March 18, 2009 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Have you had any experience in reconciling or mediating a conflict between family members?

As is usually the case with these situations, I could go back years and explain every possible factor that contributed to the current situation, but that is not practical at the moment. If you have questions or would like more details, my throwaway email is

My dad has three younger sisters, and the youngest two (in their late 40s-early 50s) haven't spoken in nearly a year. They have gone through periods of not talking before this particular argument, but none of their previous fights have been this extreme or lasted this long.

To explain the fight would be really difficult and not totally relevant to my question, which is this: the situation has reached a point where my aunts need a third party to intervene. Throughout the entire fight they have been discussing the details with their own children, my parents and my other aunt. Subsequently we all talk to one another, and now family news has become somewhat of a rumor mill. All of us have told my aunts that we don't want to get in the middle of the situation and they have said that they don't want the rest of us to be involved, but they keep talking and many of us have felt pressure to choose a side. It's getting ridiculous, and now there is some urgency to solve the conflict because my cousin (the daughter of the oldest sister) is getting married this summer and we want the entire family to, at the very least, be able to comfortably interact with each other at the wedding.

The problem now is that none of us are sure of how to intervene (or if we even should), who should do it and what needs to be said. My grandparents are both dead, which leaves my parents and my other aunt as possible mediators. The three of them have been listening ears and done their best to remain neutral (as much so as family can be) from the beginning. (I think professional therapy would be the best option, but one of my aunts is reluctant to the idea and someone would need to talk her into it.)

Have you ever been in a situation where you or another relative had to mediate between two family members? Was it successful? What tactics worked and what didn't? How did your family approach the situation?

Thank you for your time and input.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I know you're looking for some positive response, but unless both parties are willing to stop insisting their own righteousness, you won't get far.

I have a similar situation going on with my dad and sister, and unfortunately my wife's attempt at mediation has resulted in us being stonewalled because we're on my dad's "side", from my sisters point of view.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:11 AM on March 18, 2009

Families are usually not as cohesive as they seem, IMO: there are significant generational gaps and some people will always maintain some degree of clannishness toward relatives by marriage rather than blood. With that acknowledged, it seems that the people in the best situation to resolve this are your father and his other sister rather than spouses or children. I assume your dad is on board with the idea of trying to get the two fighting sisters to speak enough to bury the hatchet, and I assume he can at least convince the other sister to help him if she isn't already on board.

The fact that your dad and the other sister are the eldest siblings will still carry some weight, however much resentment that situation can sometimes create. Therefore, even without professional therapy, I think your dad and the third sister should gather all four siblings on neutral territory (Dad's home? Parents' former home?) and really try to make the point that time is finite and you don't get a second shot at siblings. At minimum, even the people in the fight are cognizant of wanting to set a good example for the next generation, and by someone's mid-forties they ought to at least be receptive to appeals to maturity. Assuming that your dad does this, whether or not therapy is ultimately employed, it might backfire: one or both of the sisters may find the idea of being bossed around by an elder sibling at midlife really pisses them off. On the other hand, even if one or both are inclined to react this way, it's a lot easier to remain isolated from one sibling then from an entire family. Your dad and other aunt can make the point by refusing to enable the conflict by being a crying shoulder / listening ear for one or the other and demanding that they work to reconcile before your extended family does anything as a group. In that setting, maybe your eldest aunt has more leverage as she manages in part the upcoming marriage of her daughter: she can explain that she wants both there but that she is absolutely unwilling to contend with any negativity and make each promise to her and to each other that they will at the least remain civil to one another.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:11 AM on March 18, 2009

What little experience I have had dictates that you either stay the fuck out of it or you choose the most distant relative possible to mediate it.

You are not responsible for their behavior.
posted by kldickson at 7:31 AM on March 18, 2009

My answer would be "no", interpersonal relationship conflicts are rarely improved due to the meddling of uninvolved third parties.
posted by The Gooch at 8:22 AM on March 18, 2009

Are either or both of the sisters religious? Perhaps a minister/pastor/priest could advocate for reconciliation? It's not an impartial 3rd party, but this is sort of what bigger churches do. You know, advocate for family harmony and all that.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:43 AM on March 18, 2009

Seriously, intervening will not help this stuff. As you say, it goes back years and years and likely has tentacles that you don't even know about. These people are adults and have made the decisions that have led to their estrangement. Anyone who tries to step in to 'help' will only create one more target/enemy: namely, the interloper who has dared question their decisions.

People in general, particularly as they age imho, seem to hang onto these old wounds very dearly, out of pride or stubbornness or whatever it is. Changing their behavior would require them admitting and acknowledging, on some level, that they way they've behaved/responded for many years was inappropriate. And honestly, they just won't do that, as my own family has repeatedly demonstrated.

So I'd recommend carrying on with the "I don't want to hear about this" approach although this will fall on deaf ears for some time, if not for the rest of their lives. The best you can do in this situation is to manage your own behavior, which I'd recommend to include, but not be limited to, not getting involved, not responding to the drama, and repeating "I don't want to hear this" forever and ever. They will try to bait you to pick sides and gossip, as you've seen. Let them be the example of what you don't want to be.

As for the wedding, the cousin is gonna have to lay down some serious law: not about the fight itself and how she'd like it resolved, but about the expected behavior (e.g., "all these people are invited and y'all need to engage in some mouth-shuttin' for my big day"). That is, she'll have to say very clearly that the wedding is her day and everyone needs to get along. Period. She needs to explain clearly what her expectations are (and her expectation should not be that they kiss and make up, that ship has sailed, but that they need to STFU for a day) and what the consequences will be for defying her (e.g., anyone who makes a scene will be removed). Her way or the highway. She's the boss, applesauce. I'm not kidding. And it's an awkward conversation (I've had it), but it needs to be had.

The response to cousin's comments will be: threats not to attend the wedding, a "I won't go if so and so goes" variation thereof, etc. Fine. Their loss. This shouldn't distress her whatsoever, it's manipulative and shitty and who wants that shit at their wedding anyway? And it really may come down to that, but cousin should remember that's THEIR choice to behave that way.
posted by December at 9:12 AM on March 18, 2009

There's something called the Family Mediators Association (google for your location) that you can contact and ask them for some advice on the matter. I think it's really nice what you're doing and so kudos to you and much luck.
posted by watercarrier at 10:15 AM on March 18, 2009

I think December is 100% correct. The only thing I would add is to have a specific plan for removal of scene-making persons. Like, who will be the bouncers, who (if anyone) in addition to the bride decides when to activate the ejector seat, etc. I have no idea how to handle the practical details here - do churches provide "security" for this? But having a concrete plan for dealing with trouble will facilitate dealing with it, rather than letting drama interfere with the celebration.

Cousin may not want to lay out the details of the ejection mechanism for the aunts, but if Cousin knows it's not an empty threat it will a) give her some peace of mind that her big day won't be spoiled and b) add credibility to her words and attitude when she tells the aunts about her expectations for wedding guests.
posted by Quietgal at 10:19 AM on March 18, 2009

Addendum: YES, that reminds me. On the pragmatic front, cousin may wish to enlist the help of some burly man cousins/friends/brothers. (And, at the risk of sounding sexist here, it really does help to have a somewhat physically intimatidating man-presence take on this role, preferably someone who won't be drinking.) If you have a law enforcement friend or family member - excellent! Put 'im to work.

Seriously, I've used this technique and it works thusly: explain to the 'bouncer(s)' what the trigger points are in terms of who gets jettisoned when (e.g., swearing, raised voices, obviously physical threats, etc.). The bouncer-types have the advantage in that they are milling around during the wedding and can keep an eye on things while the bride is off celebrating elsewhere. Also, a previously agreed upon signal is useful, e.g., the bride can use a code word with the bouncer if she sees something unacceptable requiring removal. The bouncer should take on the role, also, of informing the hotel/church/location that Person X is no longer permitted at the location. Sites like that don't take too kindly to scenes being made as it's bad for business, so they'll jump on the horn and call the po-po if that's what needs to happen, e.g., the person won't leave or returns after being bounced.

The benefit here too is that when Person X starts whimpering years later about how they were removed from the party, the bouncer is 'at fault.' (Although everyone knows it's BS and that it was really Person X who was the pain in the ass who brought the dismissal on him/herself.)

In all likelihood though, it won't get to that level. Just the mere threat of removal was enough for my highly dysfunctional family to chill the fuck out and behave. People also like to keep their crazy under wraps and causing a scene at a family wedding would haunt them for years and they don't want that. So most likely your cousin will end up with the same result I did: relatives who managed to simply ignore each other all day out of the very substantiated fear I'd follow through on my threat.

And, no, I didn't tell them they were being watched. I didn't give them any details, as Quietgal suggests.

All of this sounds very hysterical, I realize, but it worked for me and brought me some comfort knowing that I didn't have to be distracted by babysitting.

Also, forgot this one: another typical reaction when cousin lays down the rules prior to the wedding is this: *blink* *blink* "I'm so insulted. I would never do anything to ruin your day. *I* certainly would never behave that way, maybe some *others* would." Insert false innocence and guilt-tripping here. Whatever. Don't fall for this trap, either. Let them be pseudo-insulted. You've all seen the pattern and know there's cause for concern, even if they don't want to acknowledge it.

Good luck!
posted by December at 11:19 AM on March 18, 2009

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