Recently I responded to an internet meme that went something like this: “You meet your 18 year-old self. You can say only three words. What do you tell your younger self?”
My response: “Don’t take sides.”
It’s one of my favorite phrases. It is a phrase that has saved my life and my sanity.
But like so many of my favorite phrases, there’s a problem. What do you do when it’s impossible to not take sides? What do you do when people are forcing you to get involved in conflicts that you know you should stay out of?
Alright. First, remember that being forced to take sides is a sign of a sick family. (Family here just means any emotionally connected group.) And in a sick family, there might be one bad guy causing all the problems. Or there might be two bad guys fighting with each other and manipulating everyone else to take sides. But there might also be multiple bad guys with competing agendas.
Or…there might not be any bad guys at all. Maybe the family is just sick because of its history, its structure, or its culture. Please don’t underestimate the possibility that there is no bad guy.
So that’s the first step. Don’t try to figure out who the “bad guy” is, and above all, don’t let yourself believe that you are the “one with the problem!”
The next two steps are the same two steps you will always have to take in every sick family you will ever be in. Step one: set clear, consistent boundaries. Step two: connect with everyone directly.
Let’s talk about boundaries. The sicker the family, the more the boundaries need to be clear, non-negotiable, almost extreme. In a sick family, for instance, you will probably have to set the following boundary around gossip: “I refuse to have a conversation about another person unless that person is present.” In a healthy family that is an extreme boundary, but in a sick family it may be necessary.
Other boundaries might have to be just as strict. The key is that in a sick family, you have to set boundaries that have no grey areas, where there is no room for interpretation, and where you can enforce the boundary entirely on your own with no help from anybody. Because I need to be real with you–you might not get any help from anybody else.
Now let’s talk about connecting. Again, the sicker the family, the more important it is to talk directly to whoever it is that you are the most angry with. Why? Because the sicker the family, the more likely it is that whatever you are upset about never really happened. The more likely it is that you are channeling someone else’s anger. The more likely it is the other person is channeling someone else’s anger. There is no way to clear this up other than direct connection.
In particular, you have to speak to those who are trying to force you to take sides and make it clear that you are unhappy about it. Remember when I talked about “bad guys”? If you have these conversations, you will quickly discover whether or not there are any “bad guys”, and if so, who they are.
Most of the time, when I’ve been in a sick family and set boundaries, it turned out there was no bad guy. However, I have to tell you something painful. In every sick family I’ve been in, when I started setting boundaries and connecting directly with people, the family eventually either split in two or fell apart completely. Usually it split in two, and usually the two families were a lot happier after the split.
See, that endless, passive-aggressive conflict was “keeping the family together.” This is why I never advise people to leave a family or a relationship, but I always tell people that if you want to leave that’s a good enough reason to leave. Sometimes you do have to leave. But sometimes it’s not so much that you’ll have to leave the family as it is that the family will have to leave you.
And you’ll be better off.