Dating Wisely 1.36: Study Sibling Positions, Part 1

Study Sibling Positions

We’ve been considering how dynamics in your family history for generations before you filters down to you and impacts your love life. We’ve noticed that if you want to date wisely, making a study of your self and of the family system of which you’re a part can be tremendously enlightening and useful. Bringing the unconscious patterns up to the surface can lead to choices that save you lots of pain down the road.

So this brings us to Dating Wisely Concept #12: Study Sibling Positions. It might seem strange to consider that the order in which you and your siblings were born contributes to the success or failure of your date/mate selections. It might seem even stranger to consider that the sibling positions of your parents and those of your date/mate and his or her parents also play a role.

There’s Comfort in Familiarity

In working with thousands of families, however, Psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen found that a person is less likely to divorce if partners’ respective sibling positions are similar to the sibling positions in which they grew up. In other words, we do better in situations that feel familiar.

For example, an oldest brother of sisters would be most comfortable with a wife who had older brothers; an oldest sister of brothers would be best matched with a younger brother of sisters. These matches put them in positions they’re both most comfortable with. On the other hand, two oldest children paired together would tend to vie for power, and two youngest children would conflict about who gets to lean on whom.

Common Sibling Positions

Of course there are many other variables in the formation of our personalities, but all things being equal (which they never are completely), children of different families who share the same position in a birth order line-up tend to develop similar characteristics.

Here are the sibling positions Bowen studied:

  1. Oldest sister of sisters
  2. Oldest sister of brothers
  3. Oldest brother of brothers
  4. Oldest brother of sisters
  5. Youngest sister of sisters
  6. Youngest sister of brothers
  7. Youngest brother of brothers
  8. Youngest brother of sisters
  9. Middle children
  10. Male only children
  11. Female only children
  12. Twins

Birth Order and Family Projection

Sometimes a child’s position in the sibling line-up marks him or her for the family projection process, which is one of those variables that prevents all things from being equal. But combining your study of sibling position, the family projection process, and the multigenerational transmission process may help you identify and make sense of patterns that you never saw before in yourself and in your family system.

Personality Profiles and Family Level of Differentiation

The degree to which an individual’s personality fits the profile of his or her sibling position provides a way to understand the level of differentiation and the direction of the projection process from generation to generation. For example, if an oldest child fits the typical profile of an oldest child (calm and responsible), it is good evidence of a decent level of family differentiation. If, however, an oldest child turns out to have the profile of a youngest child, that is strong evidence that s/he was the most triangled child in a poorly differentiated system. If a child shares some of the characteristics of the appropriate sibling position profile but some of other profiles, too, that is strong evidence of a moderate level of undifferentiation.

Bowen’s work with families led him to believe that no single piece of data was more important than knowing the sibling position of people in the present and past generations as a way to predict how individuals would handle the mix of their own sibling positions in their families of origin, and how partners would handle their efforts when they found themselves in therapy.

Over the next several posts, we’ll take a look at some typical profiles of the sibling positions Bowen studied, so that you can begin to make a study of your own position in your family relative to your siblings, your parents, and your parents’ respective sibling positions in their own families of origin. Then we’ll look at some examples that illustrate how all of this is relevant to your love life.

Dating Wisely 1.35: Study Your Multigenerational Transmission Process, Part 4

Cutting off Doesn’t Cut Off Patterns

We’ve been looking at the effect of a specific multigenerational pattern (extreme fundamentalist religiosity) in one family (mine). Today I’ll share how that pattern translated into a dating relationship failure…unless you consider that sometimes failure is success (see “Dating Wisely 1.4”).

When I emerged into young adulthood, I cut-off from the family system physically and emotionally by attending a college in another state. I didn’t have the courage to cut-off from the religious denomination of my youth, however, so I found the same denomination within 20 miles of my college. As bad luck would have it, that was the very church where my parents met and married 25 years before.

And as uncanny as the multigenerational transmission process can be, it was at that very church–400 miles away from where I grew up–that I, too, met the man who became my husband.

My Exceptionally Immature Dating Criteria

I was attracted to Scott because he didn’t come from this denomination, so I thought he might be more open-minded. Furthermore, he had a small dancing part in the Nutcracker Ballet, and dancing seemed so…sinful! He’s not only a bad-boy, but a progressive one! I thought. That’s the thinking of an extremely sheltered, 18-year-old abuse survivor.

If only I had known myself a little better; if only I had known that the self that emerged into young adulthood wasn’t nearly as self-defined as I thought I was; if only I had realized that the conditioning of multiple generations on both sides of the family as far back as the eye could see had seeped under my skin, into my pores and lived in my cells, I might have identified the reactivity of my thinking. But I thought I was mature, reasonable, wise, a critical-thinker, and compared to those around me, perhaps I was some some of those things. But the rest of my family was operating in the lowest quarter of the scale of differentiation, too, so they were hardly a solid standard to compare to.

Scott’s Exceptionally Immature Dating Criteria

But notice my shallow, flimsy, naive criteria for mate selection. I look back on this now and cringe. What was I thinking?! And remember, we select mates at the same level of our own differentiation, so what was Scott thinking? His dating criteria were certainly no more sophisticated or differentiated than mine, or he would have dropped me like a hot potato. Given his own multigenerational patterns, his poor choice of a mate was predictable.


“The two spouses begin a marriage with life-style patterns and levels of differentiation developed in their families of origin. Mating, marriage, and reproduction are governed to a significant degree by emotional-instinctual forces. The way the spouses handle them in dating and courtship and in timing and planning the marriage provides one of the best views of the level of differentiation of the spouses. The lower the level of differentiation, the greater the potential problems for the future. People pick spouses who have the same levels of differentiation” (Bowen, in Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy, p. 79)

Our Exceptionally Immature Mating Criteria

Boy, did Scott and I handle that poorly! Our shallow criteria for date selection was only the beginning. You’d think that as tumultuous as our courtship was, we wouldn’t have selected each other as mates. But I thought our conflict would diminish when I had the title of “wife,” and Scott thought he was going to have regular sex when he had the title of “husband.” Admittedly these are abysmal reasons to marry, but marry we did a year-and-a-half after we started dating.

And if you’ve been following this blog, you know the end of that story.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin to look at how sibling position plays an important role in dating wisely.


Dating Wisely 1.34: Study Your Multigenerational Transmission Process, Part 3

The Multigenerational Pattern on the Maternal Side

Yesterday I traced the transmission process of the paternal side of my father’s family, with a nod toward his maternal side and a wink toward my mother’s side. Although I know less about my mother’s side, I can make some general comments about that transmission process that I hope will be helpful as you consider how you and your relationships may have been impacted by the multigenerational transmission process in your own family.

The stories on my mother’s side don’t go back nearly as many generations as those on my father’s side, but there are enough to trace some patterns through a few generations. For example, my grandmother and grandfather were as disparate in their capacities as two people can be. So were my mom and dad, and so were my ex-husband and me. I’m still trying to figure out how that pattern got transmitted.

The best I can figure so far is that the particular insecurity of the females bred in our specific fundamentalist religious system led us women to marry the first insecure man who paid us attention, and the first insecure man who paid us attention was a man who found our moral and intellectual capacities to be a way to fill in his gaps. My grandmother, my mother and I all followed this pattern. Of course, this whole emotional process took place outside of the consciousness of any one of us.

Insecure Females

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that my grandparents on my father’s side were also disparate in their moral and intellectual capacities. My grandfather was a brilliant businessman, but apparently sociopathic: charming, unethical, manipulative and without conscience. (What drew my grandmother to him?) He and my grandmother eventually produced a son, my father, who was also charming, but deeply insecure and ethically flimsy. (What drew my mother to him?) Then I married a man who was also deeply insecure, though not immoral. (What drew me to him?)

What compelled the women in our family to be interested in men who were insecure and who came into our religious system from the outside? Were we drawn to the bad-boy outsider? Did we feel some kind of self-righteous and noble superiority to fix him?

Biblical Mandates

Certainly, the extreme religiosity in which we women were raised suggests low differentiation in and of itself. Dogmatic rules are adopted to navigate life, rather than one’s own internal sense of what is good and right. Critical thinking for oneself is forbidden in favor of a particular brand of separatist fundamentalism, which is the only brand believed to be endorsed by God.

Included in this religious dogma was the God-given mandate to favor males over females. After all, Eve led Adam astray, but she could redeem herself through child-rearing. This led to a common father-mother-child triangle in which the mothers drew their favored sons close to them, leaving the father on the outside–a pattern that left the sons emotionally (and sometimes physically) dependent on their mothers, sometimes for their entire lives.

The Father-Mother-Son Triangle Across Generations

To this day, for example, my 52-year-old brother believes that females have a special moral wisdom that he doesn’t have (given the family pattern, he may be onto something), a psychological construct that keeps him dependent on the women in his life. His vengeance toward my mother (for drawing him into a relationship for her own dependency needs rather than his real needs) keeps him stuck in an emotional process that he can’t seem to escape.

The relationship my mom has with my brother is very similar to the pattern her brother had with their parents. When my My Uncle Dan was middle-aged, he moved his family in with my grandparents, where he lived for a couple years, until they couldn’t stand each other anymore. This same thing happened over the past year with my brother and his new family. They moved in with our mother when my brother foreclosed on the home that had been in the family for 50 years, and now the relational damage of the last year of living together may be irreparable, as it was in the previous generation between my Uncle Dan and my grandparents. Although most of those family members are deceased, my mother loyally carries on the resentment in place of her parents. My, what a mess!


As you can see, these patterns go way back. They came over several generations of family systems that operate at a low level of differentiation. Instead of thinking for themselves, both sides of the family cling to a system of “shoulds”–rules that are supposed to be guaranteed to work because they’re supposedly Biblical. They don’t consider whether these shoulds actually do work, or whether they may have a faulty interpretation of the “Rule Book.” So when relationships fall apart, they don’t question their belief system–they only try to conform more closely to whatever they believe are God’s mandates.

Tomorrow, I’ll give an example of how this relates to dating, although I suspect you’re already connecting some dots of your own.



Dating Wisely 1.33: Study Your Multigenerational Transmission Process, Part 2

One Leg of One Family’s Multigenerational Transmission Process

Yesterday I promised to give an example from my own life of how the multigenerational transmission process works, so let me tell a story of the patriarchal side of my father’s family. Keep in mind that I say nothing here of my mom’s side of the family or of that transmission process here, but the multigenerational transmission process combines both sides. Perhaps I’ll connect some of the dots with that story tomorrow.

Three Generations Ago

Three generations ago, the family patriarch, Samuel, was a successful businessman, politician and store owner. All seemed to be well enough until his wife, Anne, died, leaving him with two young children: Samuel, Jr., age 3 and Mary Anne, 9 days. Samuel, Sr., never remarried, and no one knows who cared for the children until their father died 6 years later when he fell from a pear tree in their yard.

It seems that the tragedies of life took a significant toll on little Samuel, Jr., whose adult life was also peppered by tragedy. When he was 21, he married Isabelle (age 16), and the couple bore 8 children, until Isabelle died pregnant at age 35 after 14 years of marriage. Samuel, Jr., himself died of heart trouble 14 years later at age 51.

Two Generations Ago

The family losses tragically impacted Sam and Isabelle’s children for life, half of whom (four out of eight) spent many years in psychiatric institutions in their adult life. At least two of those four were diagnosed with schizophrenia, three died in mental wards, and one died on a park bench after leaving his wife and three small boys to drift around for years, a charmer whose life of womanizing, alcohol and illegal drugs eventually cost him his life.

One of Sam and Isabelle’s children who died in a mental institution was their son Lee, my grandfather. By the time Lee’s son, John (my father), was 6 years old, Lee had been inciting the authorities in various altercations for years. In the year before his arrest, Lee sent his oldest son, Sonny, to live in the woods to escape the draft as a conscientious objector, until Sonny was found and taken to jail.

One day, Lee’s wife, Kathryn (my grandmother), got fed up with his violence and walked with her youngest children to somewhere she could call the police. When they arrived, he lined up several of his children in front of him and came out of the house with a loaded gun, shouting Bible verses and the wrath of God upon the police. They shot into the crowd, wounding one of the children, Jess, who was never able to have children as a result.

Kathryn, unlike Lee, came from a solid family of teachers, classical musicians, public activists and businessmen. When she married Lee, perhaps in an act of rebellion, her family cut-off from her almost completely. She had just delivered the 14th child when Lee was taken into custody and placed in the mental ward of the local hospital where he died 17 years later.

A Generation Ago

For years after her father was taken away, Lee’s oldest daughter, Ginnie, visited him in the mental ward, taking along the four youngest children, including my father. The four little ones would sit on a bench while Ginnie and her Dad studied the Bible together, and I suspect that this had a profound impact on my dad. One of his sisters tells me that Dad was most like his father of the 14 children, in that he was most extreme in his distorted religious thinking, even though his father had only been a direct influence in his life for six years.

My Generation

It seems to me that whatever projections have come through the generations have landed most squarely on my brother’s lap. He, too, displays extreme religious thinking and tendencies toward violence, although the effects are somewhat muted compared to previous generations.

Some would argue that my sister bore the greatest weight of the multigenerational transmission process, evidenced by her death from the diabetes that had been diagnosed when she was 4 years old. Deb and I had only begun to have a closer relationship when she died at age 36, so I’ll never know her perspective on these matters, but she was much  more reasonable than my brother.

As for me, you know enough of my story by now to know that while my own dysfunction from the family chaos has been significant, I’ve managed to make choices that have steered me in a very different direction from my brother. The family cut-off I made when I was 18, an automatic survival strategy that became outdated and less necessary over the years of doing my own healing work, is now in a bridging process that I expect will continue for the rest of the developmental life cycle of my family. I don’t expect miraculous healing, but I think that over the next few decades the trajectory can turn in a different direction, as I (and hopefully others) make healthy changes in our contributions to the family emotional system.

The Next Generation

As my brother gets older, however, his extreme religiosity seems to be increasing, and I have concerns about how this will impact the child of his second marriage, a daughter who is now just four years old. I’m hoping that his older boys, now in their mid-20’s, will experience fewer impacts from such a crazy family line. Only time will tell, but completely escaping the impact of the mess is impossible.

My job is simply to become more and more solid in my own identity and in how I interact with family members across the generations. There are only three of fourteen children left in my father’s family, and I maintain what contact I can with them. I’m also in contact with one of my father’s cousins, Emma (now 86 years old), a daughter of Sam and Isabelle’s, whose mother, Bessie, also died in a mental institution. Her dogged work on the family genealogy has been invaluable to me as I’ve tried to make sense of the multigenerational transmission process.

Thanks to Facebook, I also have contact with a few cousins, although there are far too many to know, and who live a good distance away. I plan to attend the family reunion each July 4, however, and I’m sure I’ll see more of how this multigenerational transmission process has played itself out over the years in their lives.

In Summary

So that’s how the multigenerational transmission process impacts a family line, and how the most projected-on children will do less well in life than their less-projected on siblings. Perhaps you know enough about your own family’s generational story to identify which members received more of the family projection than others.

Because we choose partners at the same level of our own functioning, the multigenerational transmission process makes a significant difference in how a person goes about dating and in whom they ultimately choose as a partner. More on that coming up in a couple days.

Dating Wisely 1.32: Study Your Multigenerational Transmission Process, Part 1

Study Your Multi-Generational Transmission Process

We’ve been discussing the impact of physical and emotional cut-offs–a pattern that we automatically fall into, when we have tension in close relationships and limited emotional maturity to deal it. Learning as an adult to operate with increased emotional maturity in early life relationships–skillfully bridging emotional cutoff– automatically transfers into the relationships we develop in adult life, as well.

To skillfully bridge cut-offs requires that we remove blame from those who harmed us in early life. Dating Wisely Concept #11: Study Your Multigenerational Transmission Process, can be an invaluable tool in this effort.

Removing Blame

This concept involves the same process as we discussed in Dating Wisely Concept #9: Study Your Family Projection Process, but on a larger, generational scale. In other words, parents project onto their children in ways that their parents projected onto them, and you can trace these patterns back for generations.

Studying these patterns can help remove blame from early life relationships when you realize that your parents had no intention of harming you, and their parents had no intention of harming them, as far back as the eye can see. In fact, most parents believe they’re doing well with their children–at least better than their parents did with them– even when they’re misguided. Parental intentions are good and noble, even if the results are less than. Most of what gets transmitted is simply all they know, and all that the whole family system has known for generations.

Same Starting Point, Different Trajectories

The multigenerational transmission process observes that some children get more unresolved parental issues projected onto them than their siblings. Those who get more will emerge into adulthood with lower levels of differentiation than their parents, while their siblings who received less projection will emerge into adulthood with higher levels of differentiation than their parents (and their siblings).

Because people choose partners at the same level of differentiation, a sibling with a lower level of differentiation (a weaker sense of self) will marry someone with a low level of differentiation, and a sibling with a higher level of differentiation (a more solid sense of self) will marry someone with a higher level of differentiation. The children of these pairs will eventually emerge into adulthood with slightly lower and and slightly higher levels of differentiation than their parents, as well.

In this way, one line of a family can move further and further down the differentiation scale while another line can move further and further up. Slight gaps in levels of differentiation become wider and wider over generations, and this in turn results in huge disparities in family stability and contributions to society, all in one multi-generational family system.

Objectivity and Course Corrections

Beginning to note these patterns can help make sense of experiences and realities in your own family system over the generations, and can help you be more objective about the impact of the generational projection process on your own life, including your choice of partner/s. It can also help you alter the trajectory of your arm of the multi-generational family system if you’re willing to do the work of increasing your level of differentiation. One slight alteration in this trajectory can eventuate into a massive course correction over a few generations–leaving you with a noble legacy.

Having traced some family patterns back seven generations, I’ll provide a personal example tomorrow, and then we’ll look at the current relevance of all this to your dating life.


Dating Wisely 1.31: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 6

Bridging Chaos

I promised yesterday to give an example from my own life about how a concerted effort to bridge a cut-off eventually resulted in a defining moment for me, so here goes.

If you’ve been following this blog series on dating wisely, you know that my family of origin was one of those especially chaotic ones in which abuses of all kinds were rampant. You also know that I chose to escape it all when I turned 18 and went off to college in another state. That I went to college at all was out of the ordinary–no one in my family had done so, and no one was encouraged to. In fact, females were supposed to operate only behind the scenes, so higher education was especially discouraged for girls.

The Cut-off

That I purposefully chose a college far away from home was my then-unconscious attempt to cut-off from the chaos. Sometime around middle school, I had become a dumping ground for my mother’s resentment toward my father, and it was deeply painful for me to feel like I had to choose between two people I loved. Granted, my father was truly impossible to live with, but my mother was, too, and she couldn’t see it. Still can’t.

The empty nest that resulted when I left home to get away from all this was too much for my parents’ relationship to bear, and within a year, my father died of a sudden heart attack. I was relieved, I’m sad to say. It was dreadful that we would never have a healthy relationship (something that I longed for), but it was comforting to think that there to be no more of the family feuding that had been so painful for me to powerlessly witness.

To my dismay, my father’s death did nothing to curb my mother’s berating of him, so memories of their fighting were constantly resurrected in just about every conversation we had together. He lived on, as dead people do, in the hearts and minds of those left behind.

A Bridging Effort

Fast forward 30 years. Every year, my father’s huge family (he was the 11th of 14 children) holds a reunion on July 4. I had moved back to the area in which I’d grown up for the purpose of bridging cut-offs in a tangible way, and attending the reunion for the first time in decades was part of that effort.

My mom and I planned to drive the two hours to the reunion together, and I knew that she would, at some point, start in on her invective toward my father and his family. Sure enough, on the way home the day after the reunion, it started, and I was immediately annoyed.

No Joining, No Judging

But then something happened. I became aware that I was annoyed, and I simply took notice of this for a minute, even while I continued to hear my mom shit-talking my dad who’d been dead for almost three decades. This is what you were expecting, I said to myself. What do you need to do to define yourself here?

I erected an imaginary glass wall between my mother and me as I continued to listen to her invective. With her in her space and me in mine, I could think more clearly, and I realized that I didn’t have to join her (my pattern of silent observation or offering advice had likely implied agreement with her for all those years) and I didn’t have to judge her (her marriage and life with my father had been horrible; she had reason to feel as she did).

My Experience

But my healing journey had brought me to a different place, and I no longer resented my dad for what he did and didn’t do for me as a father. When Mom took a breath, I took the opportunity to share my experience.

“You know,” I said without any of the tightness in my voice that I would have expected before I realized I didn’t have to either join or judge my mom, “I just don’t feel any of that anymore. I was actually glad to hear (my cousin) Dave describing how much he venerated Dad. I’m glad he had a relationship where he could be respected and valued. Sure, I wish that was what I had experienced of him, but maybe he was his true self everywhere else. Maybe we only got his pseudo-self. Either way, it just doesn’t impact me anymore, and I’m really grateful for that.”

There was a brief moment of silence after I spoke, and then Mom replied, “How did you come to that place?”

“All the years of healing work I’ve been doing. I finally got to the place where I could forgive him and let go of all the pain.” I described a few details of my process, such as writing lots of letters to him over the years, getting my feelings out, saying things I didn’t have the words for when he was alive; writing letters from him back to me, imagining what he would say to me if he had acquired consciousness and perfect knowledge on the other side of this life; and lots and lots of mourning the losses.”

Basking in the Glow of Differentiation

And that was it. The conversation ended without animosity or division. The rest of the car ride was pleasant, and for days after, I basked in the glow of having simply, clearly and kindly defined myself in the context of relationship with my mother. I had not defined myself in contrast to her, and there had not been an ounce of combative or adversarial energy in what I said. I had simply shared my experience, without any expectation that Mom would respond in any particular way. End of story.

It was a glorious moment. I had altered a life-long pattern, changed the script, and I had done it in a way that I could be proud of. It was about me, not about her or about us. I had earned the glory of that defining moment over the years of effort I had put into healing and growth, and I was amazed by the freedom of it.

That was the first time I felt completely satisfied with the way I conducted myself in relationship with my mother, and it gave me hope that I could do it again and again and again, in this relationship and in others. As you know from “Dating Wisely 1.29,” I still don’t do it perfectly, but I’m improving in my ability to define myself without reactivity.

This is the way I want to live my life in all my relationships. It feels so right.

Dating Wisely 1.30: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 5

Complicated Bridging

We’ve been discussing the importance of bridging cut-offs in early life relationships by defining who we are in the context of those relationships. This process is especially complicated if you experienced childhood abuse, trauma or neglect. Defining oneself in such a context is as improbable as thinking about how you want to re-arrange your bedroom furniture when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. You have to have your basic needs met before you can move beyond surviving into thriving.

So today’s post is dedicated to those who need to establish basic security before they can even consider bridging cut-offs in deprivational relationships.


The good news is that both establishing a sense of personal security and re-engaging cut-off relationships is possible…in that order. In some cases, cut-off was a natural, though generally unconscious, survival strategy to gain safety from and clarity about a chaotic environment. Learning what healthy relationships look and feel like is a first step for those whose early life featured neither.

This process inevitably stirs grief about what wasn’t, even as it stirs hope about what could be. In the most deprivational of cases, that grieving process may require an individual to write off an entire childhood as a loss, as it provided nothing of what a human being needs to survive, let alone naturally develop into a solid, secure human being.


Such a grieving process tends to be brutally painful, but the ideal end result is forgiveness. Yes, it’s possible to let go of an entire childhood, almost as if it never happened. That doesn’t meant that the harm didn’t happen, that wounds didn’t occur, that what happened doesn’t matter or that there isn’t significant impact. They did happen, it absolutely matters, and the impact is devastating. But the whole package can be released so that the individual can live free of its constant pain and continual impact.


Forgiveness, however, is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness takes one; reconciliation takes two. Bridging cut-offs solidly can only happen when the process of forgiveness has reached its conclusion. Reconciliation can only happen when the conditions of trust have been restored: those who have caused harm must own their contribution, express genuine remorse, seek to repair the wounds and learn how to relate in a trustworthy manner.


Between forgiveness and reconciliation is this matter of bridging cut-offs, and it more often requires the offended party (the adult child, for example) to initiate that bridge in early life relationships than the other way around. Once in a while in my psychotherapy practice, I see a parent who seeks personal healing for their own wounded history before their (adult) children do. In such cases, the adult children have fewer obstacles in their own growth process.

If you’re a parent who has begun to awaken to your contribution to the wounds of your child(ren), my special word to you is it’s never too late to make your relationships right, and you’ll never regret your efforts to do so. Your children may not be ready for the reconciliation process as soon as you are, especially if they initiated the cut-off. They may not even recognize the cut-off, or they may be unwilling/unable to identify the impact of childhood loss, but in time, as their own relationships reflect the impact, they may open up to grief, healing and restoration.


For those of you whose parents aren’t (and may never be) interested in self-exploration, you can still forgive and bridge cut-offs, although the relationship may never be healthy enough for trust to be restored to any significant degree. You may have to accept that trusting your own strength to establish and maintain your own self in those early life relationships is as good as it’s going to get (which is much better than not doing so), since you can only control yourself and not the other.

Tomorrow I’ll provide an example from my own life about how a concerted effort to bridge a cut-off resulted in a defining moment for me.

Dating Wisely 1.29: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 4

Bridging cut-offs

We’ve been noticing that emotionally and/or physically cutting off from tense relationships is a natural reaction in the human species. We’ve also been noticing that the work of bridging those cut-offs when we become aware of them has the by-product of automatically improving our solidity in current relationships.

What I’d like to address in the next few posts is what it means and what it doesn’t mean to bridge cut-offs in early relationships–what it entails to define oneself (AKA differentiate) in the context of a relationship.

Let’s first explore what it doesn’t mean, because that’s easier to describe.

What It Isn’t

Defining oneself is not characterized by reactivity. A person who defines him- or herself does so without defensiveness, dogmatism, anger, in-authenticity or emotional excess. The individual simply states a position or behaves in a non-reactive way that reflects a position.

The other day, for example, my mom presented her view on a particular issue–a view that I don’t share. Because conformity is a high value of my mother’s, I was immediately aware of tension inside–less than there used to be, but still there. At this point, I had options, such as:

  1. Being curious and asking about her position
  2. Informing her that her understanding of the issue was limited
  3. Getting angry about what I experience as a habit of her viewing the world from simplistic lenses and coming to erroneous conclusions
  4. Etc.

My response was to ask for clarity first (non-reactive), and then follow up with something reactive: I suggested that it’s easy to be fooled by appearances, so her assumptions may be leading her to an inaccurate conclusion. Ugh. Not a shining moment.

What It Is

After seeking clarity, defining myself might have sounded more like: “Hmmm. I see it differently.” Or I could have stated that I see it differently and let the conversation drop there. Or if she asked what I meant, I could have stated how I see the situation without any need or requirement that she see it my way. Or I could have chosen not to respond at all, as long as that response wasn’t about establishing emotional distance in an attempt to escape tension.

So why, after a brief moment of curiosity, did I react? Apparently, my mom’s simplistic view of the world still triggers me. It was one of the factors that led to the cut-off in the first place, when I left home at 18 for college in another state. Now, 30 years later, I have to do the work that I avoided back then. I have to confront my reactivity and complete the developmental step of defining myself as an adult in relationship with my mother. I didn’t do it very well the other day, and I’ve been working at this for many years now.

It’s A Process

First, bridging that emotional and physical cut-off required that I identify that there even was one. Then I had to understand its meaning. Next I had to heal from the wounds with which I had emerged from childhood. Then I had to figure out who I really was, rather than who I was supposed to be, as defined in my family of origin. Finally, I had to take myself back into the relationship with my mom in a way that reflects who I really am, not who I was expected to be.

If this sounds easy or quick, I haven’t described the process very well; if you’ve done some of this work, however, you know what I’m talking about. The level of encouragement you had in your family of origin to become the person you truly are plays a large role in how much the reaction of cutting-off characterizes your relationships in your family of origin and in other close relationships today. It also plays a large role in how difficult it will be to bridge those gaps and define yourself without reactivity.

For those of you whose early life relationships included trauma, abuse and/or neglect, I’ll talk tomorrow about building bridges in especially chaotic early life relationships.


Dating Wisely 1.28: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 3

Building Bridges

We’ve been talking about the importance of bridging emotional cut-offs in your family of origin relationships if you want to date wisely. Basically, how well you can define yourself within your early relationships will determine how well you can define yourself in your love life, and how well you define yourself in your love life will determine the quality of your intimate relationship.

I cannot lie. Defining yourself in your early relationships may be the most difficult work you ever do, depending on how the projection process in your family impacted you. Let me provide an example from my own life.

A Personal Story

By the time I emerged into adulthood, my emotional backpack was full of baggage from a family characterized by physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and spiritual abuse. Although I was less affected than my brother and sister by the chaos in our family of origin, it would have been impossible to escape the effects of such a system.

One effect was an abysmal love that eventually resulted in a failed marriage. During much of that marriage, I was in counseling to address the impact of my family-of-origin trauma, including identifying and differentiating between my reactive self and my true self. About 15 years into my marriage, I began to return to those early life relationships, with the hopes of bridging the divide. That was almost 15 years ago, and the work of defining myself in the context of early life relationships continues.

Complications in that effort included emotional work with deceased family members (my father and sister) and, for many years, from a very long distance (3000 miles). When I decided that doing this work up close and personal, bridging the physical cut-off, would be more effective in helping me grow, I decided to move back across the country to the area in which I grew up.

Do-Over Opportunities

As life would have it, moving so close afforded me many opportunities to do over relational dynamics, representing my true self, rather than my reactive self, this time. What a ride!

Imagine how this impacted my dating life! If you’ve been following this blog, you know the story of my experience of meeting Brad (the man who became my partner) for the first time, and about our first date a few weeks later. Because I had learned to define myself and to speak up in my family of origin–not just to sit back, observe, and absorb–I was able to do define myself and speak up when it came time to meet the man who matches me like a puzzle piece.

Learning Opportunities

I don’t always do this perfectly or with the greatest finesse, but I’m improving. For example, as I told the story about that first car ride when I observed to Brad that he may not be aware that he was coming off as arrogant, I realized that I could have been more tactful, simply sharing my own my experience of how he was presenting his point of view. Or maybe I could have simply asked if I could share my point of view on the content…or my feelings about the process. Or maybe I could have…. So many options.

Incidentally, what I chose to say came after 20 minutes of silent deliberation, so it represented the best I could do at the time, and it still wasn’t all that polished. Fortunately, Brad wasn’t side-lined by how I presented my observation, and my apology to him about it was easily received.

We’re always works in progress, and your efforts to bridge old divides in new ways will likely be bumpy. Simply learn from your mistakes and prepare for the next do-over opportunity. Until you learn what you need to learn, your relationships will continue to offer chances to do so. Yay!



Dating Wisely 1.27: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 2

Pressure and Accommodation

We spoke yesterday about how unresolved emotional attachments from our early lives leave footprints on our psyches long after we’ve physically left home. In our adult lives, these footprints take the form of tension in our closest relationships when we either pressure our partner to meet our unconscious expectations or we accommodate too much to meet the expectations of our partner, or both.

The good news is that we don’t have to be slaves to this process, and becoming aware of it like you’re doing right now, is the first step to more responsibly and effectively managing yourself in your relationships. Once you’ve identified the role/s you played in the emotional system of your family of origin, you can then identify the ways you’ve emotionally and/or physically cut yourself off from those early relationships in an effort to escape the tension there.

An Unconventional Approach

Now here’s the hard part: opening up to those old relationships with the intention of changing your role in the system. We’ll call this defining yourself within the context of relationships, AKA actively participating in the differentiation process within your family of origin. Strangely, defining yourself more solidly in those early life relationships automatically impacts your adult relationships without your even consciously trying.

Of course, defining yourself to yourself is the first step. Who are you really? Not who are you as a daughter/son, or husband/wife, or mother/father or employee/homemaker, but who are you regardless of all the hats you wear? What makes you cry, laugh, sing? What makes you feel alive? What activities bring you into “the zone” where you lose time because you’re so engrossed?

A Family-of-Origin Example

Before I could define who I really am, I had to name the role I played in the emotional system of my family, and I realized that I played the role of the compliant one, the peacemaker, the one who tried not to make things worse. I didn’t get actively involved in the family tension, which left me available as a dumping ground for the tension of others who did.

When I realized I was still in this position as an adult in my family and that I could now change this pattern, I was both relieved and terrified. Making this shift wasn’t easy, for my family members or for me. People in emotional systems get used to whatever’s familiar, and changing an entrenched pattern that had worked for other family members, although at great expense to me, was met with resistance of various kinds. But I kept at it, envisioning and believing in a time when I would be free to just be me, not someone to watch helplessly by, bearing the overflow of family tension.

A Dating Example

I didn’t learn about how cutting off from family of origin relationships impacts nuclear family relationships until after I was divorced, and I was just beginning to learn this, and to re-connect with cut-off family members, when I entered the dating world again. Becoming conscious of these natural human processes helped me to see that the work I was doing to define myself in relationships with my family members actually translated into my choices with the first man I dated post-divorce. How his unresolved attachments and mine resulted in tension became clear to me, allowing me to define myself in that relationship, just as I was doing in my early life relationships.

Defining myself in that first post-divorce romance cost me the relationship because I was no longer willing to accommodate to expectations that didn’t align with my most treasured values, and my date was unwilling to own his contribution to the dynamic. Making the necessary but painful move to break the relationship off was a direct result of being able to define myself more clearly and more boldly in family-of-origin relationships. If I could do it there, I could do it anywhere.

So can you.

More tomorrow.