Making Family Therapy Happen

Reconnecting Split Families in the Consulting Room

Elena Lesser Bruun

When someone has been cut off by a family member, he or she often feels immense hurt, incomprehension, rage, rejection, and a sense of injustice. Of course, this can be true for the initiator of a cutoff as well. Even when someone initiates a cutoff for legitimate reasons (abuse or betrayal, for example), the initiator is still likely to experience regret, sadness, and longing for what might have been. Indeed, the profoundly damaging power of a protracted cutoff can last a lifetime—for initiators and those on the receiving end of cutoffs.

Helping families heal cutoffs in therapy is painstakingly delicate work, with a high risk for stumbling over buried land mines. Therefore, I always start by asking the client whether physical violence of any sort has occurred. If so, I calculate, based on when and how it happened, the seriousness of it and the likelihood that violence will erupt again as a result of attempting reconnection. If the risk of repeat violence seems too great, I may see a client individually but postpone or discourage any attempt at reconciliation.

Some cases can’t or shouldn’t be reconciled, but if resolution is the goal, I suggest a meeting with each family member separately as a prelude to scheduling joint sessions. If anyone outright refuses the individual session, I work with the initiating party to bring that person in through methods that may even involve a neutral third party.

In each individual session, I keep expectations low by explaining that the purpose of a family meeting isn’t necessarily to restore the relationship, but merely to explore the possibility of it. The goal is for each person to feel understood, try to understand how the others feel, and clear up misunderstandings. Only then can everyone decide whether to rebuild the relationship. I usually ask for a commitment from each person for a minimum number of sessions (three to six after the individual ones). I also ask each person to agree in advance to leave the room for a few minutes if the discussion gets too heated. Last, I explore each member’s willingness to accept my lead in order to keep emotions from getting out of hand.

Initial Contact

The urgency in Anita’s voice was apparent when she first called me. “My daughter, Tanya,” she began, “ended her relationship with me and her stepfather, Bradley, five months ago without any warning. I’ve asked her why, and all she says is ‘Don’t you get it, Mom? I want you out of my life, period!’” This also meant that Anita and Bradley were no longer able to see Cal, their 3-year-old grandson. “I thought she might change her mind,” Anita explained, “but she won’t answer the phone or return our calls.”

Anita wasn’t sleeping and wanted a family meeting immediately, but before trying to bring everyone together, I suggested that I see her first. In our meeting, she explained that she and Bradley were largely supporting Tanya and Cal financially, and up until the cutoff point had babysat for Cal twice a week. Since they seemed to be engaged, supportive parents and grandparents, the obvious missing piece of the puzzle was why Tanya had cut them off.

Because Anita predicted that Tanya would resist engaging in therapy, I asked Anita’s permission, if the need arose, to ally myself with Tanya—to take her side in upcoming family sessions. Yes, in training we’re cautioned not to take sides with one family member, but there are exceptions. In this case, asking for Anita’s consent was actually a way of bonding with her, implicitly acknowledging her ultimate authority in the family. It was nevertheless a risky move. What if Anita had said no? In that case, I’d have empathized with her hesitation while explaining that I doubted I could facilitate reconciliation as readily without the leeway to ally with Tanya, if only temporarily. But here, Anita responded immediately with “I’ll do anything to reunite with my daughter!”

So I helped Anita write a letter to Tanya about her wish to explore reconnection. After some work to temper Anita’s brusque, no-nonsense style, it read, “I know you’re angry at me or us. I don’t understand why, but I’ll try, and do whatever it takes. We’ve found a qualified therapist, and I’m only asking you to take her call, maybe meet with her, and then with me and Bradley in her office. She’s agreed to call you to discuss whether this is something you’re willing to do. I love you, Mom.”

Tanya responded to her mother’s letter with a terse “I’ll talk to her; no promises.” I decided to see Tanya before Bradley to prevent any feeling in Tanya that I was colluding with her parents against her. In my phone call, I directly communicated my strong support to Tanya, telling her how brave I thought she was even to consider family therapy, and that I understood that adult children usually have good reason to stop speaking to their parents. “I’d really like to have your perspective on this situation and help you explore the possibility of reconciliation.” Tanya came in two days later, with Cal napping in a stroller.

This blog is excerpted from “Get Out of My Life!” The full version is available in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Parenting | Aging | Children/Adolescents

Tags: cut-off | cutoff | elena lesser bruun | emotion | families | family | family sessions | family therapy | group therapy | parents | psychotherapy | rejection | therapist | therapy

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Friday, January 22, 2016 12:46:25 AM | posted by Kairi Gainsborough
Meeting with each family member separately before conducting a group session is a great idea. My cousin moved out with her boyfriend when she was 18, and some of the family stopped talking to her because of it. I would really like to reunite the family before they start to regret their decision. How do you think I should approach them about seeing a family counselor?

Friday, September 11, 2015 8:32:59 PM | posted by Delores Lyon
Thanks for sharing this advice on initiating family counseling. I can definitely agree that it can be hard when your familial relationships are strained, which is why counselors are so important in the first place. It's really nice that Anita made the attempt to reach out by writing a letter to her daughter, especially since it led to Tanya talking with the therapist. Hopefully that family is able to make a reconciliation!