top of page

Emotional Cutoff

Emotional cutoff, the fifth concept, was added to the theory in 1975. This concept describes in detail the way that people manage the relationships between the generations.

Bowen had written in the other concepts describing how people handle their unresolved emotional attachment to parents. But eventually he decided that the automatic use of cut off between the generations was so pervasive that this automatic mechanism deserved its own concept.

It is difficult for people to be aware of the impact of the families' history on one's functioning. But we are each born into system that has a need for us to function in specific way.

This history of contact between the generations influences the complexity of our root system. If there is denial of the importance of others and a cut of from others then the root system is less complex, has less variety, and there is more tension about how one fits into the group.

If the tension becomes great enough any two people will pull apart. There is not an orderly process in relationships and growth is threatened when there are serious cut offs between the generations.  A threatened family system polorizes, blames a few, and the family enters into the process of cutting off when tension rises.  if one can grow away from their parents while still maintaining good contact then diversity in relationship can occur. The realistic differences that develop between people can be respected. 

The main influence on ones level of differentiation has to do with how well one is able to separates from the family of origin.  Ones maturity is also reflected in the ability to reduce old cut off in the family and establish a broader network of important relationships.  This also has an affect on one's level of emotional maturity.

 Outside of Bowen theory there is very little emphasis in the psychological literature on how one maintains contact with their family after they leave home.

One assumption is that part of emotional cut off is the general state of denial around teh transition of leaving home.

Emotional or physical cut off from the past can makes it easier for young adults to assume that they are independent. It is a pretend to think one is independent if one simply has nothing to do with difficult people.  Part of the mythology and part of the automatic way people try to "leave home" and "grow up," is to maintain that it is no big deal to deal well with the past generations.

To those in the know difficulty in separating out a self is nothing to be ashamed of. For those few who know that staying in emotional contact while maintaining one's beliefs is a courageous act, they will be seen here and there saying they are having fun managing differences rather than getting mad and acting out by cutting off. It always fun to explore if you are adventurous.

Staying in contact with previous generations of our families is an emotional work out. It's like going to the emotional gym. You do it to maintain your backbone. You do it to learn to respect others and to try and be as honest as you can about who you are. This type of an effort goes against the grain for many of us.

There are people who are honestly repelled by the thought of having to go visit their parents or grandparents not to mention a 3rd cousins. For those who know but refuse to deal with their sensitivity to their family, there are dangerous emotional waters ahead.

The way that people leave home and then "choose" how to continue relating to their parents is crucial for maintaining emotional connections in all future relationships.

Yes, people can always pretend to be independent and sometimes these people can exist for years cut off from family relationships. Many people do indeed manage to build alternative families. In general these alternative families are intense and overly positive. Over time these relationships may work but if a when they fall apart; people are often left high and dry for someone, sometimes anyone to relate to.

Under stress the intensity between people builds up and people want distance or a new relationship or something to drink. Yes, serious problems develop when relationships fall apart.

For a society, like ours, that values independence, the concept of emotional cut off is the most difficult one to "sell" to the public. Many people would prefer the symptoms like affairs or drinking to going home again.

This is how Bowen spelled it out in his book.

"All people have some degree of unresolved emotional attachment to their parents. The degree of unresolved emotional attachment to the parents is equivalent to the degree of undifferentiation that must somehow be handled in the person's own life and in future generations. The more intense the cut off the more likely the person is to have exaggerated versions of his parental family problems in his own marriage. The person who runs away from his family of origin is emotionally as dependent as the person who never leaves home." Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy - Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (page 382).

It appears that the harder one tries to deny the fact that separating out is a challenge the more one is sensitive and reacts negatively to emotional challenges. If people are running away and denying the importance of how they separated out from the parents then there is no need for a solution. Things will then proceed as they must.

If one can see the automatic nature of cut off, then they have a far easier time building up an emotional backbone to allow them to reenter the family of origin in a more neutral way. A neutral person is capable of bridging emotional cut offs. It is easier to work on being in better contact when people can admit that they are sensitive to the parents and need the isolation or the distance from the parental relationships to make life easier over the short term.

Those who are serious will take a long term approach and find that there is a new world awaiting the courageous explorer of emotional processes between the generations.

Now here are a few ideas I suggested to people attempting to do somehing about emotional cut off in their families.


1) Can you outline three generation of your family and then make a page for each nuclear family of your aunts, uncles grandparents their siblings etc., and see how often you communicate with each one and who is hard or impossible to talk to and who is easy to talk to and then begin a plan to contact people in a disciplined way. 

2) The principle is that you take responsibility for all you do and that you want nothing, ZERO from them. 


3) It can  make a big difference just to send these people a Happy Thanksgiving card... and or a Christmas card telling them in 1 or 2 sentences what you are doing now, wishing them well and hoping to see them at some point in the future.  


4) I also suggest that people try to think about what happed that people lost contact with each other?  Was it just a drift or are people mad as they felt cheated in a family will or were beaten up by a sibling or just what went into the cut off?


5) I never advise people to take up issues until they have a reasonable, trusting contact with the person over some amount of time.

6) Usually each person who takes up the rebuilding of the family cut off will eventually find that someone in the family will become a friend.  This does take time… But there will be an easy way to see that some like you and you like them. In every family there are the easy people and then there are the hard ones to relate to.  I try to do one hard and one easy communication each week. Also I try not to talk to people more than 5 or 10 minutes and to send cards to the more distant people.

7) Lastly, I try to predict what the people who are already close to me will do if I reach out to others they do not approve of. I try to do push ups or sit ups anytime I am ready to change. Any of us need to have a strong backbone to do it...


I do not have to tell people I am doing this they just seem to sense that I am not as dependent on them for all my relationship needs and they can react a bit.


IF you are ready for that reaction, then things will be better for you and for them as you can make a smooth transition by NOT making a big deal out of your attempts to change. 


Laughing, joking etc helps the people who need you the most, when you decide to grow up and be more of your best self.

bottom of page