The Emotional Burdens of a Go-Between

When those we love don't love each other.

Posted Jul 04, 2020

Two people you love may be hostile to each other. You get along with both, but the two don’t get along. One or both may not like the fact you are on friendly terms with the person they apparently don’t know how to talk to. 

For instance, your sister, who has a strained relationship with your brother, may not want you to be close to him. It may seem to her that you are siding with him against her. Or else the fact you and your brother get along may suggest to her that perhaps she is doing something wrong—that she too can find common ground with him—and she doesn’t like this.

Alex Andrews/Pexels
Three phone receivers, two connected to each other.
Source: Alex Andrews/Pexels

In some cases, your relationship with one person may, despite your best efforts, be adversely affected by another person. Thus, a loving parent may not know how to be fully supportive of a child if the other parent is not supportive. In his autobiographical In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust talks about how, when he was a child, his mother did not give him the comfort he needed, because his father thought she was spoiling little Marcel. Proust writes:

Sometimes, when after kissing me, she (Mama) opened the door to go, I wanted to call her back, to say, “kiss me one more time,” but I knew immediately that her face would look vexed, because the concession she was making to my sadness and agitation by coming up to kiss me … irritated my father, who found these rituals absurd. [1]

Proust’s mother is described as a kind, loving woman, who would have likely given the boy all the love he yearned for but for the father’s attitude. The mother finds herself wishing but unable to satisfy the conflicting desires of her husband and her young son. Proust’s father, we might say, wants the mother’s relationship to Marcel to resemble his own—aloof—one.  

At other times, however, people we are close with want their sour relationship with another to become more like our warm and intimate connection with that person. They don’t know how to achieve this, so they ask us to do it for them. 

It is painful to see that two people you love don’t get along. Your heart is torn. But it is even worse when the two try to get you involved in their squabble. It is this attempt on the part of others to make us a go-between that interests me here.  

Often, both parties want you to see things from their point of view and validate their feelings without validating those of the person they don’t know how to talk to and how to love. You may be on the side of both and neither, loving both yet upset with them for hurting each other and you.

That people may try to put us in the middle of their troubled relationships is, perhaps, not surprising. They are hurting. You, on the other hand, give the impression you know how to reach the person they can’t reach. It seems to them you have a secret code, magic words, and they want you to use that code and those words to repair their broken relationship with another.

Except it isn’t that simple. What that strategy is likely to do is put you, the unwilling ambassador, in the middle of an emotionally taxing situation and cause you suffering without much of an upside. If, for instance, at your father’s insistence, you attempt to persuade your brother to talk to your father, that is not likely to fix your father’s relationship with your brother. What it may do, instead, is to worsen your own relationship with your brother since your brother will think you are taking your father’s side.

Perhaps, it seems to the people who try to make us a go-between that they have a moral right to expect our help because the matter is one of justice. For, surely, justice is on their side! They’ve been wronged by the person they don’t get along with without doing anything to deserve it. Or so they imagine. And, of course, we have moral permission to try to enlist others in a fight for justice.

What those who want us to serve as intermediaries often miss is that we get along with the person they are estranged from not because we have a secret code or magic words, but because we treat that person differently, with more understanding, perhaps, less blame, more respect and kindness.

The problem, then, is that in the sorts of cases under discussion, the perception that one has been wronged without doing anything to deserve it, that one is owed an apology and doesn't owe one in turn, is likely biased. Justice here is often not on one side. If it were, you probably wouldn’t mind taking that side, actually.

When one side is very clearly right, and the other is not, we are not as reluctant to support the innocent party. But when others attempt to make us negotiators on their behalf, often both sides are to some extent at fault, yet each sees only the fault of the other, and each wants you to see things their way. Crucially, they want you to make the estranged loved one see things that way too. But you cannot, in good conscience, attempt to do that even if you do want to help. You may experience a sort of psychic rupture. Your emotions bifurcate: You partly support and partly oppose both sides. 

Things may be particularly difficult when one or both parties to a tangled relationship have strong narcissistic tendencies and are unable to acknowledge mistakes in general. But one need not be a narcissist to fall into patterns of struggle and strife. Many can apologize to one person but not to another. They can say “I am sorry” to someone they are in a loving relationship with but not to those with whom their relationship is strained. But without an apology and willingness on the part of both actors to make amends, the strained relationship can never get better. 

What I wish to suggest here is that no one is under an obligation to serve as other people’s go-between. We can try to help, of course, but if others want to get along with each other, they should address the issues that are causing discord. What they must do if they really want our help is ask just what it is we think enables us to achieve mutual understanding with another and what prevents them from finding common ground with the same person.

Why don’t they do this?

I think the answer is that generally, they are unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility or fault. They don’t want to believe that the reason things between them and someone else aren’t going well is partly that they themselves are doing something wrong. They want us to provide a painless solution to a problem that can be solved only if one is willing to accept some cost: the cost of acknowledging one’s own errors. That’s a bit like asking a doctor to remove a tumor without cutting tissue.

The difficulty, then, is not in that, as they imagine, they don’t have the magic words or the secret code while we do, but that they insist on their own complete innocence. So does the other. Both refuse not only to apologize but also to acknowledge their role in causing friction. As mediators, we then find ourselves in the impossible position of having to reconcile two people, both of whom think they are innocent victims, when, in fact, both are victimizers as well as victims. For the mediator, the assignment is not only bitter; it is one that's likely to end in failure.

I have argued that no one has a duty to serve as a go-between. It does not follow from this that it would not be a good thing to try to help. The world would certainly benefit from more peacemakers, and so would many families. My point is that we don't have to. It is important to recognize that this is difficult work, and it is work that is generally costly for the conciliator, who finds him or herself between a rock and a hard place. The warring parties are so focused on their own pain that the thought they may be hurting the negotiator or burdening him or her does not cross their minds.

More importantly, when others try to enlist us as intermediaries, the request—even setting aside the psychological burden imposed on us—is typically based on the mistaken premise that the one who asks us for help is blameless. The parties to a strained relationship say they want to find common ground, but they don't want to cede any ground.

It doesn't work this way. It is as though they extend a clenched fist and then complain that the other refuses to shake their hand. As G. K. Chesterton’s character Father Brown says in The Scandal of Father Brown, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” [2]

The best we could do for people who don't get along under those circumstances, I think, is to help them see the actual problem. Unfortunately, we can only succeed if they are sufficiently receptive.

The good news is that helping others see a tangled relationship from an observer's point of view goes a long way. Indeed, in all likelihood, if the loved ones who are hostile to each other do see the problem the way we see it, they may no longer need a mediator.  


[1] Proust, M. (1913/2004). In Search of Lost Time, Volume I. New York, NY: Penguin, 13.

[2] Chesterton, G. K. (1935/2010). The Scandal of Father Brown (Kindle). Fair Price Classics.