In my 40+ years of counseling and pastoring I’ve heard about many kinds of emotionally distressing situations triggered in all sorts of ways. But one of the greatest sources of pain I hear about is feeling cut off. The cutoff hurts most in a family or an intimate relationship. But it is also probably the main pain people experience and fear in the church – which is like a family and often full of intimacy or the desire for it. Regardless of the reasons, people who are cut off when people leave them or the church (and sometimes when they stay) feel much the same: shame, confusion, stress, and sometimes even depression and a feeling of being disempowered. [Remember Gotye?] They particularly feel these things when no explanation for the cutoff is provided. People may cut each other off for months, years, and sometimes even a lifetime with little or no explanation.
I am experiencing variations on this theme right now. A couple of very significant people in my life have cut me off. So I have felt some of the feelings just mentioned!
University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “The pain of losing a meaningful relationship [that one still wants or needs] can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact. With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”
In The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson writes, “When a loved one dies, the loss is absolutely final…[but] abandonment survivors may remain in denial and postpone closure, sometimes indefinitely.” Some people never accept the need to grieve and come to acceptance when their pain comes from the loss of romantic attachment or intimate friendship, especially when the loss is extended over time (as in they keep meeting up with the person who has cut them off or they are connected via other relationships).
When there are emotional loose ends — unanswered questions, mistrust, betrayal, disbelief, bewilderment — it can be very difficult to heal. What makes it worse is that our culture is somewhat hostile to people in this situation. People often judge those who don’t move on right away. Being the one struggling without answers is a difficult experience.
People with abuse and trauma in their backgrounds are especially vulnerable. The breaking of attachments can trigger anxiety, depression and evoke unhealed psychic wounds. Anderson goes on the say: “Emotional experience is more painful when it echoes an episode from the past; that’s especially true when it comes to rejection and loss. The relationship that ended today may be the fulfillment of your worst nightmares from childhood. Grieving over that lost love opens a primal wound.”
The following are some of the most frequent reasons why someone is likely to cut someone off, or to freeze them out of the fold. Before I get there, let me say a couple of things. This is not an exhaustive list. I am NOT suggesting that cutoffs are healthy or even reasonable. I can’t imagine something less like Jesus than cutting someone off. On the other hand, I am also NOT suggesting that people need to put up with abusive, demanding, overwhelming people. We’re not as able as Jesus, for the most part. When boundaries are set and someone refuses to consider them, something’s got to give. So there is another side to what I am about to list and we can talk about that some other time. This time I am honoring people who have been cut off. It can be tough on them. As I enter this confusing set of dynamics that go so dreadfully awry, keep in mind that love is as hard as it is crucial.
So why is the cutoff so common these days?
Some people grew up in families that have a history of cutting off members when they are disappointed, angry, or experiencing other less-than-pleasant emotions toward them. Perhaps you witnessed your mother do this to her mother-in-law while you were growing up. You then learned that cutting off relatives is an option. You may follow the pattern when you feel similarly disenchanted with someone. We all learn from what we see modeled at home.
Trauma specialist Hala Khouri says, “If it’s hysterical, it’s often historical.” People who have experienced trauma often don’t differentiate between the person triggering them and the original source of trauma. When difficult emotions arise, they may feel real feelings of threat and anxiety. Their brain may shift toward fight-or-flight mode. A cutoff can be a flight response that helps keep difficult emotions at bay.
Power and Control
In all systems, there are dominant and less-than-dominant members. The dominant may lead the whole group to cut someone off simply to exert their high level of power and control (or for any of the other reasons on this list). Where do children learn the playground dynamics of bullying? At home, a bully may be exerting the same kind of power and control. Not long ago our pastors warned covenant members about a “wolf” (who is still threatening people!). This was a necessary use of their power. But cutting someone off from the church is so rare it seems like it never happens among us.
Sometimes people simply get exhausted and depleted by a person who seems difficult to them. They may feel that they have put up with certain behaviors for too long, and they may feel hopeless about things ever changing. They may start by phasing out a person and then handily place them on the “do not interact with” list. Everyone has their own pain tolerance level and can only handle so much. People who are addicted or mentally/chronically ill often end up over the tolerance level, which our church often notably ignores – but it can happen. If you are truly exhausted, maybe you shouldn’t ignore it. Thank God we live in community and someone else may not be exhausted at all.
New life stories
There are all kinds of church members who know a lot about your history and younger self. Perhaps you don’t want to be reminded of your past. How do you go about rewriting your history and changing your narrative? One way is to shut out the people who know all about your past. Eliminate them from your life, and you can rewrite your story without anyone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag. Avoid those people, and your past is more likely to be left right where you feel it belongs — in the past. Maybe you moved to Philadelphia to make that happen! When we had our “divorce dialogues” this year, a few of the divorced felt shamed because people talked about their history; but we were just trying not to participate in their cutoff narrative. We were not avoiding. Instead, we were acknowledging that a new story was being written.
Some of us have felt forced into situations where we had to choose between people who were cut off from each other (like in a divorce). Or maybe you feel coerced into choosing between pastors, or even a former pastor. These are dreadful situations, but we all know someone who has been in this position. Is the situation common? Yes. Is it easy? Not at all. In our church, where we have formed a nice, often tight community, people who cut off sometimes hover around the edges and ask for collusion, even ask for a pledge to cut off the same people they have.
Avoiding slighting and being slighted
Sometimes a set of misunderstandings occur between people in the church. If the misunderstandings don’t get discussed, understood, and forgiven they can build up, and eventually break down relationships. It is tragic that such build-ups lead to breakdowns.
I often feel like avoiding things, but I also feel like it is an obligation to God not to do so. But for many people, “discussion” is synonymous with “confrontation,” and so avoidance is their go-to choice. When a new person wanders into a set of relationships in which people are covering up their distress with avoidance, it all feels rather inauthentic.
Why cut someone off without saying why? For one thing, explaining opens a conversation, implying you want to work things out, which you don’t. But there’s another reason, too. Many of us find it hard to say anything “negative” outright, so we swallow our hurt—until it chokes us. Ghosting means still not saying anything negative.
For those who are pondering what they did to cause them to be ghosted, it may help to know the answer may be: nothing. For instance, a woman was relieved when–-decades later— a friend who had disappeared reconnected and explained that she’d been going through a tough time and had cut everyone off. Another woman recalled her own habit, when she was younger, of cutting friends off: she’d pursue a friendship, then feel overwhelmed by the closeness she’d created — and flee. It might be you, but it might not be.
A person doing the cutoff may benefit from taking a deep breath and asking, “What am I trying to avoid here?”
Financial issues are often the source of relationship difficulties. Money may not always be able to buy love, but it sure can lead to lots of bad feelings. Consider the dynamics of the church dividing up a diminishing income, or imagine the bad things that often happen when a family system is also a business (like Circle of Hope!). People sometimes flee the pressures. In the church people can cut themselves off by not paying their share or get cut off because others feel like they are freeloading.
The demands of the needy
Do you want to see a church disintegrate? Watch what happens when people try to share the responsibilities involved in caring for people who can’t care for themselves – sort of like the need to bring grandma into the home of one of her kids. There are certainly family systems that come together and handle these sorts of situations beautifully, but putting a needy person in the middle of the system is also high on the list of reasons that relatives get disenchanted with one another — and sometimes cut off. In the church, people sometimes get cut off because they are not functioning up to standards; they are too needy. Sometimes people cut off because they are overwhelmed with people who can’t contribute and they feel they don’t have enough to give what is required.
Unfortunately, many people have been emotionally and/or physically abused in their past – even by relatives, as I already mentioned. This damage cannot always be completely repaired. In many cases, people cut off because they have painful interactions with people that are reminiscent of the abuse in their past. The repeat feels intolerable and often the system (like your cell) does not acknowledge it, so it again feels like the secret trauma they experienced before.
Lack of Elasticity
Some communities simply lack elasticity. They lack the ability to recover from difficulties and, like a rubber band, snap when stretched too far. Flexibility takes confidence that we are not cut off from God and that, no matter what trials we face, Jesus has and will overcome them with us. Even when someone cuts us off, Jesus is with us as we recover and find our way into what is next. If a group does not have the character to bend and grow, people cut off or get cut off.
Every day we wake up ready to effect reconciliation in the world. We are all about helping each other mend relationships. Sometimes there is so much history and damage that there is little desire and energy to do the mending. Yet Jesus continues to highlight the need to plant and grow love in the world. And he promises to not leave us orphans in the process – he will never cut us off; we’ll have to do that ourselves. We’ve been cut off enough times to have trouble believing that. So we will need to meditate on what we have been given. We will need to leave what we DON’T have to God and move with what we have been GIVEN.