While training as a family therapist, I learned the term “emotional cut-off.” It was not a dynamic I was personally familiar with; my particular family tends to be on the opposite side of the spectrum. We are often so closely entwined in each other’s lives that a little more breathing space would be desirable, healthy even. As it suggests, emotional cut-off refers to ruptures in families. Relationships become so heated and painful that one or more persons cut off contact with others. A realistic metaphor is that of amputation.
Cut-offs create more pain. The body of an amputee heals in its own way over time; still, the phantom presence of the lost limb continues to impact the person. Similarly, individuals and families can know measures of health and resiliency when there are broken relationships. Yet the presence of the missing person impinges on the whole body’s wellness.
Some of the hardest conversations I’ve had are about family estrangement. Sons disinherited by fathers. Daughters who will not speak to their parents. Grandchildren prohibited from seeing their elders. Siblings who sit in the same church yet maintain a hard wall of hurt and hostility. I ache as I hear these stories and see the family members’ bewildered, bruised hearts. I want to plead with the ones who are maintaining the cut-off, “Please, lay down your weapons. Make peace with your family members.”
Sometimes it is impossible. Sometimes the ones who could make a difference are unable to change, for whatever mix of woundedness, insecurity or power-brokering they carry. There is paralyzing mistrust and hopelessness. There are addiction and mental health factors. There has been abuse that has irrevocably altered the path to reconciliation, at least on this side of Jordan.
What are we to do? What can we do? For starters, we prayerfully and thoughtfully make every effort we can to “live peaceably with all . . . if it is possible . . . so far as it depends on you” (reworking of Romans 12:18). As Christians, we have a special and holy calling to release hurts and offences, and pursue peace and reconciliation. This is not easy work to do, even though we have been graced with Jesus’ model and his ongoing empowering presence.
Perhaps these ruptures remind us of God’s ongoing heartbreak with humanity. I glimpsed this once when I was struggling with a broken relationship. I dearly wanted to attain peace and reconcile with the other person, a hope that went unsatisfied. I then realized this was a small measure of God’s yearning for, and frustration with, wayward humanity. In the same moment, I recognized the barriers I put up between God and myself. That insight made me more aware of God’s steadfast love and more patient in relationship conflicts.
So we do what we can. We pray. We hope. We reach out. We send a note or make a phone call. We look for chinks in the wall; we gently press on such openings. We are faithful in our desire for loving relationships and reconciliation.
We let go of what we cannot do. We cannot change the past. We cannot change other people. We cannot force them to follow our rules. We cannot make them like us or love us, or even talk to us. We weep and lament what is broken, even if such tears are shared only with God.
Then we do what inspiring paraplegics and amputees do. We live life as fully as we can with grace, joy and hope. We build loving, sustaining relationships. We climb mountains, dance with abandon and leap out of airplanes (figuratively, if not literally).
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.