I have a great family that I love. Individually, I have rewarding relationships with my father, my mother, and my sister. But put the three of them together in a room and the results are explosive. Things seemed to come to a head this year when my sister spent the entirety of Mother’s Day with her boyfriend and his family, rather than with our mother. My father was especially upset with what he perceived as disrespect for my mother. If I can see that some people in my life need to have a difficult conversation, is there anything I can do to encourage this and make it happen?
Stuck in the Middle
Dear Stuck in the Middle,
My strongest admonition to you is embedded in the name you chose: “Stuck in the Middle.” Your biggest problem is that you see yourself in the middle. You aren’t. While you are affected by your parents’ and sister’s drama, it is not your drama. It is theirs. If you start thinking you can fix any of this for them, you’ll drive yourself insane. In addition to the inevitable effect of their unpleasant conflict, you’ll entangle yourself in the optional misery of feeling responsible to control it.
There are only three things you can do:
1. Set and hold boundaries
Your first duty is to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being. Decide what conversations and situations you are and are not willing to be a part of. Let your dad know, for example, that you aren’t going to take sides in issues that aren’t yours. Let him know you love him and that you care, but you can’t do anything healthy by being involved. Let them know that when gatherings degenerate, you will elect to leave. And be prepared. If you have allowed yourself to play a role, even a passive “grin and bear it” role in the past, they are likely to resent and test your boundaries. They will see your healthy approach as a threat to their own denial about culpability in the drama. Plan for it and be clear about your own motives so their unconscious manipulation doesn’t guilt-trip you into falling back in.
2. Offer feedback, but not help
The only thing you can offer them in sorting out their own misery is feedback. You cannot “help” them. Help typically takes the form of carrying messages, brokering peace deals, or talking someone down emotionally. This kind of help isn’t help—it’s enabling. What you can offer is feedback. You can help them see how their actions are creating their own drama and suggest healthier approaches. But never impose feedback. The best approach is to point to a Mutual Purpose and then make an offer. For example: “Dad, I know you hate it when you and my sister are fighting. And I know you love her. I know you just want a real relationship with her. I see you doing things that I believe are keeping you from that. I would be happy to offer that perspective if you want to hear it. If you don’t, I understand.”
3. Set and hold boundaries
Once your dad, sister, mom, or anyone has made their choice about whether they want to look at other options, step back. Let people know how their actions affect you and what you intend to do about it. Be careful not to do this in a judgmental and punishing way. Boundaries are not something you put down in order to manipulate others. They are there to take care of you. Don’t say, “If you guys start acting up again, I will walk out of this house!” That is not a boundary—it is a threat. Instead say, “I want to be with my family. But I also don’t want to stay in places that feel toxic to me. Sometimes I feel that way when we’re together. In the future, if I start to feel that way, I’ll probably take a walk, spend the evening out, or perhaps shorten my stay. Just want to let you know.”
Trust me—I feel your pain. As I get older and my extended family gets larger and more complicated, my words above are as much autobiography as they are advice!
Best wishes as you love the ones you’re with!