Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I’m working on staying OUT of the referee seat!

Several of us recently have commented on our blogs about how we feel like we are constantly being the peacemakers in our families, or being pulled by differing factions and persons. I identify with this feeling. A lot!

There was a technique we participated in during family therapy nights, years ago. I can’t recall the name of the technique, and for lack of a better term, I will call it family mapping.

When we did family mapping, that is how my daughters "mapped" us.

My youngest daughter (our addict) “mapped” the family first. As a family, we stood in the center of the circle of folks seated at the therapy session. She had my oldest daughter and my husband hold onto my right hand and arm, and tug gently. She then grabbed my left hand and turned from us, and tugged as she "walked" away from us. That was how she condensed our family dynamics into one quick snapshot!

Next it was my oldest daughter’s turn to “map” us. She pictured us a little differently, but in strikingly similar ways. She placed my husband and I facing each other, him with his arms straight down by his side. She stepped between us and then she had me reach my left arm around her to reach him, in a half embrace. With her between us, then she had me turn towards our “open” side and she and I (only) extended our arms on that side, towards my other daughter, the addict, who she had placed several feet away. She had the addict sitting down facing away from us, burying her face in her hands.

Seeing it like that was life-changing for me.

Both daughters could see it more clearly than I could!!

I am pulled at all sides. I am trying to hold this family together while she is sick/addicted and while the other family members distance themselves from her, reach for her, fight amongst themselves, etc.

I am the buffer, the peacekeeper, if I don't force myself to step out of that role. The therapist told me to drop all their hands and step out of the circle. To take care of me. And to let them find their way back to each other. Or not. It isn't my job to shield them from each other or to pull the family together.

This is the direct opposite of what my mother-in-law had been telling me for years. For years before she died, she had told me I was the center of the wheel. The family revolved around me. If I didn’t “keep it together”, the wheel would collapse. That was my purpose in life, to keep the wheel turning smoothly.

I will state emphatically that I loved my mother-in-law. She was such a sweetheart, a treasure to all her knew her. There was not a birthday, or celebration of any sort that came around that she did not remember with a card or a small gift. She was all about Christmas, and to this day, I think that is a lot of what is behind my husband’s drive to make many cookies and deliver them to clients/coworkers each year. It brings his mom’s memory closer to him.

She held her family together as best she could. She covered for her husband when his alcoholic behavior surfaced. She worried about the two sons, wondering if they would remain close. As they drifted apart for many different reasons, she tried to pull everyone back together. When my father-in-law was dying, I was told by someone that she grabbed both adult sons (in their 40s) by the hands and took them in the ICU together to see their dad and announced something to the effect of “look who’s here, and together!”

She stood with tears streaming down her face one night twenty-some years ago, when I had to leave the house with my oldest little girl because Grandpa had a few too many and wasn’t just a little drunk - he was getting mean. He was grilling my daughter on counting in Spanish and he slammed his fist down and frightened her, and I told him we needed to run out to the store and we’d be back. We left and didn’t return until my husband, his mom and our youngest returned from their errands. She was mortified, embarrassed, and stood crying silently in the kitchen as he fell into the Christmas tree in the den. He caught himself just in time and continued “decorating” it for us and then went off to bed. I had to redo the tree with her after everyone else went to bed.

I never understood why she let him act towards her the way he did sometimes. For the most part, he was a truly wonderful man. But when he had been drinking, he was not a happy drunk. I did understand why she continued to work well into her seventies! She enjoyed being out of the house and she loved interacting with her customers at the dress shop, and having a bit of spending money that she earned herself.

I learned many wonderful things from her. But I think that I learned one thing that wasn’t true.

I’m NOT the center of this family. It’s NOT up to me to keep them civil, close, loving, or communicative. When my husband is cranky and morose (his personal emotions he identified himself with, in family therapy), and he takes it out on me, or especially my oldest daughter, as he has done more frequently lately, it’s NOT up to me to soothe her, or attempt to point out to him that his behavior sucks.

All I really AM responsible for is making sure I’m not incarcerated for bonking him over the head with the frying pan. To make sure that doesn’t happen, my proactive behavior now, is going to have to be to politely and respectfully leave the conversation and let him sputter to a halt all by himself.

He is a master of walking away from a conversation when he decides it needs to be over. I think that is rude. But I guess I will take a lesson from him. I’ll start holding up my hand and announcing I have to run to the bathroom, or let out a dog, or the ultimate “I’m just not going to deal with you any more on this.” Only I’ll say that last one a bit less hurtfully.

I’m in this (marriage) for the long haul. But I’m so tired of trying to smooth things over when he says things that are hurtful or unnecessary to myself, or either daughter. And it’s really NOT my job. Like his father, most of the time, he is a wonderful man. And he never drinks a drop of anything (partly, I’m sure, because of the memories he has of verbal and occasionally physical abuse by his inebriated dad). But he still has behaviors that remind me of his father while under the influence. That confuses me a bit.

I guess if he alienates the girls, or if an argument between he and my oldest escalates (without my interfering to prevent it) to the flying “f**k you” levels, they will have to deal with it, and any damage to the doors! And they will have to find their way back to each other, or not. His loss if they don’t, not mine. All I need to be responsible for is my relationship with him, and my relationship with my daughters. I can maintain my relationships in a healthy manner! When he gets cranky and morose with me, I can simply politely excuse myself and offer to talk more later when he is feeling more like a gentleman.

As the years pass, I have no doubt that I’m getting more cranky and morose too. So, I’ll work on me. ME! That's my business!

And I’ll work on making sure that those I am in relationship with, do not get my permission to treat me disrespectfully or in a mean fashion. Kids, husband, coworkers, friends, etc!!

I asked our family therapist one time years ago, why my addict treated me in a certain fashion. Her answer? “Because you gave her permission to do so.” (Her meaning: I let it go, uncontested, the first time it happened!)

By not holding OURSELVES in high regard, and ALWAYS insisting on fair and polite and respectful interactions, we give permission to others to commence and to continue to treat us in an inappropriate manner. I’m going to work on insisting on fairness and respectful interactions.

Easier said than done. Progress, not perfection!


  1. Progress is good. Babysteps are good. I once asked my therapist years ago, why I was always upset after talking to my husband and hearing what he had to say. She told me that by asking him certain questions, I set myself up for disappointment. It was such a revelation to me, I remember it 20 years later. We never quit learning.

  2. I feel pulled in different directions all the time. I wonder if the men feel this way too?

  3. This is a great post - so many good nuggets of truth in here that I can apply to my life! My family dynamics are very different than yours, but I play the same role of peacekeeper. I also have given my son permission to mistreat me (verbally) that was an eye opener. Thank you for sharing all this. You are such a great example to me! You've learned a lot over the years and I'm learning from you as I plod along. Hugs!

  4. Wow....very powerful post. I can relate to a lot. Isn't it a *HUGE* relief when you realize that its not your job anymore? I felt like a million pounds were taken off my shoulders when I finally realized that the only relationships I have any power over are the ones that are mine.

  5. So much wisdom here. You have a great assessment of what needs to be done on your part (or what doesn't need to be done!).
    The first part of the "mapping" reminded me of a great post Lou had written - about pulling ourselves out of the equation. I thought it was wise then and I think it is wise now. It has helped me a lot.
    Often when my husband starts something with me, I just say to him as lovingly as possible, I'm not going to talk about this right now. We'll discuss it ____ (then I name a time). Seems to work! Why I didn't use this technique with my daughter... who knows! arrgh!
    Interesting, sounds like what happened between you and your mother-in-law is what I have realized happened between me and my mom - learned behaviors - that are unhealthy for us and the alcoholic - but in the case of being the wheel spoke, better you figured it out now than never right! It's so easy to look up to someone we love and respect and emulate their behaviors, especially when they are a big part of our lives.
    You've got a lot of wisdom in the above post, thanks for sharing it!
    Love & hugs.

  6. I just love this post! I can relate to so much of what you have said here. My mom was big about "keeping the family together at all costs". What a great technique you experienced in group therapy. I almost cried when I read each of your daughter's interpretations. How powerful. When I work on myself, I am at peace, such peace. I am struggling these past couple of days, old habits rear their ugly head, but I am determined to work on me each day. I also have learned a great deal from your wisdom and always find comfort and support in your posts. We just need to drop our arms and step out of the circle;)

  7. Such a powerful post! I am also the referee, peacemaker, glue that keeps everything together and I am so very, very tired of it.
    I think I'll be re-reading this often. Thanks for writing this.

  8. I like this post a lot...I have learned reading this and that is always a good thing.

  9. Thanks for this. You have summarized a lot of what Al-Anon is about. We learn to love ourselves and not accept unacceptable behavior. Often we have to walk away from those who are toxic.

  10. Amen to everything said! I'll be saving this post and re-reading it many times! Thank you!!

  11. It is too often the mothers in the family who take on the role of referee. I have done it for years - as the peacekeeper in the nuclear family and the gatekeeper for the rest of the family. Not long ago I was just too exhausted to do it for another second and my husband took over the role. We actually talked about it. With mental illness, it is a little different from addiction but still very much the same dynamics. This amazing thing happened. He learned so much about compassion and what prejudices he was harboring concerning our daughter and her illness. It was an amazing breakthrough.
    This is a great post.
    xx kris

  12. there was a real lesson for me there, thanks!

  13. I posted about my hubs and teen this week...both try to put me in the middle! I told them to deal with their crap or don't talk to one another but to leave me out of it!

  14. Joy - this is a well written, well thought out post. It's a very good reminder to stay in my own hula hoop. Easier said than done! And you're so right, progress, not perfection. I'm slowly making my way towards just minding my own p's and q's. Baby steps. Peggy

  15. This is a wonderful post. So full of wisdom. I've printed it out for future reference. Thank you for sharing.

    When I got into Al-Anon, I found a lot of the advice I got was in direct contrast to what other family members thought/expected of me. Even so-called mental health professionals. But I also realized that way wasn't working.

    I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog. I appreciated hearing from you. I'm following you now, and looking forward to walking with you on this journey we share. Hugs.

  16. I just found you and I'm so very glad I did. Thank you for sharing. Your post hit home for me on a bunch of levels.

    I had to learn that I can choose to not be the filling in the nasty sandwich that can happen between father and now adult child. I am not the glue that repairs that relationship.

    (And that walking away with the bathroom, etc. excuse - it's an odd feeling of relief I'm not the only one it happens to. I insist he walk back and carry on and he does, but this doesn't change how much it hurts.)