Family Systems Therapy

Divorce ends the marriage. It does not end the family. When there is a child there will always be a family.

Divorce involves the transition of the family from an intact family structure united by the marital bond, to a separated family structure united by the parent-child bonds.

If you are a mental health professional working with a dysfunctional family transition from an intact family structure (united by the marriage) to a healthy separated family structure (united by the shared bonds of affection between the child and both parents), then understanding the process of family transitions is central to your professional responsibility.

The pathology of a child rejecting a parent surrounding divorce is called a “cutoff” family structure (Bowen).

If you are a mental health professional who doesn’t know what a cutoff family relationship is, you need to stop right now and learn about Murray Bowen and family systems therapy.  Murray Bowen is one of the foundational figures in family systems therapy.  His work provides a ground understanding for the processes in families, especially this type of dysfunctional family.

Once you have read and understand Bowen family systems, study specifically the construct of “emotional cutoff.”  What people are calling “parental alienation” is an emotional cutoff in the parent-child relationship.  It is essential to professional competence in assessing, diagnosing, and treating this type of family pathology, that all mental health professionals know and understand Murray Bowen’s construct of an emotional cutoff.

For all mental health professionals working with attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce, read Titelman.

Titelman, P. (2003). Emotional Cutoff: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York: Haworth Press.

“The origins of the concept of cutoff are rooted in Bowen’s parallel early understandings of differentiation, triangles, the nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, and multigenerational transmission process.” (Titelman, 2003, p. 16)

“Bowen theory postulates two main variables in human functioning: anxiety and differentiation. His theory makes the distinction between acute and chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety occurs in response to real threats and is time-limited. Chronic anxiety generally occurs in response to imagined threats and is not experienced as time-limited. Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is: chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 113)” (Titelman, 2003, p. 20)

Bowen’s constructs of differentiation and emotional cutoff are centrally relevant to working with attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce.  If you are a mental health professional working with attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce and you do not know Murray Bowen’s work on differentiation and the emotional cutoff, stop what your doing.  Stop.  Seriously, Stop.  Learn about Murray Bowen and the constructs of differentiation and emotional cutoffs.

It’s a matter of basic professional competence.  Bowen.  Emotional cutoff.

A cutoff family structure after divorce is always pathological. There is no such thing as a “healthy cutoff family structure.”

A cutoff family structure is always a symptom of pathology in the family, having to do with psychological boundaries and differentiation within the family. Bowen.

It is vital that all mental health professionals working with attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce understand Bowen, particularly the construct of “emotional cutoff.”

This is standard foundational family systems therapy stuff. Bowen. Murray Bowen. Emotional cutoff.

No Parent-Child Relationship is Expendable

There are four parent-child relationship types;

The mother-son relationship;
The father-son relationship;
The mother-daughter relationship;
The father-daughter relationship.

Each of these relationship types is unique. Each is essential to the healthy development of the child.  None of these relationships are interchangeable.  None of these relationships are expendable.

The value of each of these relationship types should receive the full support of professional psychology, and from the family courts.

It is ALWAYS in the child’s best interests to maintain a full and complex relationship with both parents.  It is ALWAYS in the child’s best interest that the family make a successful transition following divorce from the previous intact family structure (united by the marriage) to a healthy separated family strucutre (united by the child, and by the child’s shared bonds of affection with both parents).

The mother-son bond can be a deeply emotional bond.  Much of the son’s foundational self-worth is created in the mother-son bond.  As the son matures into adulthood, the mother-son bond serves as the template for the spousal bond, and how love is navigated in that relationship.

The father-son bond is central to the boy’s gender self-identity.  The father-son bond tends to be less overtly emotional but can be deeply loving, and is vital to the boy’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  The father-son relationship is the template for the boy’s maturation into being a man.

The mother-daughter relationship is one of the most complex.  In this relationship, the maturing daughter role-models her development on her mother, and the mother can sometimes see her own development and vulnerabilities mirrored in her daughter.  The mother-daughter relationship also serves as the template for the daughter’s future role behavior as a mother to her own children.

The father-daughter relationship rivals the mother-son relationship for emotional warmth –  with daddy’s princess being the classic characterization of this bond. The father-daughter bond is an important source of self-esteem and self-worth for the daughter, and she will use the father-daughter bond as the template for the future spousal bond with her husband.

Each of these relationships is unique. Each is valuable. Each is essential to the child’s healthy development.  None of these relationships are expendable.

It is always in the child’s best interest for the family to make a successful transition to a healthy separated family structure.

A cutoff family structure is ALWAYS pathological.  There is no such thing as a “healthy cutoff family.”

I want to be extremely clear on this for all of my professional colleagues.  There is no such thing as a healthy cutoff family structure.  A cutoff family structure is always pathological.  Read Bowen.  Read the stuff about differentiation of self and emotional cutoffs in the family.

There is no such thing as a healthy cutoff family structure.

It is always in the child’s best interests for the family to make a successful transition to a healthy separated family structure united by the child, and by the child’s bonds of shared affection with both parents.

Divorce ends the marriage, not the family.  When there is a child, there is always a family.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

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