his feelings and decides, despite the difficulty and unpleasantness, to remain in contact with them. This one aspect which characterizes one who has become differentiated – connected emotionally though objective enough to not be controlled by his emotions toward his family. T

    his is made easier by the second part of the sentence – to recognize the workings of the system. This also takes objectivity. To view the system one must be able to take on an outsider’s perspective of the system and view it as a whole from a different angle – noting the process of others’ interactions with each other and also one’s own interactions with the members of the system. This is only possible when one can separate his thinking from his feeling.

  8. Scott Rampy
    10:26 pm, 10.23.09

    Amie, thanks for humoring me :) Although I must say, one could make the case that you are correct, partially correct, and wrong all at the same time. Ponder that for a second…

  9. Blake Berryhill
    12:45 pm, 10.26.09

    Thanks for clarifying.

  10. Jaime Goff
    6:51 pm, 10.26.09

    Scott, thanks for the Journey/Glee shout-out with your example. I was with Amie…I thought it was one person with way too much time on his hands. But after your most recent comment, I’m not sure. Tell us! Please!?

    I really appreciated your description of emotional objectivity, and I think you described it correctly as defined by Kerr and Bowen. This whole discussion is the #1 sticking point for people when it comes to differentiation. Emotional objectivity is about using our uniquely human ability (as compared to the rest of the animal kingdom) to make a choice about whether and how we will respond to our instinctual emotional responses. We have the opportunity to engage our prefontal cortexes. My cat, unfortunately, does not. When she gets mad at me, her brain stem tells her to pee on my luggage, clothes, etc. She doesn’t ever think about whether this is a good response…she just does it (much to my chagrin).

  11. Sarah Osborn
    12:29 pm, 11.12.09

    I agree with your explanation of emotional objectivity, but I still think that there are circumstances where a cut-off is necessary and healthy. What if, after the victim ignores the bully and walks away, the bully still slugs him anyway? I think this happens a lot in families. It would be easy for the bully to judge the victim as taking a “holier than thou” approach.
    Also, just because the victim does not react by taking part in the fight, it does not mean that his emotions are gone. I would say that it is not the reaction to emotions that is most detrimental, but the emotions themselves. Those are the thoughts that the victim has to live with, and I think that they can be emotionally and physically draining, no matter how much rationalization you use.
    Also, I think that emotional cut-off is not only beneficial for the person, but also for their family. I think it may be necessary for a person who has been abused by a family member to cut them off so as to protect themselves and their own family and children. I think it would be a poor decision to put children in danger just for the sake of family harmony and differentiation.

  12. Tommy Johnson
    11:04 am, 11.30.09

    Differences between emotional cut-off and independence is based upon differentiation–I suppose. I mean if you leave home and say “I’m never coming back”. You will be cut-off. And, you aren’t very differentiated, because inside the back of your mind (I’m guessing), you wanted to hurt somebody with your response. This is not differentiated or independent. On the other hand, if you plan and determine with your family that you want to leave, because you need to discover your own dreams. The family, depending on the family, would probably accept this and give you their blessings.

    If one is differentiated with their family on the front end, I think that this adds to the growth of the family’s behaviors (cut-off vs. independence) toward that individual. In this independence phase, the individual has to continue with contact–otherwise they still have to chance of being cut-off. They aren’t being cut-off because of differentiation this time, but because of distance.

    Relationships going through change are tricky. There has to be work on the front end to grease the wheels (morphogenesis), perpetual filling of the gas (negentropy), and then balance the stops that are made (morphostasis /homeostasis).

    I like to think of movie families when I think of cut-off versus independence. Picture the Tennenbaums. They cut-off Royal, because he left on bad terms and never contacted them. However, the three children were just independent when they left, because they continued to have a relationship and contact with their mother. If you haven’t seen The Royal Tennenbaums, you must watch it over the break! It’s a therapist’s jack-pot! ha! Is that ethical to say?

  13. Morgan Myrick
    2:10 am, 12.09.09

    I agree with Tommy on the fact that cut-off and independence are based on the situation, an individual’s emotional state, and the family’s reaction to it. Depending on why a child leave home or separates themself from their family would determine which of these best describes their current relationship status with their family of origin. Being cut-off from their FOO because of negative circumstances will probably create negative consequences that will leave the individual feeling very disengaged. However, if a person is merely seeking independence for the purpose of bettering themselves and following a personal desire, they will become differentiated in a healthy and productive way that still allows them to maintain healthy relationships with their FOO.
    I also believe that their is a lot of gray areas in why a person would want to become disengaged from their family so whether or not their decision is positive or negative would have to be on a case by case basis. Of couse a person’s emotional and physical well being is always of the upmost importance so anything that puts them in danger must be stopped. This goes for spiritual state as well. If being a part of a group or family goes against what someone believes in, I think that they are well within reason to cut themselves out of whatever is going on.

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