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Go Away Or I’ll Go Away

Have you ever walked away rather than get in an argument? Have you ever given someone the silent treatment? Have you ever stayed out extra late to avoid interacting with someone at home?

Avoiding conflict is one style of dealing with tension at home or in one’s congregation.

When carried to an extreme, this way of dealing with conflict can lead to the break-off of a relationship, either by moving apart (a physical distancing) or by not engaging in any depth of communication (an emotional distancing). This happens in congregations as well as in families, though it looks somewhat different in each.

Murray Bowen, the psychiatrist who created Family Systems Theory, called this emotional cutoff, and identified it as one way that people deal with unresolved emotional issues with parents, children, siblings, and other family members.

In a family, emotional cutoff may present as:

  • Moving far away from a family member with whom one is in conflict
  • Refusing to visit or interact with a family member rather than dealing with a difficult disagreement
  • Remaining physically present, but emotionally unavailable

Emotional cutoff in a church, synagogue, temple, meeting or other religious organization can appear similar, or it can be more complicated. It might look like:

  • Refusing to interact with a certain person or a certain group in the congregation
  • Refraining from listening to or considering thoughts or ideas presented by a certain person or group in the congregation
  • Individuals or families leaving the congregation in reaction to people or situations that trigger tension in themselves
  • One member or a group of members splitting off and forming a new congregation
  • Withdrawing financial support from the congregation

Bowen taught that cutoffs often appear in family systems in which there is also a corresponding overly connected, or what he refers to as a “fused” relationship between two people in another generation of that family.

As in families, emotional cutoff in congregations often corresponds to an overly close relationship in another part of the system. This is often, but not always related to a clergyperson.

For example, when a clergy person retires or resigns, but remains closely connected to certain members of the congregation, this can result in those members not connecting to and trusting the new clergyperson. This

is why many religious groups have rules regarding former clergy people.

Another example is a situation in which there was a past inappropriate relationship between a clergyperson and a congregant that was not openly addressed. This might lead to a lack of trust and a sense of unease in the current congregation which can lead members to pull back emotionally, or even leave the congregation.

Here’s how to avoid emotional cutoff:

  • Intentionally reach out to individuals or groups that you have stopped interacting with. This does not mean you have to trust them, just start a conversation. Share your concerns. Listen to their thoughts and concerns. You don’t have to agree, just listen. Make the first move. Do not assume that the other party will not be willing to engage with you.
  • If you have remained in contact with a previous clergyperson and find yourself unable to enjoy or participate in the congregation without him or her, try pulling back from contact with the previous clergyperson. Don’t expect immediate results. This will take time, at least six months. Give new relationships in the congregation a chance to develop.
  • If you have emotional cutoffs in your own family and find yourself experiencing similar emotional cutoffs in your religious home, seek counseling from someone who is not connected to your congregation.

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