Esther Kane Esther Kane, MSW, RSW - Registered Clinical Counsellor
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Esther Kane

Family Cut-Offs

January 2011

I thought I’d start the New Year off by addressing a phenomenon that is quite common after the holidays- family cut-offs. What I am referring to specifically is the conscious decision a person makes to cut off contact from another family member for a time- this can range from a few days to an entire lifetime. As a family therapist, I am constantly working with cut-offs and they are very tricky to navigate.

Most people I know have been at one or both ends of the cut-off continuum. Either they have had to end contact with a relative because it is abusive and harmful to their well-being, or they have been cut off by another relative and are suffering deeply as a result. Having seen and worked with both sides regularly over the years, I can honestly say that neither is a picnic. Whether you have cut someone out or have been the one cut out, there is most certainly much grief and angst experienced either way. These various forms of cut-off often lead people straight into a therapist’s office due to the unbelievable pain and suffering experienced as a result.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on what to do if you are the person who has been cut off by another family member. I have never seen anybody in so much emotional pain as when hearing a story about how their daughter, mother, sister, or any other close family member has stopped talking with them. The look of anguish, deep sadness, and often bewilderment, can be really heart wrenching to witness. The pain is so great that it is often palpable, and screaming out for some sort of ‘balm’ to ease the distress

I don’t feel that it would be productive to discuss the how’s and why’s of why a family member would cut off contact, for they are varied; sometimes justified and sometimes not. What I do feel would be helpful, is to share some of the tools I offer clients who are at the receiving end of a family cut-off. The fact is, whether it makes any rational sense or not, understanding why someone cut you out isn’t going to make them start communicating with you again, nor will it ease the pain of being cut off in the first place. Sometimes things just don’t make sense and no amount of reasoning can help the situation.

So here are some tools you (or someone you care about) can use the next time a family member cuts you out for whatever reason:

  1. Pray- Even if you aren’t religious, the relief found from ‘handing it over’ to something greater than yourself is often astounding as well as being incredibly nurturing to the soul.
  2. Let go- Along with prayer, letting go is an incredible tool in healing a cut-off. Know that you cannot control the other person who cut you off, but you can control how you choose to deal with the situation. You can either hang on for dear life, while continuing to suffer greatly, or you can loosen your grip, send that person love, and focus on living your life and being good to yourself.
  3. Grieve- This is absolutely mandatory, especially if you don’t want to be cut off from this person. Anytime someone we care about leaves (whether through death, divorce, or cut-off), we experience great loss and bereavement. Let yourself feel the pain of loss by crying, licking your wounds, and feeling the sadness associated with the loss. It helps to move through the pain in the long run.
  4. Write letters you don’t send- this is very therapeutic because when you have been cut off from someone, your side of the conversation with him/her stops. But you still need to express how you’re feeling/dealing with being cut off from this person. So write it all out in a letter but don’t send it. The benefit here is from getting what you have to say off your chest; not from sharing with the other.
  5. Talk about it- Lastly, it is vital that you find a safe person to talk to about the experience of being cut off. This is where a therapist comes in handy as s/he has been trained to help people through painful cut-offs and can listen, provide tools, and be a support during this tough time.

If you are experiencing a cut-off from someone you love, I truly feel for you. It’s a really difficult situation to be in. But know that there are ways to deal with this tough situation (see tips outlined above) and that you are not alone. Many of us survive cut-offs from loved ones in our lives and even grow from the experience.

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