Emotional Cutoffs

In my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist I sometimes deal with what are known as “emotional cutoffs.”   Emotional cutoffs are not the latest summer fashion, but are something that can occurs when conflict between two people--it could be family members, friends or colleagues--has become so volatile that they simply stop talking to each other and hardly even acknowledge that the other exists.  The “emotional cutoff” can last for years or decades, and even get passed on from one generation to another.  

The tension that leads to such an “emotional cutoff” usually builds for some time, but the final blow that creates the cutoff is usually some incident where one of the parties has finally had it and loses all control of their anger and just “goes off” on the other person.  They literally spew years of built up anger and hurt, and in the process create irreparable hurt in the relationship.  This spewing is not unlike the recent spewing of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.


This whole volcano incident is what has me thinking about emotional cutoffs.  Like emotional cutoffs, volcano eruptions occur in all different degrees and intensity, as well as the damage they cause.  The current volcano eruption in Iceland has paralyzed hundreds of thousands of people, leaving them isolated, alone, unable to connect with loved ones and unable to move from where they are.


The spewing of ashes, like the spewing of emotions, never leads to something positive.  Things become much less clear after spewing. I just read an article that said one concern in Iceland right now is that whenever one volcano erupts, the history has been that this often triggers other eruptions of nearby volcanos. How true this can be in relationships as well!  Spewing is indeed contagious.


So what are the alternatives?  Regarding volcanos, there probably aren’t any--they don’t exactly have the ability to make conscious decisions to do something different.  Regarding relationships, there are always other, better options.  You and I do have the ability to make conscious decisions about how to express our hurt and anger.  Scripture says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”  I take this to mean that there is an important difference between the feeling of anger--or hurt (which is almost always hiding under the cover of anger)--and its expression.  Feelings are neutral; behaviors--what we do with our feelings--are not.


When you first feel hurt or anger towards someone you care about, make the decision to talk about it with them right away.  Avoid self-righteousness and bring it up in a way that respects that they have their own version, their own experience of what has happened.  After you have spoken, be prepared to really listen to their side of things.    This listening sounds easy in theory, but because most of us dislike conflict and work to avoid it, we often avoid having the conversations we need to have when tension is first felt in a relationship.


I just read the following on a U.S. Geology Service website:  “Removing, transporting, and disposing volcanic ash is a dirty, time-consuming, and costly challenge.”  I have no experience with cleaning up the fallout of volcanic ash, but I’m sure this information is true.  I do have plenty of experience helping people clean up the fallout from “emotional volcanic ash” and I can assure you it is just as dirty, time-consuming and costly.  While there is nothing we can do to stop geological volcanoes, we absolutely can--and must--do all that we are able to do to prevent emotional volcanoes in ourselves in those around us.  The cost and cleanup are simply far too high.