Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Guest Post: Always the Mediator

Today’s guest post is by Ashley Hardway. She discusses her personal experiences being in the dysfunctional family role  of the mediator, the one in the family who always tries to help settle disputes among other feuding family members. It is an version of what Murray Bowen called triangulation, the process by which two people in an unstable relationship rope in a third member to contain the conflict without actually solving it. When one person in a family is the one who always volunteers to mediate disputes, and/or is the person who everyone else always turns to to fullfil this function, the role often may then spread to variety of other relationships, particularly with spouses and in-laws. It may also happen that the persons everyone turns to is criticized for the way they are carrying out the task as wells as frustrated in their attempts to accomplish it, and yet also criticized if they stop mediating.

As far back as I can remember I have been in the middle. I am the middle child and I began mediating between my two siblings when we were just wee children. This carried on into adulthood with me being the mediator between practically everyone. I really do not know why. Maybe it was all the practice I had growing up, or maybe I thought I was good at it. I was always trying to make peace but it never seemed to work out the way I planned.

When I got to be an adult I was still mediating between my siblings and between my dad and siblings. No one seemed to be able to communicate their feelings and I was constantly trying to enlighten everyone to what someone else was truly saying. Our family was not exactly a cohesive unit but we always did have the fundamental foundation of love which kept us trying.

When I got married I became the mediator between my husband and my family and between his family and mine. My family has very few boundaries and would drop in without announcement. I was used to that, but what made the boundaries fall even more by the wayside was the fact that our mother lived with us. So it was pretty much no longer considered my home - it was mom’s home and anyone was welcome at any time. This did not go over well with my husband or his family as you can imagine. I tried to make peace and I tried to set my family straight but life-long habits are hard to break.

My husband’s family was the type that scheduled days to see their parents and make arrangements with each other in advance for any visits as well. So you can easily see how our situation could cause resentment. Now, not only was I hearing about it from my husband but his family began to chime in as well. I was caught in between trying to talk to my family about the situation and at the same time smooth things over with my husband and in-laws. I was trying to do it all without totally breaking off ties with either side of the family and keeping my marriage together. Along with all the mediating, I was doing my best to not only hold down but also excel in a full time job and raising two children whom I adore.

One of my siblings eventually moved out of state, which alleviated some of our problems for a while. But it was not too long afterwards that my mom’s sister and her mother, my aunt and grandma, moved to get closer to mom because they were all alone too. They moved in about a half mile down the road, and thankfully mom went over there most of the time. The trouble started when my mom’s brother, a dear uncle, was diagnosed with brain cancer and could no longer work. He too moved in with my grandma and aunt, but before long he became quite ill.  He loved to drop in and play with my kids. And not too long after that my youngest sibling got a divorce and was also dropping by constantly and unannounced for visits and for meals.

Everyone had legitimate needs and I loved them all, but this once again made my position of mediator more difficult. I found myself constantly talking to my mom and siblings about the problems created by everyone gathering at our house and how it upset my husband and his family. I was also constantly explaining to my husband that the reasons for the frequent visits by my family was that everyone was either sick, lonely, or hurting. It upset my mom when I would talk to her about this situation because she is the type of person who has never been able to say no to anyone - and of course she loved them all. It upset my husband because he did not have the same feelings towards these people and did not understand them. I found myself drowning in a churning whirlpool of emotions that never seemed to stop.

Nothing I did seemed to solve these problems in my marriage or in my relationships with my or my husband’s family. Nothing I could say or do seemed to help and I eventually just gave up talking and let things happen as they happened. I thought that maybe if they duke it out on their own, then things would get better.

Being in the middle for so long and trying to make things perfect had completely exhausted me. The reason that I finally gave up was that my family began criticizing me as well as teasing me about being so high strung. When I had worked as hard as I could to make things work and no one cooperated I ended up angry or in tears. I remember one Christmas they were actually betting on how long it would take before I had my meltdown. My husband normally acted unhappy or somewhat indifferent, but when the betting took place he joined in on it! So I decided to give in and let everyone fend for themselves except for my kids. After that my relationship ties were mainly with my children.

Of course this did nothing to help the situation but it also seemed to make my marriage and my relationship with my in-laws even worse than before. Throughout the course of a full decade I had done my best to talk to my husband about what was going and let him know that I was trying to set boundaries. I was fighting a battle I could not win. After all, my family had been used to me trying to mediate all my life and they had the ability to just shut me out when I talked.

I tried to talk to my husband and see if he could help me find a solution. Perhaps if he could step up and let my family know how he felt in a controlled manner it would help. But he was not that type of guy; he felt like I should be handling it and if I loved him then I would make it work. He would basically sit in the background and complain to me or just disappear and/or complain to his family. Do not get me wrong - I do not blame him, but I sure could have used his help because I was purely and utterly overwhelmed.

I believe being a mediator is hardest when you are mediating between family members.  This is especially true when you dealing with a family with no boundaries in the first place. In pretty much any other arena you can lay down facts and work at getting people to see other people’s views.

I hate to say it, but the only way I got out of the role as mediator was to give up and let things fall where they might. My family then wondered why I was distant and sometimes indifferent. As time went on my husband and I became almost strangers living in the house together and my marriage ended in separation and eventually divorce. At that point it was somewhat of a relief even though of course it was still painful. It felt something like the death of a terminally ill patient whom you know is now no longer suffering.

When they all started making fun of me I really realized how little I could do to help anyone. I wasn’t helping myself, certainly, by putting on all this extra stress. I figured out something. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” No matter how hard I tried I could not make everyone happy. In fact I could not make anyone happy, not even myself.

When I finally gave up on trying to mediate with the adults I invested myself in my kids. Of course I went from one unhealthy situation to another. I made my kids the focus of my whole life and, rather than finding happiness within myself, tried to find happiness through their lives. One of them handled it badly, seeking to run away. The other one seemed to do great on the surface but after a long time finally admitted to me how hard the strain was of trying to be my happiness for me. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, of course, because I never wanted to hurt my children. It has taken me a long time, and is still a work in progress, but I have started to look for happiness inside myself instead of trying to make everyone else happy thinking that would make me happy.

I finally learned that I can’t please everyone and saying yes to everything does not make their lives or my life better or happier. By finally setting boundaries with myself, I could at last set boundaries with those around me. I had to give up my need for love and affection, at least as I wanted it, and learn to be happy within myself. It has been a struggle, but I am working towards a healthier way of living. It has certainly helped that many of the family members that perpetuated the chaos have passed away or moved away. A little peace can go a long way!"

My attempts to mediate failed pretty much my whole life, but I kept trying because I hated to see people unhappy and misunderstood. I put myself in a place that I was not really capable or qualified to handle. Now I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it is not possible to make everyone happy all the time. I cannot be responsible for any one else’s happiness but my own. I still have no idea how I could have handled that situation any differently. But I do know when you put yourself in that position you are certain to fail.

Always curious, Ashley Hardway is constantly learning and passionate about sharing what she learns with others. Based in the Houston, Texas office of Morningside Nannies, she loves to help families grow stronger, help their environments and communities, and keep moving forward! Check out @NannyLady on Twitter to connect and find out more.


  1. I was in a similar role in my family, the role of people pleaser. It was my job to make everyone feel better about themselves, give them that one significant ego boost they were searching for that would re-establish their sense of worth. For both my parents, the main service I provided was heroically contradicting them when they argued for their martyr-like failures as people. I have since stopped providing this service, and our relationship has become quite dead. Dad is completely disinterested in someone who isn't providing a service, and, perhaps not surprisingly, I feel like a traitor. So while, as Ms. Hardway realized, there is no real satisfaction in playing out the family role, there is also no discernible satisfaction in not playing it out, either.

  2. This has truly helped me reading this. I have been the middle my whole life but for me it is my siblings. 6 of us total and 2 don't talk anymore. I have always been the one trying to help everyone because I was the one everyone went to. I had a recent break down due to this. I looked up stuff and this popped up and I am so happy I have. I have always been the person to put family first and always try to please all my siblings and care for them. But at this point I have to let go. I have to let them deal with there own battles and at this point not let them pull me in either.
    Thank you.