Crucial Skills®

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Caught in the Cross Fire

Dear Joseph,

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!

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6 thoughts on “Caught in the Cross Fire”

  1. Anonymous

    I never ever insert my two cents into things I read online but felt compelled to this time in response to the sister whose sister stood her mother up for Mother’s Day to spend the entire day with some boyfriend’s mother instead. I am presuming Mom cares now; this is just a presumption on my part.

    Neglecting your own mother on a special day like Mother’s Day to spend with someone else’s.. really?? I can think of nothing offhand more pain-inflicting than that; this is someone who (presumably) gave you life and raised you from infancy and has cared for and about you like no one else in the universe aside from God and this is the way you act? Absolutely disgusting.

    Unless there is a compelling reason to tear your mother’s heart out this was absolutely the lowest thing someone could do; this is the type of destructive behavior that does irreparable damage to what should be one of a person’s most precious relationships in the whole world.. well done, JERK.

    Maybe she’s too immature to understand now but hopefully she will someday; maybe it would take having kids of her own and it coming home to roost. Despicable.

    (No, I don’t have kids/not married but love family and lived long enough to know you should not toss their feelings aside especially for outsiders/new/uncertain individuals who very well may desert you [with or without notice]; also not setting a very good precedent for any potential life together either sweetie.

    I also don’t celebrate Mother’s Day for religious reasons but am commenting from a family value perspective only.)

    Do what you want; just don’t expect things to be the same if you choose to be a selfish hateful little brat; maybe you can find someone else to cry to if your ‘relationship’ falls apart eventually.

    I don’t believe in coddling people, as it doesn’t do anyone any good and everyone ends up hurt. Mom had a right to be treated with the LOVE and respect she deserved (not speaking from experience either though I’ve seen it; we treated our mom better than that). Despicable.

  2. Alex Davila

    Thank you Joseph!
    Awesome comments and recommendations! I believe many of us (certainly myself) sometimes feel stuck in the middle, precisely because lack of boundaries when it comes to family matters.

  3. Ravi Ravichandran

    Well worded advice. As a person in my mid-sixties, I can see what the father may be thinking. At the end, it is the fact that expectations are not met that makes everyone unhappy. The major problem is family relationships is the unwritten expectation of behaviour by others. So, your advice of making it clear by setting boundaries is in a way expressing what you expect and what you will do when those are not met.

  4. Peter Eastman

    As usual, the VitalSmarts gives great – and difficult to do! – advice. I have an exact corollary experience.
    My family was raised on sarcasm like mother’s milk. My wife has never cared for it, doesn’t find it the least funny, and doesn’t put up with it when the zingers come her way. One time, preparing for a Christmas morning visit where all the my family would be present, she let me know that if we started in on that behavior, she was going to go home.
    We arrived, and before long, my brother, sister, father and I were zipping sarcasm arrows through the air at whatever target was there. After about an hour, someone asked, “Where’s your wife?” Apparently, driving home.
    That is what it took for me to open my eyes into my own behavior. As long as she suffered in silence – or even suffered vocally after we left – I never realized how important this was to her. But when the only course left to her was to protest through her absence, she left Christmas with the family – something very important to her – to save her own self from our thoughtless abuse.
    Since then, I have completely changed how I behave around my family – and it is interesting: as soon as I stopped shooting back, everyone came down several notches. Family time has been much more relaxed and less painful, and my wife can safely participate in the conversations.

  5. Heidi Hoter


    Can you expound on the difference between providing ‘feedback’ and not trying to “fix things” or giving “help”. Even in the example, when the person says they can provide them their perspective, aren’t you really saying “I think I see what’s broken and I can tell you what that is”?

  6. Mary k Dunn

    Great advice Joseph! I love the adage….
    We do not need to attend every argument we’re invited to!
    In this case there was no invitation, so step out of the cross fire!
    I have had similar circumstances in my family… because I remain quiet they asked ‘ well, what do you think?” I responded, “not my circus , not my monkeys, I’m just here to watch” they never asked me again!
    When you don’t allow others to ‘team build’ using my opinion they ignore you.

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