Are you in the middle of someone else’s fights? Then you are lightning struck By, Magdalini Agrafioti, MA (Psy)

If you are in the middle of someone else’s fights, chances are you were called in either directly or indirectly to take sides. It is very difficult to stay neutral. Having said that, if someone’s physical or continuous emotional safety is at stake it is better not to stay neutral. This article, is not about dangerous situations, it is about everyday relatively mild tensions. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, researcher and family therapist built the theory of Family Systems. Its basic premise is that human behavior is part of all life. One of the concepts of his theory is that a dyad cannot tolerate much tension so they involve a third person to take sides. For the third person, it is very difficult to stay impartial. This because he/she is emotionally attached to at least one of them. By taking sides it is predictable that he/she will receive hostility from the other. More often than not the two people who had tension between them, may later resolve their conflict and the third person will be the odd man out.

Directly invited to be in the middle:

Take for example, Donna (a fictitious name in a fictitious but commonly found situation) is 40 years old. Her parents fight a non-fair fight. They exhibit contempt for each other. The triggers vary from the kitchen to be cleaned to who will use the car. What is worse is, they no longer fight, and they give each other the cold shoulder. Donna often experiences complaints from one or both parents. Each one expects her to take their side and if she does not, at least one of them withdraws from her. Donna feels trapped emotionally, she does not experience the freedom to stay out of their conflicts. Her guilt feelings and her definition as to what a caring daughter to elderly parents is does not allow her to be neutral. What she does find very helpful, however, is her observing her role in taking too much responsibility for her parent’s relationship. That alone is liberating her from her guilt. In the end, she expressed faith that they can handle their own issues.

Indirectly invited to be in the middle:

Example A. Six year old June and 8 year old brother Sam (also fictitious names in a fictitious but frequently met situation) fight about who is going to wash the dishes. They do not want to do this chore because they see it as an inferior task. Their father feels tempted to be the mediator. He thinks he has a responsibility to do that. As long as their physical and emotional safety is not at stake it is more helpful to show them faith that they can resolve their conflict. Example B. The couple have strong arguments several times in a week. What does little Johnny do then? He spills the milk on the carpet. Immediately the fighting stops, their attention goes to their child who has spilled the milk. This, of course, does not mean that little Johnny did it deliberately do this to stop his parents’ fighting. But somehow he senses that it works. If the non-fair fighting continues, he experiences so much anxiety that he develops problems like refusing to go to school, hitting other kids or isolating himself. Little Johnny is lightning struck. Experiment: Notice this week under what circumstances you feel tempted to take sides. Who is there, what happened, how you felt and how you handled it. Or observe the reverse, if you were feeling tension with someone, whether anyone was drawn to your side or the other party’s side.
magdaliniHeadShotMagdalini Agrafioti, M.A (psy), is a Registered Member of the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She has been practicing individual, couples and family counseling for many years. Contact:

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