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Kaleidoscope of The Heart: The challenge of being 'caught in the middle' of a quarrel

Rika Kayama

The stressful problem of being caught up in a quarrel between two acquaintances has existed since about the start of humankind. In my consultation room, it's common to hear people say things like, "The tension between my boss and a junior staff member is stressing me out," or "I'm caught up between my mother and my wife's arguing, and it's giving me a stomachache."

    In counseling books that deal with these kinds of issues, one will often see advice such as, "Try to take a nonjudgmental stance, and avoid taking sides." However, frankly speaking, I think that this approach is impossible. Humans have emotions, and therefore, it is simply not possible to adopt a completely neutral stance saying, "Both of you have your own arguments. I'll side with neither of you." On the other hand, completely withdrawing from the situation may just result in that person being labeled as irresponsible.

    When people come to my clinic with these kinds of problems, I usually tend to ask them, "Honestly speaking, whose side are you on?" After which, it is common to hear sincere replies such as, "Between you and me, I think the junior staff member is in the right," or "I can understand my mother's stance, but I really wish she wouldn't upset my wife." However, while they are able to confide in me about who they think is right, they say that is very difficult to convey those feelings to the people involved. They say things like, "If I did that, then I'll probably be told something like, 'So you've abandoned me as well then,' and the situation could become even worse."

    "I see," is usually my response. I then say, "It seems that your main wish is for us to avoid quarrelling. If that's the case, shouldn't you be able to explain this to the two other people?" confide

    When a person who is caught up between two arguing people is told things such as, "Can't you do something about the other person?" or, "Don't you think that person is terrible?" it shows how much the person in the middle is trusted by both sides.

    In future, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, and are unable to say clearly which side is right, how about saying something like, "It's sad to see the two of you fighting. You have so many good points, so why not focus on those instead?"

    Also, it is important that the person in the middle does not blame themselves too much for the dispute. Try to avoid telling yourself things like, "I'm no good because I'm unable to say clearly what should be done," or "If I'd tried harder, I would've been able to resolve this issue." In addition, you should feel confident about the fact that both sides trust you, and quietly say the following: "It's really tough watching the two of you fight." To which, many people will cool down a little, and respond with something like, "OK. I still can't forgive the other person, but I will stop fighting for your benefit."

    "Being caught in the middle" has always been a tough problem. There is no need for the person in the middle to resolve the dispute. However, on the other hand, the person in the middle should not have to endure too much. If it happens to you, how about trying to deal with the issue naturally? (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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