Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: A Case For Neutrality In An Inter-Family Feud

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I could use your advice. I am the middle one of three sisters. My older sister Carol is married and does not have any children. My younger sister Maureen is married and has three kids, ages 15, 13, and 12. I am married and have twin 14-year-old girls.

This past Mother’s Day we were all together. Carol made the comment that Mother’s Day always makes her question the decision she and her husband made not to have kids. Maureen said, “Well, it’s probably just as well. Mom [deceased] once told me that you are a bit scatter brained and would not have made a good mother.”

Carol exploded with anger at Maureen, saying that our mother would have never said such a thing. Maureen and her husband left without saying good-bye to anyone. Carol and Maureen have not spoken since.

I find myself in the middle. Maureen is saying that she was just being honest, and Carol is saying there is something wrong with Maureen to fabricate such an obvious lie. I am trying to stay neutral by just listening and not saying much, just things like, “Hm, uh huh.” It’s obvious to me that they are both trying to get me to side with them. I don’t want to take sides. And I want them to stop bad-mouthing each other and talking about the incident to my kids.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response,

I think there are two main issues embedded in your situation: first, how you can avoid becoming enmeshed in your sisters’ feud, and second, how to protect your kids from becoming involved.

“Not My Issue”

The simplest and surest way to make it clear that you are not going to take sides is to shut down any conversation about the incident. When one of your sisters brings up the topic, you say, “Let me stop you right there. What happened is between the two of you. It is not my issue and I will not be discussing it with either of you. This is my position on this.”

You can expect some push back as each sister is feeling wronged and wants you to support and reinforce her position. If the topic comes up again, and it probably will, you nip it in the bud by saying, “Just a reminder that this topic is off the table: I will not be discussing it with either of you.” A couple of go-rounds – that is, a sister brings it up, and you shut down any further discussion – should establish your seriousness about your neutrality.

How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Involved

It’s one thing for you to take a firm position with your sisters. It is quite another matter for your daughters to find themselves in an awkward and uncomfortable position with their aunts. You can smooth the way for them.

The easiest way to do this is to let your sisters know that you expect your daughters will not have any involvement of any kind in their conflict: no discussion, no trying to build a case for why one is correct and the other is wrong, no trying to get the girls to take sides.

Let your sisters know that you have instructed your girls to remind their aunts that “our mother has said that what happened between you aunts is not our issue, and that if you bring it up, we are to remind you that she has asked you not to discuss it with us.” A tall order to place on 14-year-olds! But with your instruction, guidance, and protection, they, too, can maintain their neutrality.

The Nuances of Honesty

And finally, I think you should be prepared for your daughters wanting to know how you really feel about the incident that happened between their aunts. They can appreciate that you don’t want to take sides and get in the middle of their aunts’ clash, but they may be curious as to where you are regarding each aunt’s behavior.

Since one of the aunts took the position that she was “just telling the truth,” part of your response may include a discussion about honesty. To facilitate such a discussion, I offer a hypothetical situation to highlight some nuances of honesty.

For example, when asked the potentially loaded question, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” there are several ways to answer the question, all of which can be “honest”:

  • “Well, yes, as a matter of fact. It does make you look fat.” Perhaps a totally and bluntly honest response, but it would be considered by many to be unnecessarily cruel.
  • “You know I love that outfit on you.” Honest, but diversionary.
  • “You’ve always loved wearing that outfit.” Honest and diplomatic.
  • “You look great in that outfit, but you know I’ve always really liked the yellow outfit for these types of events.” Still honest, with a bit of diplomatic opinion thrown in.

The obvious point is that honesty in relationships is not indisputably objective: honesty in relationships comes with elements of subjectivity that require awareness, sensitivity, and making choices.

So yes, one aunt was maybe being honest about something someone said, but it raises the question of why the aunt said what she said. Intent plays an important role when one chooses “to be honest.” I think you and your daughters can agree that it would have been better for everyone if Maureen had never made the comment in the first place, especially when the person who allegedly made the comment had died and could not defend, clarify, or refute the comment.

In your situation, perhaps there are two teachable moments for your daughters: first, about how to stay neutral in family feuds by making it clear that “this is not my issue,” and second, learning about the complexity and nuances of the statement, “I was just being honest.” Both are important lessons!

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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