"I wish you were here." She said.
'Here' was a Morrison's car park where she'd taken refuge after another fight with Mom and Dad. I launched into what I do best: listening, countering, mediating. By the time we said goodbye I was so knotted up that I read for ten minutes and went back to my flat.
Being the peacekeeper in a family often means shelving your own needs to iron out the kinks in someone else's life. I spent much of quarantine darting back and forth across my parents' house relaying expertly moderated messages, delivering cups of tea and trays of food to whoever had been exiled from family dinner that night. I sometimes felt like a worn out knee pad, cushioning the fall for everyone else while I scraped against the concrete. There is an art to looking sturdy enough to absorb impact, and I've mastered it.
When I moved back to London a few weeks ago, I thought I'd be relieved of some of the peacekeeping pressure. But the responsibility just seems to have been digitized. Now, thanks to modern technology, I'm able to umpire a row almost 140 miles away.
According to Sonia Kalia, a systemic psychotherapist specializing in relationships and communication, the role of the peacekeeper manifests itself when traditional boundaries are obscured. Typically, parents provide care, love and leadership to their children; they are the ultimate authority and should resolve any conflict that might arise within the family unit. A child becomes a peacekeeper when they are triangulated in this parental subsystem, forcing them to cultivate a high level of emotional responsibility in order to survive.
"We learn based on what was rewarded in early life," says Dr. Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow. "If there was a different kind of family dynamic that required us to behave in a certain way, and we were rewarded for behaving in that way, then that learning goes with us as we move into adult life."
In my case, however, a lifetime spent negotiating tension at home has given me a near chronic fear of confrontation. In fact, some of the worst parts of my personality are rooted in this abject aversion. But for 23-year-old Sadie*, being the family peacekeeper has helped her acclimatize to conflict. "In general I would say I'm more ready to have difficult conversations. I feel that I'm better equipped to say it in a more empathetic way than someone else."
Family peacekeepers have never been more in demand than during the coronavirus pandemic. Mass redundancies and less government support for renters means many of us have had to move back home with family. Throw in the psychological impact of a free-falling economy, a deadly virus and a decimated job market and it's easy to understand why tensions in the home might be running high.
Sadie's family of five were forced to live under the same roof for the first time in ten years. But even after she moved out, Sadie says she still received constant calls and texts messages from her mom and sister. "[My sister] will vent to me and I'll just try and be the person to talk to and complain to," she says, "and if there's a problem between my siblings, a lot of the time my mom will [call and] ask me what my version of events are."
The pandemic also meant a drastic change in living situation for 24-year-old Rebecca*. "I was living in an apartment with some friends in the city and had to move back in with my parents in the suburbs." The result was uninterrupted arguments: "I'll mediate fights between my parents, my parents and my siblings, my parents and my grandparents, the list goes on. They used to have to call me to tell me about a fight, but now I'm in it 24/7."
Peacemakers are quick to suppress their own needs for the sake of retaining harmony. But in the long term, Dr. Allan says this habit "could be a concern." Taking on too much emotional responsibility for situations that are ultimately out of your control can start to distort your sense of self-worth. "You are potentially trying to find a solution or trying to help people reach an agreement that is just not going to happen. Then you attribute that as a failing on your part, but actually, in most cases, that would have very little to do with you and everything to do with the two individuals who are in conflict," assures Dr. Allan.
Sonia Kalia and Dr. Allan both agree that setting clear boundaries could help someone feeling exhausted from mediating conflict. Firstly though, you need to recognize if you are prone to peacemaking. Dr. Allan suggests trying to keep score of the content of your conversations at home. If you are frequently drawn into complaints of tension with other family members, this is a red flag and Dr. Allan advises removing yourself from tense discussions where possible.
But for many, self preservation within a family context can be confusing. "If you have a toxic friendship, you don't have to be friends with them. And it's done. But that will never happen in my family," Sadie sighs. "We're close and I would hate for there to be any kind of rift. So I do everything in my power to try and minimize the damage."
As draining as peacemaking is for me, every time I get a text from my mom asking for advice I too can't help but respond. It makes me feel important and needed. I put this to Kalia. "It's a tough one, isn't it?" she says, "Because [then it] becomes something you're wanting to do. So the very thing that you're good at doing within your family is the thing that you're wanting to take leave from."
There are so many things I miss about living with my family; the easy silence between my dad and I when we read in the garden, making my sister laugh, long afternoon walks with my mom when the sun is low and soft and I can tell she's really listening. For now though, I'll have to accept my role. But in the future, once the dust from the pandemic begins to settle, I hope they'll all be able to have their own spaces again. Because space is itself a peacemaker.
*Names have been changed.