Similarities and Differences Between Emotional Cutoff from Family and Cutoff from Country of Origin

Walking in my mother's footsteps at the University of Havana

Walking in my mother's footsteps at the University of Havana

News reports from around the world document massive human migration or immigration, typically as the result of political upheavals, war, or famine. Emigrants face drowning, genocides, lack of necessities, suffocation in crowded transports, or deadly epidemics. An influx of immigrants places pressure on host governments and native populations to adapt. But what are the emotional consequences to immigrant individuals and families related to the phenomena of cutoff from family and from homeland? Can “forced immigration” be considered cutoff from country of origin? How might attempts by an individual or family to bridge cutoff from a country of origin make a difference?

Human history is a story of continual migration, immigration, and diasporas throughout evolutionary time. While migration and immigration often are considered equivalent, human migration is movement by people from one place to another with the intention of settling in the new location seasonally or permanently. Such movement often involves travel over long distances and from one country to another, but internal migration is possible. Indeed, it is the dominant form globally. Individuals, family units, or large groups may migrate.  

Immigration is the international movement of people into a destination country to settle or reside in a place where they are not natives or do not possess citizenship, especially as permanent residents or naturalized citizens, or to take-up employment as migrant or foreign workers. (Often emigrate and immigrate are used interchangeably. The difference lies in the direction of the movement, i.e. “My parents emigrated from Cuba” versus “My parents immigrated to the United States.”)

“Diaspora” is a more specific term, referring to the movement of a population from its original homeland. “Diaspora” has come to denote historical mass dispersions of an involuntary nature, such as the expulsion of the Jews from Judea and the fleeing of the Greeks after the fall of Constantinople. Other examples include the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and the Irish dispersion during and after the Great Famine.  More recent diasporas include those of European Jews during and after World War II and, of interest to this writer, the diaspora of the Cuban people after Fidel Castro and the Communist Revolution. The population of Cuba in 1959 was approximately seven million. Currently, there are 1.17 million exiled Cubans, living mainly in the United States. The current population of Cuba is 11.4 million, almost double that of 1959. Approximately 10% of the Cuban population lives elsewhere, mostly in the United States. Certainly, this is not as great a diaspora as other populations but nonetheless significant.

Bowen family systems theory provides a useful framework for attempting to answer complicated questions raised by this latter diaspora. This paper will briefly review the concept of emotional cutoff, explore the limited literature on migration/immigration from a Bowen theory perspective, and describe this author’s effort to bridge the cutoff from her country of origin. Although anecdotal, her experience may provide a useful perspective for understanding emotional cutoff and its consequences on a personal and societal level.

Emotional Cutoff

In 1975, Murray Bowen, MD, conceived emotional cutoff as a means to describe the relationships between generations and the emotional process when children leave their parents in order to launch and build their own lives. It became one of the eight concepts constituting his family systems theory. Emotional cutoff, a very rich concept, is essential for understanding other aspects of Bowen theory, such as the family emotional unit, the projection process, multigenerational transmission, and symptom development, among other family dynamics. When the separation from parents occurs more easily, relationships are more stable and open between generations. When separations are more anxious, relationships are less stable and open, involving a lesser or greater degree of cutoff. Individuals with highly anxious, extremely conflictual, or unresolved relationships cope in several ways that evidence the extent of emotional cutoff. These can include emotional or geographical distancing or a shutting down of relationship from one or more family members. It is an automatic emotional process of separation, withdrawal, running away and/or denying the importance of the family of origin as a whole or a particular member or members of it. Emotional cutoff may be an automatic, internal process in which the facts and feelings in a relationship are not openly addressed or even formulated in an individual’s conscious awareness. (Bowen, 534-6) It also can be an intentional decision by an individual when there is chronic anxiety in a relationship and there are unresolved emotional attachments in the family as a whole.

cecilia in cuba - street scene.jpg

Typically, emotional cutoff manifests itself more in families with higher levels of chronic anxiety and lower levels of differentiation. It can also be traced through multiple generations and within separate branches of a family tree. In other words, it tends to repeat itself as a recognizable pattern within a multigenerational family system. Michael Kerr, MD, writes:

Cutoff can reduce anxiety and should not be regarded as “good” or “bad.” However, while people and nuclear families can reduce anxiety by cutting off, people and nuclear families can also increase it by cutting off. It is “easier” not to have to deal with people and situations one has difficulty dealing with, but by not dealing with them one also loses emotional connections that are potentially stabilizing. (Kerr and Bowen, 271. Emphasis added.)

Ultimately, cutoff from one’s family of origin backfires and intensifies similar maladaptive patterns in new relationships, which repeat themselves. Unfortunately, cutoff often is a major factor in the development of symptoms--emotional, physical, social, or a combination of the three. Although the person cutting off may initially experience a rapid reduction in anxiety, individuals may not perceive that symptoms emerging later are related to the cutoff.


Emotional cutoff has been extensively studied and written about. Cutoff from a person’s country of origin has not. Several references may be found, including the seventeenth chapter of Peter Titleman’s Emotional Cutoff, “Migration and Emotional Cutoff,” by Eva Louise Rauseo. However, a Google Scholar search resulted in only one relevant reference book, called Family Therapy with Ethnic Minorities, which contains thirty-two references to cutoff and several direct excerpts from Bowen’s work.

Rauseo states that lack of knowledge or connection with vital facts of family history is associated with increased difficulty in basic functioning. (Baker and Gippenreiter, cited by Rauseo.) She also notes that functioning may improve for individuals in the first generation to immigrate. Rauseo uses her clinical experience to further her observations and conclusions. She states that “families experiencing cutoff associated with geographic distance demonstrate predictable shifts from generation to generation.” For example, the first generation that cuts off from personal history and family contacts often experiences a great deal of energy focused on gaining a new life or merely doing what is necessary for survival and increasing the family’s prosperity. However, parents seldom pass on information to the next generation about the emotional issues propelling the cutoff. (407) Most compelling in Rauseo’s chapter is the following:

The generation born to these cutoff parents experiences the emotional reactivity in their parents, a reactivity that often surfaces around life situations that reflect the fear or anxiety that was present prior to the cutoff. The offspring have no context for understanding or managing the apparent excess anxiety and reactivity in their relationships. They simply experience the tension as part of their environment and deal with it as an important part of their lives, often blaming themselves or their parents for the experience. When parents cut off, the next generation lacks the experience of people being present and accounted for in the most difficult times. Instead of maintaining a viable presence intense but important relationships, the usual response is to automatically cutoff to relieve the tension. . . . Each succeeding generation lives with a level of anxiety in parents and self that cannot be understood in terms of actual life events. (407-8)

Although Rauseo beautifully describes the process and long-term effects of cutoff from family because of migration/immigration, what are the consequences when an individual or family is forcibly cut off from their country of origin as in a diaspora? Is there a significant difference?

Fernandez/Lopez Family History

I was born in 1962 in the U.S., the only child of Martha Perez-Fernandez and Jose Vior-Lopez. My mother was born in 1931 in Colón, Cuba. My father was born in Asturias, Spain, the same year. My father, an only child, immigrated with his parents to Cuba in 1936, when he was five. My mother was the eldest of three girls. Her parents both emigrated from northern Spain to Cuba when they were young adults. Both my sets of grandparents cited economic reasons for immigrating to Cuba. Although never explicitly spoken of, the rise of Franco’s fascism might also have been a factor. Both the Fernandez and Lopez families flourished in Cuba, where they owned small businesses. Although not extremely wealthy, they were comfortable.

University of Havana

University of Havana

My mother managed to graduate from the University of Havana in 1955 as a certified public accountant. It was a difficult feat because she had to work and study fulltime, and her father was very ill back in Colón. In addition, the revolution was well underway. She was the only individual to have earned an advanced degree on either side of the family. In fact, my mother was a contemporary of Fidel Castro and studied at the university when he did. Four years later, in 1959, my parents married. By this time, Castro had assumed the role of Comandante of Cuba, and the transformation of the Republic had begun. My family endured changes and oppression. All their property, businesses, and freedoms were either confiscated or revoked. In 1961, they decided to escape/flee/immigrate back to northern Spain where my father held dual citizenship and where extended family still lived. No one from my family of origin remained in Cuba.

Soon after they arrived in Spain, my family realized that the Spanish people were severely impoverished, with many going hungry. No jobs were available, and fascism was in full effect. Although extended family tried to help and support them, they did not have enough resources to share. In less than a year, my parents, aunts and their husbands, maternal grandmother, and a very young cousin decided to immigrate to the U.S. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1962 with nothing more than a few possessions and a desire to survive and prosper. My family eventually settled in Chicago, where my mother’s best friend from the university had lived with his family since 1958 after going to work for Shell Oil Corporation. My family struggled but eventually prospered, working menial jobs in the beginning, learning English, and sharing resources, like so many other immigrants.

The togetherness force was potent. This was quite evident because my entire family moved like an amoeba--from all of us initially living in a three-flat apartment building in the city to moving within blocks of each other in the suburbs. All the children attended the same Catholic grade school, high school, and college. Little socialization occurred outside family relationships. We all shared the same beliefs and convictions. Differences of opinion were quickly squashed or laughed at, at least until my cousins and I launched and started college. At the time, it felt very comforting and cozy--very safe. Chronic anxiety, likewise, was high. Both the lack of a significant Cuban enclave in Chicago and the small number of individuals in my family made our life more intense. We were isolated. My father died in 1976 from a congenital heart defect, and my mother passed away in 2014 from metastatic colon cancer.

No one in my family ever returned to Cuba. Indeed, no one voiced any desire to return. Fear was the dominant emotion--fear of not being able to escape again.

Cuba 2017: Attempting to Bridge Cutoff

I began studying Bowen family systems theory in 2002 and graduated from the Center for Family Consultation’s postgraduate training program in 2011. There, I learned about the concept of emotional cutoff and understood its importance in comprehending the family as an emotional unit, its role in differentiating a self, and the consequences for symptom development. However, only recently has the idea of cutoff from country of origin been brought to my attention.

Colón, Cuba

Colón, Cuba

When my mother died in 2014, one of her final wishes was that her family disperse her ashes into the ocean as close to Cuba as possible in the hope that some molecules might reach the shore. I promised her I would complete this mission. Originally, I planned to rent a charter boat and sail as close to Cuba as possible. Then President Obama opened tourism to Cuba for American citizens on December 17, 2014--nine months after my mother’s death. Because of this change, I started planning a trip to Cuba, which included renting a car to travel to the village of Colón, my mother’s birthplace. I also began to think about this trip not only as a mission to disperse my mother’s ashes but also as an opportunity to establish a connection to my family’s country of origin. What are the similarities and differences between this effort and an individual’s attempts to bridge cutoff from family?

I grew up hearing both happy and sad stories about Cuba and my family’s experiences. How beautiful the country was, how magnificent “el Malecon” and “la Tropicana” were! How the beaches of Varadero were the best in the world. The food, the rum, the cigars, the coffee; none could possibly compare! I heard about their many struggles and what hard work it was to run a bakery and small grocery store in Colón. I heard about the premature death of my maternal grandfather and my mother’s experiences studying at the university. I heard about the brutality of the revolution and their terrifying escape. These stories became a very powerful part of my identity.

Clearly, there are differences between cutoff from family and cutoff from country. Typically, in cutoff from family, there are intense feelings of animosity, anxiety, or conflict. None of these feelings existed in my family’s reminiscences. Perhaps this resulted from being cut off by forces outside of one’s control as opposed to a voluntary decision by an individual or family. Yet in emotional cutoff one can choose to work on repairing and bridging the divide. When one is exiled from one’s country of origin owing to political forces, how does one reconnect, and what are the consequences of the inability to do so?

In May 2017, my husband and I finally arrived in Cuba with a specific plan to distribute my mother’s ashes in four locations: “el Malecon,” the famous boardwalk that she frequently spoke about fondly, the campus of the University of Havana, the beach in Varadero, and in Colón. I knew it would be very emotional. However, what surprised me most was my reaction to the experience of meeting and socializing with native Cubans and the deeply emotional reaction to seeing and traveling in the footsteps of my parents. Then there was the utter shock of seeing the deterioration of Havana and reconciling the vision I carried from my family’s oral history with the reality of Cuba in its present state. Cuba was never bombed but it looked as if it had been.

Old Havana

Old Havana

But most revelatory was discovering similar characteristics, traits, mannerisms, and values as I mingled with native Cubans, from chuckling when I noticed that all Cubans talk very loudly to an understanding of where my family’s sense of generosity evolved. Certain truths snapped into high definition and, with that knowledge, I gained a sincere appreciation for the significance of reconnecting with my country of origin and experiencing what my family had so often talked about. There were many “aha!” moments.

Most important was the deeper understanding I gained about who I am, how it is that I think and act in certain ways, where and why my family was/is so anxious, and a fuller acknowledgement of the courage they mustered in the face of the extraordinary fear of exile to move toward an uncertain future in an alien destination. In other words, reconnecting with my country of origin provided another anchor in my quest for a more clearly defined self.

In this regard, bridging cutoff from one’s country of origin is similar to bridging emotional cutoff from family. Both can improve one’s work towards differentiation of self, both will reestablish connections to valuable resources and both can lower chronic anxiety.  Granted, returning to one’s family’s homeland is not quite as anxiety provoking as working towards bridging cutoff from a parent, sibling, or other family member. However, it provides plenty of opportunities to manage self in highly anxious situations and to observe self while trying to remain in a more thinking mode and not a purely feeling one. The study of Bowen theory granted me a huge advantage in thinking about and understanding what I was experiencing.  


The intent of this paper was to explore the similarities and differences between cutoff from family and cutoff from country of origin. Literature suggests both types manifest similarities in terms of increasing chronic anxiety, decreasing access to resources, and symptom development. Clearly, there is a difference when individuals choose to immigrate but can return to their homeland at will to visit family and culture, as opposed to forced immigration, when returning to one’s homeland is nearly impossible, dangerous or non-existent.

Making efforts to reconnect to homeland, if feasible, offers individuals an opportunity to answer questions about self, gather more information and a deeper understanding about family, and experience one’s undiluted culture. In this respect, the benefits are almost as powerful as bridging cutoff from family and in many ways easier than the latter.

Would my family have fared better had we settled in large Cuban enclaves such as in Miami? Perhaps. It certainly would have provided my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins with another avenue for absorbing anxiety through deeper connections to a familiar community. Theoretically, it could have decreased the chronic anxiety active in my generation. I believe that this cutoff from country of origin and my family’s subsequent isolation are principal factors in major cutoff currently occurring between many family members.

What are some of the implications of cutoff from country of origin on a societal level? Can the study of cutoff’s effects contribute to a deeper understanding of disenfranchised groups in our society? I cannot help but think about the impact on the African American population. At least American society did not try to obliterate the Cuban culture.

The role of cutoff from country of origin provides a rich avenue of study for Bowen family systems theory. Deeper and more widespread accounts of families with this experience could offer more accurate predictions for the long-term functioning of families and potentially provide different ways of thinking about our society.


Murray Bowen, in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: J. Aronson, 1978) 534-536.

Michael Kerr & Murray Bowen in Family Evaluation (New York: W. Norton & Co., 1988) 271.

Man Keung Ho, Janice Rasheed, and Mikal Rasheed in Family Therapy with Ethnic Minorities (California: Sage Publications, 2004.

K.G. Baker, J.B. Gippenreiter in The Effects of Stalin’s Purge on Three Generations of Russian Families, Family Systems (Washington D.C.: Georgetown Family Center), 1996

E. L. Rauseo (2003) Migration and emotional Cutoff. In P. Titleman (Ed.) Emotional Cutoff (pp. 401-424). Binghampton, NY: The Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Monica Guzmán