When people become anxious, says psychiatrist Edward W. Beal, they usually react toward their "important others" in one of two ways: moving closer or retreating.

In general, he says, those who tend to be "emotional-pursuers" marry those who tend to be "emotional-distancers," and vice versa.

The distancing process--which therapists call "emotional cutoff"--was the theme of the recent Georgetown University Family Center's Sixth Annual Symposium on Divorce. Emotional cutoff, noted symposium chairman Beal, occurs in virtually all interpersonal relationships--from the workplace to the home. Emotional separation appears, he said, to be an increasingly common coping strategy--for better or for worse--in today's world, with the aid of such technological distancers as headphone-equipped cassette players.

"Cutoff can be a byproduct of conflict or a means of dealing with conflict," said Beal. "Everyone does it. It is only a problem when used too much, or too intensely."

One of the most dramatic--and common--arenas for cutoff is divorce. During the day-long symposium, about a dozen family-life professionals examined the cutoff processes that occur among the people affected by a divorce: spouses, children, in-laws, parents.

Family Center director Murray Bowen, who coined the "cutoff" term "some 25 years ago," noted that emotional distancing--if not carried to an extreme--not only can be healthy, it may be "essential for the integrity of the family unit" and "the person who uses it."

There is a tendency, he said, "to view cutoff as an isolated phenomenon, to think only about the one who does the cutoff, and to forget that the other person and the rest of the family play their part in it too."

While stressing that "people are different from each other in the way they handle the complexities of togetherness and individuality, people cannot," he said, "live in an intense emotional relationship without getting some distance from it.

"And if they do not get some distance from it, it will result in some kind of dysfunction in one or the other . . . either emotional, psychological or physical."

On the subject of the need for divorce rituals, Washington social worker Marilyn Krasner told of the appearance of giant hives on a woman whose marriage was collapsing.

"She could have a conversation on the phone with her ex-husband and hang up to find the entire side of her face swollen and tight for up to 24 hours. When reading and signing the papers for divorce, one of her eyes swelled shut."

Krasner suggested that the woman, who was in her mid-30s and Jewish, participate in a Jewish divorce ritual called a get, in which the husband and wife--in the prescence of witnesses--declare their matrimonial bonds dissolved.

"Ceremony can be useful at a level both emotional and spiritual," said Krasner, "to mark transitions and integrate changes."

The woman prepared for the ceremony by meeting with members of her own and her ex-husband's family.

"In the process," said Krasner, "she learned quite a bit about the patterns of relationship in those families. She also learned how difficult this divorce had been for each of them and that the in-laws were, after 12 years of marriage to their son, interested in maintaining a viable connection with her."

The hives continued through arrangements for the get, but from the day of the ceremony on--nine months ago--"no more hives. In addition, tension with her former husband decreased and she remains in good contact with both families."

The ritual seemed to help the woman acknowledge, said Krasner, "both the dissolution of the marriage and the continuation of the family . . . I do believe there was something in the preparation for the ceremony and the engaging in the ritual that touched a personal, emotional and spiritual chord that might otherwise have taken longer to sound."

Rites of passage--such as marriage, divorce, baptism, funerals--"seem to be the prime time for families getting spooked," said Bethesda rabbi and family therapist Edwin H. Friedman.

The family system "unlocks," he said, during the "six months to a year" around the ceremony. "It is possible to get more change for the better or the worse in a family in such periods than at any other time."

Friedman, who left his congregation four years ago to write, teach and practice therapy, recently completed a book--Interlocking Triangles--dealing with emotional processes in work and family systems. He developed this separation strategy to avoid "leaving spooks" when departing any relationship, from a marriage to a job:

1. Keep your emotions under control. Work through your own feelings before announcing your departure.

2. Permit others to vent their feelings. Avoid leaving in the middle of the night or hurrying a separation process "beyond the normal limits." If other people aren't allowed the chance to let out their emotions, unexpressed sentiments may resurface as divorce "demons."

3. Participate in the transition process. Spell out your role in keeping the system running so it will not fall apart when you're gone.

4. Maintain some contact after you've left. Surprisingly, "staying in touch after a separation helps you forget more than cutting off."

"Divorce is a highly emotionally charged situation," acknowledged Florida family therapist Eileen Gottlieb. "Stress scales indicate that it ranks with death and serious illness as one of the most difficult nodal events with which families contend."

Some families fall apart after divorce; others function well. In those that cope best with divorce, she said:

* Someone takes a responsible "I" position. "This means focusing upon self, not the other, in an effort to understand one's part in the process."

* There is an effort "to bridge emotional cutoff" by reaching out to family, friends and colleagues. "The less cut off former spouses are from each other, their children and extended families, the calmer and better able to manage anxiety the system becomes."

* The ex-spouses strive to avoid polarization. "More flexible, open-ended ways of thinking contribute to better functioning systems."

* Parents are conscientious in assessing what is best for their children. They consult professionals, read widely and maintain communication about them.

* Family members try to retain a connection to the community. "Schools, church and social groups can demonstrate allergic responses to divorcing families. If each spouse and the children can maintain a connection to the community in whatever ways are meaningful, the post-divorce system will be less anxious and more functional." CAPTION: Illustration, "Are you going for a walk, or are you just bailing out?" By William Hamilton; Copyright (c) Chronicle Features