Family Matters: A third wheel?

Advice on how to benefit when a third person is drawn into a dyadic family conflict.

Hands 521  (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Hands 521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
You and your partner just had an argument, as happens on occasion. You tried to explain to him, once again, that he shouldn’t be spoiling the kids with treats before dinner. Feeling frustrated and annoyed, you wait anxiously until he’s off to the gym and the kids are fast asleep to call your mom and share what you’ve just been through. As usual, she understands exactly what you mean. She agrees with your actions and adds that yet again your partner is probably looking to win the children’s hearts after spending more time in the office than he does with them.
On returning from his workout, you confront him - "My mom always warned me you'd make a bad father. Perhaps staying longer at work isn't a bad idea after all; leave raising the kids to me."
Many times, in regards to a conflict such as this, which starts over something so small and escalates very quickly into a fight, we stop and ask ourselves: “What made it go so wrong?”
One of the most common, but unspoken, causes for escalated conflicts is in fact, “the third wheel.”
In situations of conflict, the parties often feel that they are not understood or that they can’t seem to explain their point of view to the other side. It’s very common, therefore, for at least one of them to confide with a close friend or a family member, in order to look for support, to find a sympathetic ear or to get some advice, but the result might not be exactly what they were looking for.
So is it wise to introduce one or more people into a dyadic conflict? And if we decide to do so, what do we need to watch out for?
In general, it can be said that the more people involved in a dyadic conflict, the longer and harsher the conflict may become. This is common sense, given that every person added brings their own set of beliefs about what the conflict is really about and how it should be resolved, if at all. The abundance of opinions in this case adds more dimensions to the conflict, and as such makes it harder for the sides to resolve it swiftly.
First thing to keep in mind is limiting the number of people we expose to our conflict. It might be wise for the sides to bring this issue up for discussion and to decide on mutually agreed family members and friends that would be introduced into the conflict to act as mediators.
When choosing a mediator, one must take into account that person’s ability to stay neutral, help facilitate a healthy discussion and their willingness to participate as a mediator in this conflict. In some cases it might be better to look for a professional mediator, if the parties can’t decide on a specific person to take that role. 
After choosing a mediator, the parties should sit with the mediator and decide how it’s best for them to handle the meetings; should the mediator meet with each of them separately to hear their side of the story first, or should this be done when both parties are present in the room.
Another thing to discuss is what the boundaries of this mediation are; which issues they would like to discuss and which issues they would rather leave off the table at this point.
The parties should also make clear to the mediator that they are not looking for him to make a judgment, but rather to help facilitate a productive discussion that will allow them to resume a healthy relationship.
In short, it’s better to avoid sharing your conflict with too many people, but there could be value in recruiting someone both parties trust to act as a mediator. That person should focus more on listening and facilitating a discussion between the two and try to avoid bringing their personal opinions or to making a judgment about who is right or wrong.
Finally, keep in mind that family is here to stay. Resolving issues while they’re still small, allowing for a more satisfying close-nit relationship, is much better than allowing those issues to fester and impair continued relationship growth.
ShimritNothman has a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution and believes that like charity, conflict resolution begins at home. If you have any questions for Shimrit, please use the comments section below or email her at [email protected]
This column is brought to you as general information only and should not be a replacement for professional advice.