Edward A. Hird, DMin
In this article, I will discuss emotional cutoff as it relates to marriage through the perspective of Bowen theory, how use of theory can help bridge cutoff and how, in a Judeo-Christian setting, the biblical understanding of covenant can offer a complementary perspective in this task.
At the communion rail with her ex-husband one Sunday, Linda said to the priest, “Someday I would like to marry Lloyd again.” As Linda had said this several times in coaching sessions—and Lloyd had said the same—, the priest asked, “Why not now?” “Sure, why not?” asked Linda. The congregational atmosphere was electric as communion unexpectedly concluded with a marriage service. Linda and Lloyd Lindsay (names changed) had been divorced for six years. The wedding sixteen years ago was followed by pastoral marriage coaching and the church’s Strengthening Marriage Workshop, based on Bowen theory. The couple’s step back into marriage, which may have seemed sudden from the outside, followed years of building trust with the pastor and congregation through adult baptisms, family funerals and other rituals.
Churches often struggle to find programs that support marriage. Some adults cite their parents’ emotional cutoff and divorce as part of their hesitation to marry. Couples who are high functioning at work may be far less functional in their marriages. The skills that make a successful entrepreneur, for example, often backfire in the bedroom and the living room, where people may be less capable of dealing with intimate relationships. Bowen observed, “In another group, a section of the intellect functions well on impersonal subjects; they can be brilliant academically, while their emotionally-directed personal lives are chaotic.” These difficulties may involve emotional cutoff, a major challenge in marriage. Bowen theory presents pastors with a different model for premarital and marital work.
What is Emotional Cutoff?
Bowen called emotional cutoff the process of separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away or denying the importance of the parental family or any significant relationship. (1978) One emotionally disconnects from earlier generations to attach in the present one. In 1975, Bowen added the concept of emotional cutoff to six previously identified Bowen concepts. As Bowen described cutoff, distancing was used to avoid anxiety aroused in intimacy. (Kerr and Bowen, Family Evaluation, p. 75)
The backdrop for Bowen’s concept of emotional cutoff was his observation of many young people running away from home during the 1960s. Parents were seen as the problem and getting away as the quick-fix solution. The one who cuts off, however, brings the unresolved attachment issues with parents to relationships with people to new settings. It has temporary benefits but long-range deficits, solving nothing. Bowen wrote:
One of the most important functional patterns in a family has to do with the intensity of the unresolved emotional attachment to parents, most frequently to the mother, for both men and women, and the way the individual handles the attachment. All people have an emotional attachment to their parents that is more intense than most people permit themselves to believe. (p. 433)
The more intense the cutoff, the more he is vulnerable to duplicating the pattern with the parents with the first available other person . . . When problems develop in the marriage, he tends also to run away from that. (p. 85)
Cutoffs are either 1) primary when directly related to one’s parents, or 2) secondary, indirect and inherited, when they based on the multigenerational emotional process and can be traced back to the primary parental cutoff. (Titelman 2003) Bowen’s use of the phrase “separation of people from each other” to describe cutoff indicates it can occur in other emotionally important “secondary” relationships. In this article, I apply the term emotional cutoff to both parent-child relationships and “secondary” ones, including marriage.
Emotional cutoff is the universal mechanism for dealing with unresolved emotional attachment. Richardson comments, “Cutoff and having nothing to do with the previous generation betrays an intense attachment that is denied but is equally powerful.”
Anxiety that is unresolved in one relationship is plays out in others. Emotional cutoff therefore is systemic and multi-layered. Cutoff from parents in one’s past shapes the degree and intensity of one’s emotional cutoff in such present and future relationships as marriage. (Titelman, Emotional Cutoff, p. 24) Without chronic anxiety, emotional distance often does not develop into emotional cutoff. Chronic anxiety is sometimes called emotional pain. Bowen theory distinguishes between chronic, ongoing anxiety and acute, intermittent anxiety. While acute anxiety is a reaction to what is happening, chronic anxiety is a reaction to what is not happening and might not ever happen. How we observe and manage anxiety is key to strengthening marriages and reducing cutoff.
Emotional cutoff from previous generations causes spouses to overestimate the importance of the other partner. Overdependence on the present generation raises one’s anxiety level, making a person more likely to cut off emotionally from her spouse. The high divorce rate in North America appears closely linked to multigenerational emotional cutoff from families of origin. Multigenerational connectedness is the healthy alternative.
Where there has been violence by parents to each other or their children, emotional cutoff can function to increase violence in the present generation. Michael Walker’s 2007 research with 290 people in substance abuse treatment centers showed that those describing greater emotional cutoff were more likely to report at least one instance of relational violence in the previous year. When emotional cutoff in instances of marital violence is not addressed, it may end up fostering the very violence it is seeks to escape.
Cutoff for the Lindsays occurred during a work dispute. The reconciliation with the Lindsays has surprised many, and given others hope for similar marital breakthrough.
Changing the Focus
Couples having difficulties often come to a pastor with a sense of failure and sometimes fear. When a marriage is facing challenges, it is very easy to focus only on the problems, and lose sight of the forgotten strengths that brought them together in the first place. Focusing on strengths helps couples become more objective. Bowen theory helps marital objectivity through distinguishing between facts and feelings. By focusing on what is right with the couple rather than pathological symptoms, the couple’s anxious reactivity and emotional cutoff can be reduced. The focus on strengths lowers anxiety – making the couple more open to each other and thus reducing cutoff. The first week of the Strengthening Marriage Workshop focuses on “Discovering Strengths.” Both Lloyd and Linda identified their friendship as a strength. Resources already present in the Lindsays’ emotional system could be tapped into.
Many couples struggle with an imbalance of marital closeness and distance. All relationships have some degree of fusion, or emotional togetherness. Cutoff is a reaction to this fusion and an expression of it. Some couples are less fused than others. The right amount of emotional space increases accurate marital hearing, thereby bridging emotional cutoff. Marital cutoff and fusion have a remarkable ability to morph into each other in a repeating circular fashion. Only calm, unfused connecting brings lasting reduction of anxiety and emotional cutoff. No connection is ever totally without fusion, and some fusion aids survival. Such marital closeness needs to be a choice rather than a pressured obligation. The Lindsays had been very emotionally fused in the context of their divorce and emotional cutoff. Lloyd still came over and helped Linda with fixing appliances after the divorce. Through attending the Strengthening Marriage Workshop, the Lindsays reported being able to hear each other more accurately without giving up self. Playfulness and appropriate humor go a long way toward bridging emotional cutoff in marriage. As chronic anxiety has decreased, the Lindsays’ natural sense of gentle humor has become a source of healthy bonding.
Ronald Richardson writes that finding marital strengths “often put(s) people back in touch with good things they have forgotten, what originally brought them together.” Marital pain affects everyone in an emotional system. Linda identified keeping distance as her family’s pattern of dealing with emotional pain. Lloyd had the same pattern in his family as well.
One of the unintended consequences of emotional cutoff in marriage is increased loss of self. Recovering self in Bowen theory involves differentiation of self, which involves the ability to have one’s own opinions and make and act on one’s own choices. The Lindsays each worked on growing self. Facing one’s own emotional cutoff in marriage can be daunting. It is encouraging to know that emotional cutoff is not a sentence that people are doomed to endure. Self-examination and work within one’s family can be vital in reversing emotional cutoff in marriage. Bowen saw notably more success when people worked in their extended families rather than just within the marital relationship itself. Bowen theory emphasizes working on relationships in the family, rather than working in the relationship of counselor and client, which often leads to dependence or blurring of roles that can bring difficulties. Valuing one’s spouse’s strengths and differences bridges emotional cutoff through reducing homeostatic sameness, stuckness and stagnation. (Richardson) Becoming one’s own person and holding to personal principles is an antidote to emotional cutoff. It is a major step for some spouses to act on their wants and needs when they are accustomed to being shut down by their spouse. The work that the Lindsays have done on their marriage has resulted in their daughter becoming married.
Cutoff in marriage is reduced through neutrality and curiosity, through humor, through saying no to quick fixes, through valuing conflict, through thoughtful questions about process or through reducing over/underfunctioning. Conflict avoidance and people-pleasing increase emotional cutoff in marriage. With emotional cutoff, people lose the opportunity to face, to process and to grow through the inherent conflicts and differences in marital relationships. Reducing blame and shame is vital in bridging emotional cutoff. Bowen theory seeks to blame no one. Overfunctioners sometimes use blame and shame to take self from underfunctioners. By establishing permeable boundaries in marriage, the Lindsays reduced their multigenerational default level of emotional cutoff. Through use of a family diagram and questionnaire, the Lindsays identified strong tendencies in their families of origin towards emotional cutoff and divorce.
Marriage in no way guarantees emotional maturity. The higher the emotional reactivity, the greater the likelihood of emotional cutoff, which brings a loss of flexibility. With emotional cutoff, a spouse may perceive that there are fewer choices for functioning in the marriage. Since being remarried and taking the Strengthening Marriage workshop, the Lindsays have become more flexible.
Covert emotional cutoff in marriage may be hidden behind togetherness, which masks an internal cutoff in which marital differences and personal issues are avoided. Many couples put a lot of energy into pretending that everything is wonderful, but mindless conformity does not bring a satisfying, stable marriage. The more rigid a couple, the more vulnerable they are to loss of self and/or loss of their marriage. Thoughtful observing and controlling of reactivity reduces the tendency to cut off emotionally through withdrawal. Similarly, the more nonjudgmental observations are, the less emotional cutoff there is in a marriage. Couples often underestimate how difficult it can be to perceive things that they do not want to see.
Bowen Theory and Pastoral Counseling
Applying Bowen theory in pastoral counseling involves a shift from “couch” to “coach.” Coaching focuses on helping people identify patterns that are not helpful and where they come from, and then adopting new, more productive ones. Reducing cutoff through coaching doesn’t mean telling couples what to do but rather asking questions to help them discover and understand their family emotional processes and how they function within their lives.
Churches and pastors involved in wedding preparation are on the frontlines of marriage strengthening. Longevity in coaching rather than frequency is linked to reducing emotional cutoff. The maturing of marriages is a natural process that takes time, sometimes years. In Western society, people often want fast results. But if a pastoral coach rushes to try to provide a marital quick fix, he/she may make emotional cutoff worse. Bowen talked about four years before generational transmission patterns will be modified. (Friedman, Bowen Theory and Therapy, p. 163) Because there is no quick fix, strengthening marriages is both costly and messy. The Lindsays have continued in marriage coaching from time to time over the past twelve years.
Greater clarity is key. The pastoral coach is looking for the couple’s most objective thinking. As the Lindsays became more aware of how they functioned, they became more responsible for their own parts in the dance. Lloyd has said that what excites him most about the possibilities of their marriage is being together in the future. In structured interviews, Linda and Lloyd identified their remarriage as the most important turning point in their lives.
Marriage is strengthened when couples take the brakes off, commit to the unknown future and launch into a covenantal adventure of life. Emotional cutoff often occasions the loss of marital adventure and anticipation.
Bridging Covenantal Cutoff in Marriage
Cutoff is a Bowen family systems theory concept. In the biblical tradition covenant is a metanarrative, that is, a foundational, overarching theme that can offer a major resource for framing marriage both intellectually and theologically. God as covenant maker remains faithful to his covenant even when his people are not. When a marriage relationship is rooted in this metanarrative, it offers the prospect of substance and fidelity. Covenant is first and foremost a promise, a pledge, a vow. This theological foundation supports work on self within family and marriage. The biblical concept of covenant offers a different image and the possibility of a different outcome for marriages.
Covenant-breaking increases emotional cutoff. Christian sacrificial covenant-making bridges it. Covenant-breaking is a breakdown of faith, hope and love, three things that matter most. Moving from covenant-breaking to living in sacrificial covenant is at the heart of the biblical ideal of marriage. The covenant’s strength becomes a strength of the marriage. The emphasis on covenant gives a couples a supportive theological/intellectual framework for going forward. A wedding is not the apex of the covenant, but its beginning, a promise of working together. Marriage for both Jews and Christians is rooted theologically in the covenantal leaving and cleaving in Genesis 2: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew 19:5. Emotional cutoff in marriage endangers the covenant, a breaking of faith. Covenant can be stronger than the forces of emotional cutoff. Covenant renewal is at the heart of marriage renewal. Marriage can be seen as a covenantal pilgrimage, moving hand in hand with a spouse toward a Kingdom future. Some couples have few examples in their family of origin of lasting, satisfying marriages. People who see other couples with successful covenant marriages are less likely to give up during times of acute anxiety. Celebrating otherness and differences within covenantal relationship supports differentiated marital intimacy and reduced cutoff.
Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 suggest that every marriage needs a radical unshakable dream. Marital emotional cutoff is often connected to broken dreams and visions. When a spouse cannot trust what his/her partner says, emotional cutoff is just around the corner. Sometimes it can be the other way – emotional cutoff followed by lack of trust. Because there is no verb in Ephesians 5:22, covenant marriage should be understood in light of the mutual reciprocation in verse 21. Unilateral domination is replaced by covenantal mutuality. The covenantal image of the bridegroom and bride is an expression of profound love. In Christian scripture, covenant love is about mysterious uniqueness, like that between Christ and his covenantal bride the Church.
Paul’s covenantal insight into marriage is elaborated in Philippians 2:1-11, where covenantal restoration is about making oneself nothing and taking the very nature of a servant even to the foot of the cross, which echoes what Bowen theory calls “making yourself small.” (Friedman, Bowen Theory and Therapy, p. 154) The more differentiated spouses are, the more they are willing to make themselves small in their marriages. Authentic repentance in a relationship requires that a person make self small, admitting that one was wrong and choosing to make restitution.
Bridging Emotional Cutoff in Marriage Ministry
Clergy have opportunities to provide pastoral care and coaching for people going through marital challenges. Bowen theory gives pastors ways not to make things worse but rather to aid the couple in building a renewed marriage. Well-intended overfunctioning and rescuing by the pastor does not help a couple bridge emotional cutoff. Applying Bowen theory is not about a pastor’s “fixing” couples. It is rather about non-reactive, thoughtful connectedness. The best gift a pastor can give couples is to work on her/his own bridging of emotional cutoff in her/his own life. The pastoral coach can then be a more calming presence, who reduces the tendency of the couple to vent, dump on each other and emotionally cut off. Strengthening the covenant of marriage is not just the responsibility of clergy. To view the church systemically is to realize that the entire church family can play a part in strengthening marriages and bridging emotional cutoff. Pastors and churches can play a major role in providing a setting and resources to help couples bridge emotional cutoff, such as through the four-week Strengthening Marriage Workshop. Strengthening marriages is key to living out a calling to be a church where emotionally cutoff couples like the Lindsays are covenantly restored. If pastors and church members keep doing what they have always done with respect to marriage in the 21st century through their own family patterns, they will not see needed breakthroughs in marital stability and satisfaction.
In summary, Bowen theory offers tools to strengthen marriage through bridging cutoff and restoring covenant. marriages. The Christian tradition understands that God, the covenant-maker, rescues, renews, forgives and heals, taking what is broken and making it whole. Covenantal restoration through bridging emotional cutoff has great power to strengthen marriages, bringing greater stability and satisfaction. Through the strengthening of marriages, a new generation can receive hope that faith and God’s covenant community make a genuine difference in their covenant relationships.
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