Some of our biggest emotional challenges come from family dynamics. It’s a rare situation where everyone in the family gets along. If you tend to be the peacekeeper, you’re usually the one carrying around the heavy emotional burden of the discord.
If this role is getting old but you can’t seem to stop yourself from meddling in the middle, read about the session below with my client Tom. You’ll find practical tools on how to let others handle their own drama, without getting caught in the crossfire, no matter their age.
Big-hearted Tom just wanted the three brothers and their families to get together and celebrate Bob, the eldest sibling, big 40th. But there was a problem. David and Bob were barely talking. Bob was upset (and experiencing stomach aches) over David’s wife borrowing money two years ago and never paying it back. Bob wanted Tom to take his side.
Tom had recently visited Bob, who was still going on and on about the unpaid loan. Adding to that, on the phone and in texts, David kept wanting to know what Tom and Bob had discussed when they were together.
The biggest (and most challenging) thing for peacemaker Tom was to not get drawn into the middle. He needed to tell Bob he saw how much pain he was in, but he wasn’t willing to arbitrate in business that was between him and David. He reminded Bob how much he valued their brotherhood, but he didn’t feel right about talking about David and his wife, since he had no idea about their side of the story.
In terms of a gathering, Tom felt it was best to put this off until the spring. He didn’t see himself trying to make the visit happen until David and Bob resolved their conflict.
So, to take care of himself and work to get out of the middle, he practiced saying, “I don’t want to talk about it. Please take this up with David/Bob yourself.” Tom repeated this message over and over like a broken record, until he felt confident that he would not succumb to the pressure to intervene.
When he felt rooted in the freedom of not getting caught up in the middle and letting people communicate directly, Tom called Bob and spoke his truth and delivered the message that he felt it was best to put off their reunion until David and Bob cleared the air.
Tom wanted to tell Bob it would be better if he held positive thoughts about David and his wife for his own sanity and so he wouldn’t continue to have digestive issues. As the counselor, I stepped in and told him that was a dicey proposition. Giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea. If Tom wanted to offer his perspective, he needed to first ask and RECEIVE permission before tendering advice.
Then to shore up his relationship with David, Tom made the same communication, offering him reassurances and reminding him “I like our relationship and want to share that.”
It took a while but David finally reached out to Bob. In talking and listening it became apparent to both of them that there had been a misunderstanding about the loan, money, and a payback schedule. They were both relieved after they spelled out a clear agreement. Both confessed how much they had missed hanging out with each other and their families. They were eager to keep the channels of communication open going forward and make plans to get together for the belated celebration.
Regardless of age, stay out of the middle and encourage family members to talk directly with those that they have the issue with. You need to let their plight go. It’s not yours. You’ll just be fueling side-taking accusations and muddy the waters even more. They need to learn how to speak what’s on their minds in a constructive manner.
Your job is to focus on enjoying each person individually and not get sucked into a discussion where you are expected to take sides. Just offer encouragement for them to “go direct” and praise them for their successes.
Also, giving unsolicited advice is a slippery slope without checking and double- checking to see if the recipient is really open to hearing your opinion. Your job in the midst of family upheaval is to take care of yourself and relish a new authentic role rather than that of the perpetual peacemaker.
Jude Bijou, MA, MFT, is a respected psychotherapist, professional educator, and workshop leader. Her theory of Attitude Reconstruction® evolved over the course of more than 30 years working with clients, students, couples, and families as a licensed marriage and family therapist. It is the subject of her award-winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life.
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