Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: I'm caught in a trap

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dear Virginia, I'm caught in a trap. I'm friends with a couple who've split up, and they both confide in me. When he asked me what he should do, I told him, and after he'd done it, his ex-partner asked how she should respond and I told her, too. Now he's come back again and asked me what the best response should be. I feel I'm conducting their entire relationship. It's getting ridiculous. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Ailsa

There's a mischievous part of me that rather longs for you to carry on. I've been in situations like this, but, much as I've enjoyed the role, I've always chickened out at some point, using pious lines like: "This cannot continue. I wish to remain friends with both of you. I am bowing out of the situation and in future it is up to you to sort things out by yourselves."

And yet a Machiavellian bit of me always wishes that I'd carried the whole thing through to some kind of conclusion. It's fun playing god, particularly if the god you are playing is a benign god and, I assume, intent on bringing the pair back together rather than driving them apart.

So far your advice, it appears, has been impeccable, and certainly kept them talking. So I wonder if, by advising them on how to conduct the relationship, you aren't actually teaching them both something about how relationships can be conducted positively? I gather you are fond of both parties. So why shouldn't you help them understand each other, play to their most vulnerable points, and engineer a reconciliation?

It is interesting, too, how, as a friend, you can be expected to advise and help one side of a problematic partnership and be congratulated on doing so, but once you start to involve the other party, you're seen as a rather creepy go-between, one who might, if the truth be known, actually be getting off on the position of power you appear to hold.

But is it power? Remember that the two partners in this relationship are free agents, not puppets. There is a limit to the extent to which you can manipulate them. I imagine that all you're doing is suggesting various strategies to each party and if either of them takes up your suggestions and carries them through, it's only because they value your judgement and perhaps, after listening to your rational and emotional truths, realise that this is the only way to proceed.

Having said all that, the sober side of me knows that this is a very dangerous game to play, one that could rebound on you at any time, unless you make it very clear to each person that, after hearing your advice, it is entirely up to them what they decide to do. If you don't watch out, if one of them finds out you've been advising the other, you may be accused of betrayal. And where the betrayal comes in is if it's clear you've advised one or other to do things based on knowledge that you've gained by listening to the other person's confidences.

I think, Ailsa, that by now you've had your fun. Irresistible as it may be, it's time to bow out. This pair have had the benefit of your advice, and it's now the moment for them to grow up and sink or swim according to their own lights. Otherwise, if you stick it out and if you do by any chance get them back together, you might find that you have to continue the role of being secret advisor to the relationship till the day they die. And your god-like role might then turn from what feels like a glorious power-trip into, instead, a curse.

Readers say

You shouldn't have got involved

You've only got yourself to blame for this predicament. As friends to the two of them you should never have got involved. It would have been better to tell them that you care for both of them and don't want to interfere. If they ever find out that you have been interfering, you risk losing both of them as friends. My advice to you is to tell them they need to sort out their own lives, by themselves, as you don't want to be involved any more regarding the break-up. Two adults who can't sort out their own relationship problems without being told what to do perhaps are not ready, emotionally, for any relationships.

Amanda robertson, Edinburgh

Never interfere

I was in the same situation as you a few years ago, and learnt one precious lesson: never interfere. I ended up losing both friendships and was blamed for splitting them up. The simple solution is to tell them both how much you value their friendship, how uncomfortable you feel discussing their relationship, and that you wish to remain impartial. If they think anything about you they will understand.

Paul Swain, Malton, North Yorkshire

It could all backfire

I can understand why you feel you should help these two people, but it could backfire on you, if the advice you give either one of them doesn't turn out as you had imagined it would. Also, do they know that you are giving them both advice? It could get very complicated, so you need to tell them that although you would love to help them and will always be there for them, you can't give them advice any longer as you value them both as friends.

Caroline Dobson, Chester

Stay Neutral

There is a point when you have to be honest with both of them. Tell them that you care for them very much but you cannot be a confidante to either of them. Do not pick sides and do not continue to be the person in the middle, as this is likely to leave you losing one or both of them as friends. It is a challenging path to tread, but, as with Switzerland, although neutrality may buffet you a bit, you are unlikely to be destroyed in the war.

Greg Martin, Bristol

Be careful

Your friends obviously still want to talk to each other or they wouldn't be doing this. It's a bit: "Tell Aunt Maude to pass the salt", "Aunt Maude, Uncle Harry says pass the salt"; "Tell Uncle Harry to get it himself" etc. It's unfair of them both to be using you like this. The sad fact is that you often lose touch with one side of a couple when they break up, because you can't include them both in a dinner invitation or even a group trip to the pub. Let them know you're not an answering machine, and get them together. If they persist, trick them into getting together somewhere neutral – the park for a sunny Sunday walk is good – it's public, it's not in your house where they might break stuff, and there are no other friends around to put their oar in. But, and this is a big but, be careful – are you sure you are not carrying on a relationship for them that they both want to end?

Andrea Longman, Cardiff

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