For more than three decades, Arnold Markowitz, LCSW, has counseled individuals and families dealing with a loved one who has cut off relations with them, primarily in the context of cult affiliations. For 32 years, he was the director of The Cult Hotline and Clinic at the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services (JBFCS), a social service and mental health agency in New York City. Concurrently, he maintained a private psychotherapy practice in Tenafly, NJ, and in New York City, which he continues.
NJS&S: How prevalent are situations in which individuals cut off all ties with family?
AM: When I started the cult program at JBFCS, parents were shocked and distressed because their teenagers or college student children were dropping out of school and careers to live with nefarious groups. There were periods of little or no contact and, of course, great stress and worry. Some totally disappeared, but those cutoffs seem to have been focused on the beliefs of the groups, which minimized the importance of the biological family in favor of the new spiritual family.
In the past ten years or so, there has been an increase in the number of non-cult-related cutoffs by young adults, college students, and older teenage children. In some cases, they are related to an actual grievance—for example, frustration or distress over a parent’s alcoholism or verbal abuse. But we are seeing more cases in which family relationships are broken when a small group or a one-to-one controlling relationship causes the cutoff for no valid reason. From my clinical experience, I have found that in this category there is typically a person outside the family who has very actively encouraged or even demanded that the victim cut ties to his or her family. This is similar to what many cult groups do to obtain control and loyalty, and may well lead to abuse—emotionally, and sometimes physically.
Even though these controlling individuals or small groups may have no specific doctrine, they often manipulate their victims by claiming that their parents, relatives, and former friends are jealous, competitive, or mean-spirited and want them to fail.
NJS&S: What motivates individuals who actively try to break healthy ties of family love and kinship?
AM: Clearly they are destructive people. My clinical experience indicates that they are people with personality disorders who seem to have an innate ability to convince their victims to make these arbitrary choices between them and the family. They will use any means possible to lure their victims, including sex, romance, money, and promises of career advancement or spiritual and personal growth.
The process is very cunning in that the victim is usually not ordered to cut off the family, but somehow is convinced that doing so is in their best interests and, oddly, sometimes for the benefit of the family. The self-improvement is most often presented as a spiritual or religious benefit that will enable the person to evolve to a higher level. As for benefiting the family, the controlling individual might say something like, “Your mother is overly close to you and will never let go. This causes your parents to fight, and it is ruining their marriage, so if you truly love your family, break away so they can be together and you will be free of feeling responsible for your Mom.” A related angle, often used among New Age thinkers, is to get away from so-called negative energy and seek only “positive vibes.” In these instances, of course, the instigator purports to have “the answer” as to how the victim should proceed.
NJS&S: What are some of the most typical reactions when a family is rejected by a close relative—such as a child or sibling—who cuts all ties? What might they be feeling?
AM: It’s terrible, like enduring the death of a child, but here the child actually is still alive, and the parents and family are “dead” to the person who has cut them off. They, too, of course, are very much alive, but are left to cope with the unnatural loss of their loved one. The parents, in particular, go through many of the stages of death and dying outlined by Helen Kübler-Ross, including denial, rage, guilt, anxiety, and extreme sadness. But in these cases, it is very difficult for them to move on or to resolve their feelings.
A cutoff is a painful rejection of parental and family values, beliefs, teachings, and love. Dealing with such anguish is a great challenge to the parents’ and their relationship with each other. Old conflicts may emerge, or parents may blame each other for what happened. In my experience, mothers express emotional pain more overtly than fathers and often have the most symptomatic reactions, such as clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, severe anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and ruminating about the cut-off child’s safety. Fathers tend to get overtly angry at the cut-off child and more readily report thoughts of wanting to take some physical action against the perpetrators. It’s hard enough on many parents when their 18-year-old goes off to college; it is far more painful when an adolescent or young adult child refuses to have any contact at all. For many parents, this is a blow to their self-esteem, and if they blame themselves for the ruptured relationship or lose hope of reconciliation, they can spiral into depression.
NJS&S: What about the extended family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even friends—who once had a close relationship with the person who has cut them off?
AM: Their reactions are as varied as the people involved. They depend a lot on the extent and closeness of the prior relationship. Some may just assume the person who broke all ties is crazy, or they get angry and self-protective and will see the cutoff as the fault of the one rejecting them. Those who were closest will grieve like a parent or sibling.
NJS&S: Are there certain times of year, such as holiday time, when that separation is more difficult to endure?
AM: Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and any other times when families usually get together or convey their best wishes are particularly trying. Some feel the pain most intensely when their relatives or friends are celebrating special occasions or milestones with their own children or grandchildren and they think about what they are missing—and what the person who has cut him- or herself off is missing as well. They feel cheated out of life’s most emotionally fulfilling experiences.
NJS&S: Besides this grieving process, what other feelings typically surface?
AM: Parents naturally spend a lot of time feeling anxious and worried about the cut-
off child, especially if they have little information to comfort them. With no ability to picture where their child lives or works or with whom their child socializes, it is extremely difficult for them to not worry. The lack of information in itself is a crisis for most parents, because they cannot create a narrative or a picture of their cut-off child’s life; there is no information that they can use to maintain an emotional connection. In some cases, families have hired a private detective just to get a photograph of their child that enables them to maintain a tie of some kind as time goes on.
NJS&S: Is it common in such instances for families to also be frustrated by the reactions of others—distant relatives, friends, acquaintances, for example—who don’t understand what they’re going through?
AM: Yes. Parents, in particular, are hurt by what they perceive as a lack of understanding and caring by friends and extended family. Parents do better if they let people know whether they feel comfortable talking about the missing child or would prefer if the subject were not brought up. It’s important to express what they want from their family and friends in terms of questions, comments, or advice. Of course, they may want different things from different people, depending on the nature of their relationship.
NJS&S: What are some of the most common reactions of others?
AM: Those who have children or relatives that are similar in age or younger than the person who cut ties may become afraid that it could happen to them, while others may believe that they have such a solid relationship with their family members that such a thing would never happen to them.
People need to understand that this is not something that happens only to overtly dysfunctional families. I have seen good students, athletes, teenagers and young adults who had jobs, and who come from hard-working middle-class and upper-class families in this situation. Some had mothers who worked outside the home; others had mothers who were at home with the children. There is no guaranteed immunity.
Some people who hear about a person cutting all ties to his or her family find it easy to just blame the parents, or to label the cut-off person as disturbed, and say that if such a thing had happened to them, they would have handled it better — often with force or even violence. In my experience, an aggressive response tends to drive the victim closer to the controller and typically reinforces the belief that the parents are trouble and want to destroy or control their adult children. The reaction after an argumentative encounter would be: “You want to return to that?”
NJS&S: What would be some of the do’s and don’ts in instances where a friend or family member has been cut off by a loved one? What might be some helpful, as opposed to hurtful, things to say or do?
AM: It depends on the person who is being cut off and what input, if any, they want. Basic empathy and support, or asking if they can be helpful — and how — is a good place to start. Criticizing the emotionally injured person or offering unsolicited advice is not helpful. Being a good listener and a good friend is what helps. Reassurance, while well intended, is not always beneficial, but remaining positive can be. Rather than saying, “Don’t worry; she’ll be back,” you might say, “ I’m optimistic that she will realize she loves you and will want you back in her life.” While there’s life, there’s always hope—but the absence can be a long haul. One man I counseled didn’t talk to anyone in his family for 15 years, but he has reestablished a very close relationship with his parents, siblings, and other family members.
NJS&S: Should family members or friends try to reach out to the person who has cut ties to encourage a reconciliation or a least a meeting of some kind?
AM: Absolutely. Whoever has a connection, relationship, or history with the person who has cut ties should be encouraged to reach out and make contact. The key, however, is to first build a relationship and to be a good listener. If the person who is trying to reach out to the cut-off person is seen as an agent of the parents or family, trust will not develop. A meeting or reconciliation should be suggested only after a good understanding of the person’s reasons for the cutoff has been established and there is some indication that it’s ok to broach the subject. A knowledgeable therapist who has worked with cutoff and cult situations can help coach the friend or relative along the way.
NJS&S: What advice would you give someone dealing with an unwanted separation from a loved one?
AM: Each case is different, but there are some basic guidelines. Don’t criticize what the person who has cut ties is doing. Don’t criticize the person or group whom you believe is encouraging or controlling your loved one, or their beliefs and practices. If there is some limited contact, try to engage in a dialogue to understand your cut-off relative’s perspective and complaint. Even if the grievance is bogus or contrived, let him or her air it out, and listen; doing so will provide you with good information and build rapport. Contain any anger that may arise, and respond to any complaints by saying that you need to think about that perspective. The most important thing is to try to accept the situation as your loved one sees it. Remember, to him or her, the grievance is real, even if someone else planted the idea.
Try to maintain some basic contact and take what you can get without demanding more than the other wants to give. Send notes, letters, or emails with updates on family and personal matters and a picture of family on special occasions and celebrations. Less frequent but consistent contact is better than excessive interaction, which might be perceived as harassment. Reinforce the idea that you are willing to hear your loved one’s concerns and are willing to meet at any time.
"The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society
and is entitled to protection by society and the State."
— Article 16.3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations
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