Does Cutting Off from the “Jerks” in Your Family Endanger Your Future?


Family businesses and family members in general are often faced with conflict that seems to come out of the blue but may have been a part of the way the family has interacted for a long time. People have a hard time seeing relationships and how they work until there is a real crisis. Then people are either motivated to take on some kind of difficult action or as the old saying goes, it’s cutoff time, “My way or the highway.”  Some can observe the building up (of social pressure) in a family business. Partially because the pressure is operating both at home and at work. How predictable are these family pressures, and what does one do understand how this phenomenon works? If people are interested in recognizing the emotional side of organizations and families, then perhaps they will be better able to use more solid principles to halt the emotional reactions that slide into cutoffs and symptoms.

Often you can see that the family leader can have a laser-like focus on the company, but (often unseen) there is pressure to fit in and do things for the company or for the family that make no sense. Then pressure builds. The spouse, who does not run the family business, gets the job of relating to the children. They can end up complaining to the other spouse: “You are not relating well to the children.” Children then have become a burden for the boss and for the company. There is no room for individual development (or one way of seeing it is that he or she is getting pressured to change in the name of increasing family harmony).

Along with the focus on making the kids behave is the intrusion of the extended family. These people are often difficult and annoying, and they might not work for us in the business (we might not need them). Why should we go visit these not very helpful or cool family members? Over time, more reasons are given to drop family members and eventually the multigenerational family can begin to look like a tree without roots waiting for the next storm to show its vulnerability.

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This tendency, to cut off from the difficult one, is often not seen as a problem for the future of the family. What is the impact when any of us lose contact with our history and find members of our family too hard to deal with? We just want to cut off and have a nice vacation. What is the reason any of us need to spend time trying to understand these primitive urges to run from our family? Yet, negative relationships and cutoff between the generations, at the more extreme, can lead to people feeling like they have been ostracized and this can then increase fantasies and can even promote joining extreme groups.

As a man who built his own business recently said to me, “I am a successful person with two of the saddest sons.” How does this come to be?  Is there so much pressure on the children as a function of an emotional cutoff or vice versa? I was curious, how can one understand this incredible sensitivity to one another? How often do family members feel they are being ostracized or rejected? Are we overall just blind to the way we impact one another? Apparently, the answer is yes. We have great difficulty thinking about the long-term impact of how we interact with one another. We can barely notice how we are treating others in the here and now.  Much less notice that cutoff from difficult family members is impulsive and can feel really good in the moment and yet be setting our family up for serious problems in the future.

All it takes is one or two people getting mad and refusing to see those family “jerks”, and everyone is impacted, often for generations. Other people may not know what the argument is about or how to act on principles to stem the tide of negative gossip and reactivity.  All people know is that the family is upset and each person needs to pick a side. Someone is in the wrong.  When people are stressed, they often have little tolerance for what they perceive as one-upmanship, rejection, or just plain old differences.

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The idea of the “good family” says: we should think alike and be alike. Then you can blame others if they disagree with you. This is cheap energy. We get mad at others and never look at our part in misunderstandings or learning from differences. A higher level of awareness is required. Mindfulness asks us to pause, slow down and ask, what is going on between us now, and what is it that you think I think? Can I figure out what each of is trying to achieve and put all the cards on the table without being mad or blaming?

Automatically, we humans seek comfort with those who are like us without thinking about the consequences. We love the ones who agree and are nice. The downside of relating to all the nice people and cutting off from those who are challenging is that we get soft. We love coziness, and we begin to dislike challenges.

If you are seeking relationship strength, what will it take to think strong? What are your principles to deal with difficult people? How do any of us think carefully about managing self in both family and work relationships? Is there a reason we seem to have such vulnerability and sensitivity to people who think and act differently than we do? What makes it easy to ostracize others and forget about the consequences?

Perhaps because humans lived in small tribes of 12 adults and 18 children for thousands of years, evolution has favored emotional and physiological sensitivity to strangers and to even being subtly rejected. Yes, research shows that people will emotionally and physically react to the slightest sign of rejections – like when one is walking down the street and a stranger does not make eye contact, or when we are excluded from a ball tossing game. Even a computer-generated game can create physiological reactions. In research, this physiological and psychological sensitivity and its impact on relationships comes under the heading of ostracism. Consider that ostracism has nothing to do with planning to hurt another person; it can be more like a mechanism as above, that automatically gets us to look away to keep us from being overwhelmed. We do not look at others; we look down, and the other has a physiological reaction. Neither is aware. People may not even be aware that they have been ostracized as it can be a very slight change in the way people look at you and how you then feel.

Ostracism means being ignored and excluded by one or more others. Despite the absence of verbal derogation and physical assault, ostracism is painful: It threatens psychological needs (belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence); and it unleashes a variety of physiological, affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses.

Individuals are attracted to extreme groups and at-risk adolescents exposed to a brief episode of ostracism indicate a greater preference for socially risky drug and sexual behavior Ostracism is more insidious than bullying. People can ostracize others unnoticed and with relative impunity. Ostracism hurts as much or more than bullying, yet because it is characterized by the absence of attention and acknowledgment, it is difficult to monitor and regulate. In addition, individuals who endure long-term exposure to ostracism in schools and the workplace show more severe downstream consequences than they do to bullying.

Clearly cutting off can be a reaction to feeling less-than or feeling ostracized. People do not see the advantage and emotional strength that occurs from being in difficult relationships. Instead, the automatic and instinctual response is to increases idealization and prefer romance. Fantasy can be a cure for those subjected to even mild rejection from a social group. Your spouse looks at you the wrong way or says: “What is wrong with you?”, and we are off and running. This is the downside of living in small tribal groups without awareness of the impact we are having on one another. Loyalty is overly valued and differences are seen as treason.

Jack Calhoun, in his mouse universe, saw the end results of a lack of ability to recognize the other as an individual and to cooperation. His research points to a deeper reason for seeing and respecting one another different but as needed in the social group – the reason for increasing relationship awareness – survival.

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