Family member in the middle: Being stuck between two family members who aren’t talking to each other

Guest post by Rebecca
being the family member stuck in the middle
By: emdotCC BY 2.0

I know if I ever get married, I’ll have to make a choice between inviting my dad or my brother. This will be to protect each of them, and protect the day from family arguments.

Every adult family relationship dynamic is different. For me, our difficulty is that my older brother, who I am very close to, will not talk to our dad. My brother knows I will not cut contact with our dad, even though he feels I should. He has respect for my desire for a relationship with my dad. Still, being trapped in the middle is difficult.

There are posts on Offbeat Home about how to maintain difficult family relationships and how to sever them, but let’s talk about being stuck right in between…

Our parents divorced when I was two. Once our dad moved out we grew up with our mum. Every Sunday our dad would come and take us out for a walk round the park or a trip to McDonald’s. Occasionally we would go to the cinema. Then one day when I was seven, we had a phone call from him to say “ohh, by the way: I got married today.” We had met his future wife however as a “friend,” so as you can imagine we were a little shocked.

A few years down the line and all contact was cut off by him beyond a Christmas and birthday card which were always put through the door in the middle of the night. For eight years I saw my dad five times. Once at a family wedding and then four times in the car park at Ikea where we happened to meet by chance.

During this period my brother was in Egypt during the 2011 revolution. Yet our Dad never asked after him. Having separated from his wife, Dad’s contact started again. He apologized for being not the best dad in the world. My brother just couldn’t accept it — it was too little too late.

For me, being in the middle wasn’t easy until I started to look at things from my brother’s point of view. When we went through everything with the divorce, he was four years older (and maybe wiser) than I was. He also would have remembered things from before the divorce.

Once I saw it from his point of view, I stopped trying to make them become BFFs and supported my brother, while maintaining a relationship with my father. Here’s how to navigate this tricky “family member in the middle” situation:

  • Make it very clear to everyone you’re a neutral party. This is very important in my view so no one ever feels like I am “picking sides.” I see both points of view and respect them.
  • Do not let yourself become a messenger. If my dad wishes to say something he can, but I’m not delivering it.
  • At family events I will make sure that I am sat with my father, so that my brother won’t be.
  • If I am going to see our dad, I check in with my brother about what information about his life he’s comfortable with me sharing, should our father ask.

What other “family member in the middle” advice do you have to add to this?

Comments on Family member in the middle: Being stuck between two family members who aren’t talking to each other

  1. My paternal grandmother is the master of this. Long story short, I don’t speak to my father/her son. She still speaks to her son, plus the grandson/my half brother

    She’s the master of this simply because she treats all involved parties the same individually as she would if we were speaking. She loves us just the same and behaves normally. She will still mention the other party occasionally, but in passing in general conversation. Essentially she makes it a none issue. She’s also very tactful. She refers to my father in my presence by his name rather than “your father” because she knows I’m happier with this but again she doesn’t make a big deal about it.

    She just keeps it cool, doesn’t initiate anything heated, never stirs or interferes and carries on as before. I don’t see my father but my relationship with my grandmother does not have to change because of that. Neither does her relationship with my father. Keep calm and carry on?

  2. The best thing is just to tell them, firmly, that you’re not going to be the messenger. And if that doesn’t work–if people insist on telling you things to pass on to your mom or your brother or whoever–drop the ball. Become completely unreliable. If your family member can’t count on you to deliver their message, they’ll leave you out of their drama pretty quickly. Speaking as the child of divorced parents who went through a couple of very rough years…

  3. Those are great points, and ones I would have put down too. Good job at finding and defining your place with everyone, and to have that communication.
    I was between a parent / sibling myself and when I re-spoke with the astranged sibling I made it clear that I was not the go-between and if they had something they wanted to know or ask about Parent, they’d have to ask them themselves. I also said that if they ever asked ‘oh hows Parent’ I would always just say ‘fine’ and move on. I also made clear that I would do the same for them, if Parent ever asked about them. I also tried to make clear that my relationship with them is separate from that of the Parent (as there is an ocean of issues). Unfortunately I don’t think Sibling could separate me from Parent, as we have not spoken in years and they have never initiated contact. That means Less Drama though!
    While I am disappointed we couldn’t reconnect, I am proud I stood my ground regarding my own boundaries. Some things just don’t work out to the fantasy future in your head, and those boundaries keep me mentally healthy.

  4. I am currently in the situation of not wanting to put my brothers in the middle. I have spoken to my mother in over 5 years and my life is immeasurably better for it. Both of my brothers have also gone through periods of estrangement from her, but are currently in contact. The three of us live on the opposite side of the country from our mother and so we have all been able to maintain a close sibling relationship despite her and I not speaking. So far it’s worked out as well as it could. However, one of my brothers just got engaged and I can’t imagine him not inviting me or my mother. I don’t want to add any additional stress to what should be a really happy time for him. I would love any ideas on how I could reassure him and help reduce the awkwardness he will inevitably feel around inviting us.

    • Hi, I’m the OP of this post.

      I’d try to bring it up tactfully to you brother. That a) it doesn’t bother you if she comes (if this is the case/your willing to grin and bare it for the day/your brother) and b) you understand he still has a relationship with your mum and you respect that. You could even go as far as you are happy your brother and mum can have a relationship even if you can’t with your mum(this completely depends how you feel and your situation). Personally I would do this in a ‘private’ convasation with your brother rather than with everyone watching. You don’t even have to word it as a ‘well at your wedding I promised not to cause drama’ but take a more ‘I’m glad you and mum can have a relationship. Its not something I can currently but its lovely that you can. I’m always here to support you in any decision you make over your relationship with mum.’. Hopefully he might take the bait and talk about the wedding and you being there with your mum and you can say your happy to be there with her and grin and bare it for the day. Or ways it would be easier on the day if you can’t grin and bare it. A family friend who is understanding of the situation and sticks near you. Then if you mum comes over and makes it awkward/brings convosations which are best said in other places they pick up convosation with your mum allowing you to make a getaway and calm down . Try to make the convosation about how it’s his day and you want to be therefore him, on his (and his other halfs) big day, and make it special. Hopefully this will make him feel you are happy to be there with you mum present too and won’t be causing a scene.

      As he has gone through periods of estrangement to he clearly once had his reasons. I hope he’s not one to be saying how much better you would be allowing your mum in your life. If he isn’t he properly understands more than you realise.

      • This is good advice. Ask your brother what he would like and expect from you that day. Do this well in advance of the wedding so you can take some time to think it over and decide if you’re comfortable with it. And I second the bring a supportive person advice. And try to stay someplace (e.g. hotel) that’s convenient, but where you have your own space to retreat to if things get stressful. Have your own transportation. Do not get into the car alone with your mom or any of her enabler/flying monkeys. I did this at my brother’s wedding to go to a manicure appointment. My mother used that as an opportunity to scream at me for using the “wrong” cell phone to call for directions when she got lost driving there.

        I had been in limited contact with my mother because of behavior in both my childhood and adulthood. My mother lived to create drama at graduations, weddings and funerals. I’ve never married and she would go on about how I better not sit my father at the family table if I got married because she didn’t want to look at his face. She refused to have any celebratory meal with my father at my college graduation. But was fine with suggesting we all gather, with my newly sober father, at the bar of the hotel. And more drama with his funeral, even though they’d been split up for over a decade.

        When my brother got married, he and I didn’t have this kind of conversation which would have saved us a lot of conflict and heartache. He ended up excluding me from the family table and pre-wedding family photos. I found this out as it happened. It was a small wedding of 3 tables with all of the name cards at the table. Two tables are of my brother’s friends. One of those tables also has a couple my brother doesn’t know, but my mom insists on inviting so she has someone there she knows.

        The other table is of my brother, sil (now ex-sil, as they are divorced), the best man and his wife, my mother/stepdad and ex-sil’s father and stepmom. I figure I’m with the rest of my family and I’m looking for my name card. The wife from mom’s playmates calls my name and tells me I’m sitting over that table. It’s a bit weird and embarrassing to be looking for a name card at the family table and have someone shout from across the venue that you’re sitting at another table. But whatever, I vowed not to make a scene or trouble, so I smile and say thanks and go over to the table.

        I’m seated next to the husband part of a couple. He proceeds to spend the entire dinner grilling me about why I’m not married and don’t have kids and how I really should get married and have kids. To the other side of me is a friend of my brother’s who is drunk and hitting on women at another table. My brother’s sponsor and a friend of his from AA are deep into a kindred spirits conversation about sobriety I don’t want to interrupt. The only other person at the table is the sponsor’s wife and she’s on the other side so we can’t hear each other. I made my excuses and left the table as soon as possible. I was about to cry, so I went off to a part of the venue where no one would see me, texted some friends for support and pulled myself together to go back in.

        I got a plus one, but I have gone to many weddings solo. Even the few where I don’t know anyone, I seem to be able to make conversation and meet people. So I didn’t think it was necessary. But knowing what I know now, I would have at least brought a plus one for support.

        Some advance notice about what was going to happen might have helped me prepare for it and decide if I was comfortable attending and if so, under what circumstances.

        My brother and ex-sil apologized the next day, saying it was an oversight. I accepted the apology. But then later, they told it me it was because they were worried about tensions with my mother. At that point I did say I was sick of the toxic family bs. It spiraled downwards fairly rapidly after that. My brother and I are estranged. My mother and I were estranged up through her recent death.

        I’m not saying the same thing is going to happen in your case, but having a conversation early on about expectations is probably a good idea.

  5. I dint speak to my stepmother. I made a decision nearly 10 years ago to cut her out of my life. It took me a long time to recover from the damage that relationship did to me as a teen. My dad knows about my decision but pretends not to. It’s the worst, every once in a while (couple times a year?) he will spring her on me by inviting me to an event or something and not mention she’s coming with him, so then I seethe with resentment while trying to ignore her as much as possible yet still be civil. Just now he showed up with her on my doorstep , she’s never been to my house before. She managed to criticize my lack of air conditioning and the way I hang my art before I hustled them out the door. This is the first conversation we”ve had in years. Ugh. Maybe I need to start rudely point blank refusing her, but shutting the door in my dad’s face feels pretty nasty.

    • Sounds like it’s your dad being the insensitive one here. I personally can’t stand drama, but the one time I made a real fuss and stood my ground and made an ultimatum that I was very happy to stick to I got both immediate and long term results. It helps to be real specific about what behaviour / circumstances are acceptable. Good Luck.

    • Shutting the door in his face is not nasty when he refuses to respect your boundaries. If you have to go that far for the incidents to stop, then that’s what you have to do. He will get the message when you stop answering the door.

    • “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you already had plans with your wife today. Perhaps we can reschedule for another time, when you don’t have a commitment with someone else. Do enjoy the rest of your day together. I’ll see you another time, Dad.”

    • Going forward, only meet in public places, such as restaurants or even a park or a mall so you don’t have to worry about settling a check. If he brings her, leave. You know your situation best, so it’s up to you as to whether you want to inform him of the boundary or just enforce it. To some folks, a boundary is a red flag for a bull.

  6. I had little acknowledgement of how difficult it is being in the middle of warring relatives until I became that person. I learnt from the mistakes of relatives trying to feel their way through these situations. I learnt not to take sides, or at least not to vocalise it to the parties involved. To not be devious: I had people trying to sneak presents to my child and organising ‘bumping’ Into a relative who we have no contact with and while they felt they were just trying to help, it simply damaged trust. To always be polite: as relatives you can’t always avoid each other, and as hard as it may be, keeping things civil should be possible if all parties can be mature. If they can’t, well at least you’ve maintained your own dignity. I won’t be the messenger and I don’t put my opinion forward when one relative discusses the other. In fact, I tend to change the subject. I just think it’s a shame that these situations even occur :/

  7. That is great advice! I am stuck in the middle of two of these dynamics. It is hard.

    About five years ago my mom’s family had a huge family feud and now none of them talk. My mom passed away when I was a teenager and my dad kept us out of the feud so my immediate family still talks to all three of my mom’s siblings and all of our cousins. When we go visit (we live far away from them) it is very unpleasant. When I am visiting my one aunt my other aunt and her daughter call me constantly. When I got married my aunts requested that they not be seated near each other (apparently it awkward that they were staying in neighbouring rooms at the hotel – I did mention to the second one that booked a hotel to book in a different hotel). Apparently my wedding was so uncomfortable for them that my one aunt refused to go to my sister’s wedding. I don’t think my one aunt understands the stress that she puts me and my sister through (my sister describes it as dealing with divorced parents). Leading up to my sister’s wedding my one aunt was on the fence about going to her wedding and then more or less told my sister that if my other aunt’s family (specifically our cousins) were going then she wasn’t. My sister had not received RSVPs from them yet. Our aunt called back a couple weeks later and asked my sister if they had replied yet. My sister had to inform our aunt that they were coming.

    And then until recently my BIL/SIL and my husband’s cousin and his wife (who is my friend) haven’t been getting along. (They recently agreed to not avoid each other and try to get along. And since then they have actually attended a family event and it hasn’t been totally awkward.) If one of the couples was going to a family event the other would not (sometimes neither would show up thinking that the other was coming). They refused to talk to each other. Both sides expected the other to make the first gesture (I told them that if they wanted a relationship that someone was going to have to suck it up and make the first move). And they put my husband and I in a very awkward situation because we could only invite one of the couples over at a time or we would have to make separate trips to visit them (which is a lot more work for us). For a while we also had a strained relationship with my BIL/SIL. When we decided to improve that relationship we made it clear to both sides that we weren’t taking sides. We also refuse to be the messenger. We know information about why my friend and my husband’s cousin are upset with my BIL/SIL however our position is that it is my friend/her husband’s information to share, and if my BIL/SIL want to know then they should ask them directly. Before we made those guidelines clear my BIL/SIL were upset with us that we didn’t tell them that my friend was pregnant or other personal things that we felt we were not in a position to share. All of us also agreed to not talk negatively about the other people (for a while that meant if we were talking to one couple we didn’t talk about the other couple at all). Then as our relationship improved with my BIL/SIL, we started telling my husband’s cousin/my friend that things were improving in hopes that they would patch things up too (since both sides seemed somewhat open to the idea).

  8. Being only recently thrust into this situation in the past year, I find the hardest part is not developing resentment toward the person keeping the feud going. My mother and aunt (both of whom I’m close to) have been fighting about their father’s will since he died last year (right before my wedding), and it’s still going on as I’m about to have my first kid. Unfortunately it’s gotten to the point where my mom has considered cutting off contact with her sister entirely. I have insisted on remaining neutral to save my relationships with both of them, but have ended up becoming resentful that they haven’t been able to resolve the dispute, and have lost a bit of sleep over being asked to play messenger more than once. And being at such a scary and emotional turning point in my life, the prospect of myself and my kid being forced to navigate this breaking relationship between two people I love in the early years of my kid’s life just ends up making me angry that they couldn’t muster the emotional maturity to work through what seems to be a fairly minor problem (to be fair, in my “rational” brain I understand that to them it doesn’t look minor or easy-to-resolve at all), even for my sake or that of the family’s first-ever grandkid.

    So I don’t really have any advice about being in the middle of feuding relatives, but I’ve had to caution myself against feeling personally slighted by being trapped there against my will, so maybe that is something for others to be aware of. It is hard to come to a place where I accept my mother’s rationale for doing what she’s doing, and I worry that this fight I never had any say in will end up affecting MY relationship with her if I’m not careful.

    • “the hardest part is not developing resentment toward the person keeping the feud going”

      I sometimes want to tell off the person continuing the feud. With the feud between husband’s cousin/my friend and my BIL/SIL, I told my friend (who was very resistant to patching things up) that I wanted her to get to the point where she could be in the same room with them since we are all related so we do need to go to family gatherings together. I was very clear that they didn’t need to be friends with my SIL (they were very good friends before everything happened) and mentioned that she acts very rude when she’s around my SIL. She was very mad at me that day. We talked about it a few days later and she agreed that her “civil” behaviour was not very civil. She even agreed that she would step back and watch my SIL’s behaviour at family gatherings.

      I still don’t know how I feel about my aunt who didn’t come to my sister’s wedding. I haven’t talked to her since. The stunt really upset me. I am not saying that I want to side with my other aunt regarding their feud, but it doesn’t really make me want to spend time with the aunt that didn’t come to my sister’s wedding.

  9. My problem isn’t being in the middle so much as being shut out? My brother got into a fight w/ my mom and sister, so they weren’t talking. I tried not to take sides and let him know everyone wasn’t against him. Now he’s talking to my mom again, but wants nothing to do with me or my sister. I know it bugs my parents that we aren’t talking, but the only thing that annoys me is that I have no idea why he stopped talking to me. Help?

    • Without knowing the context or your family, I’m going to go out on a limb and paraphrase some pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up lately:

      If you’ve tried resolving things with your brother, if you’ve asked why he’s not speaking to you, if you’ve made a genuine effort to open communication, then you’ve done your part. It takes two people to maintain a relationship, and if you can honestly say that you’ve made every effort, you’ve done your 50%. If you’ve done your part, honestly and truly, that’s all you can do. You are not responsible for another person’s inability to communicate.

      (And quite frankly, I think that should apply to people who are participating in the estrangement and those stuck in the middle.)

  10. Any advice for when the people not speaking live with you? My 15 year old hasn’t spoken to my husband since May. She is correct that he was not the best father and his three year affair didn’t help. But for a variety if reasons (please don’t just judge – not helpful!) I am still married to him. But he is correct that he really is very sorry and wants another chance. She flat refuses to be in the same car with him, speak or be in the same room. Ideas? Anyone been there? Kicking him out isn’t an option nor of course is her leaving.

    • I think maybe some kind of counselling might not go amiss here? I was 12, nearly 13, when my dad left my mum for another woman. It had an effect and I will be honest: for a year between the age of 15-16 I didn’t speak to him. The circumstances were different, he moved abroad and my mum didn’t take him back. But she is clearly old enough to see and make judgement about what he did, and while he may be willing to make amends, the damage is done. Counselling (therapy) can help her to work through her emotions about what happened, what it made her feel, how it shaped her as a person. I know my dad leaving made me feel really unloved and unvalued – “if he loves me, why did he leave?” – and so on. This is not to bash your husband or your choice to save the relationship AT ALL. I’m really impressed and glad that you want to make it work. I now have if not a super close relationship with my dad, at least a fairly good one. I’m 24, nearly 25 and it took me a long time to get there though. I can’t recommend enough counselling, and also some kind of therapy to remind her of her worth – not necessarily the case, but if it was 3 years of affairs then she would have been fairly young when all this damaging stuff was happening and she could have taken a lot more than was ever intended toward her – as in, he must have loved her, when in reality it had nothing to do with her and never would have.
      I hope this helps, and I sincerely hope things can get better. It will just take time, I think. You being neutral and accepting of her need for distance at this time, but also encouraging of good and ethically right behaviour is really important. My mum didn’t recommend I didn’t talk to my dad, in fact she expressly told me not to do that, but she supported me when I made that choice, and encouraged me to build bridges when I realised I wanted to again.

  11. This is me. But it is not *my* family that is doing this to me. It’s between my ex and his grandmother. Yes, you read that right. Since the ex and I have a child together, his family is very much a part of my everyday life, which is generally fine as we were all very close. This thing with his grandmother is not fine though. They take turns talking about each other, to me, and I can only smile and nod. I tried the neutral party claim, hoping it would make them stop, but that only made it worse as each of them simply heard, “Oh, that means you’re on my side”. Ugh. It’s especially awkward because I am not the person who should be stuck in the middle here.

  12. My sister refuses to speak to or see my stepdad. My two stepsisters are now not talking to my sister because of this. It’s a really awkward place to be.
    Really, the best thing to do is to try to conduct yourself with as much moral and ethical integrity as you can. For example, with my wedding I wanted both my sister and my stepfather to be there. It was awkward, but I made the choice to let some bad behaviour on my sisters part go so that I could honestly know that if she chose not to be at my wedding, it wouldn’t be because I’d made it so that she couldn’t come – it would be totally her choice. She came, and they just didn’t interact for the day. She asked to bring a friend, for support, and I allowed her to, as she had not wanted to be seated with the immediate family. It helped that I didn’t have a top table so it wasn’t really so obvious – just looked like she’d chosen to sit with friends instead of the family. And she was happy with that and I got to have everyone I wanted at the wedding.
    It’s really hard, but really making sure that in everything you do you feel good about your actions is important. It can make you feel justified and know in yourself that no matter what anyone else may think, you’ve made right choices that sit well with you and your morals. That was – and is – really important to me.

  13. OP, something to think about. The way this post reads, you believe your brother is holding a grudge about the divorce. However I think your dad’s abandoning you guys for a new wife would & then coming back when wife went away could also be the driver. I’d be hard-pressed to want a relationship with someone that dropped me like a bad habit, too. Have you asked your brother why he doesn’t want a relationship with your father?

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