The Destructive Emotional 'Game' Too Many People Play — Without Even Realizing It

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couple in conflict, sitting outside

Tug-of-war is an ancient game that began in the eighth century, BC, as a training exercise for warriors.

Today it’s a fun game with a rope often played at social events. Lots of good, clean fun.

However, when a verbal tug-of-war pits two family members or relationship partners against each other, it’s anything but fun.

Indeed, it often becomes an unwinnable, even destructive game — undermining the safety and security that family members should feel in their abode.

Worse, many people consider it normal, and don't realize they're even doing it or understand the lasting harmful effects. 

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Here are two examples of verbal tug-of-war

1. Two brothers with different views of reality

Brother 1: “Reality shows are so stupid. I can’t believe you watch that crap.”

Brother 2: “You just don’t get it. They’re very entertaining.”

B1: “They’re a complete waste of time. You have to be an idiot to watch those shows.”

B2: “So you’re calling me an idiot.”

B1: “Yeah, if you like those shows, you’re an idiot.”

B2: “Listen to yourself, you moron!”

B1: “I’m a moron? You, who dropped out of college, are calling your Ivy League bro a moron?

B2: “Congrats! You got that right, you smartass!

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2. The 'tenant' and the homeowner            

Homeowner: “It’s hot in here. Did you turn down the AC?” 

Tenant: “Are you nuts? I’m freezing. Don’t touch that AC.”

H: “You can’t be freezing. It’s hot as hell in here. I’m sweating.”

T: “You’re sweating because you’re fat. Lose some weight. Then you won’t have to turn this house into an icebox.”

H: “Shut your mouth. Who do you think pays the bills in this house?”

T: “Oh, there you go again. You’re always in the right because you pay the bills.”

H: “You better believe it.”

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These interactions prevent real communication 

A verbal tug-of-war can be triggered with only the slightest provocation.

A family member says something that feels like an affront. You yank the rope. He yanks back.

You respond in kind. He responds in kind but escalates the put-down.

Now the two of you are off and running, turning any attempt at communication into one cheap shot after the other.

In situations like this, there’s only one good thing for you to do. 

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How to "drop the rope" without feeling like you've lost

When you "drop the rope," you acknowledge that the argument is circular and nobody will win. You also indicate that you care more about the relationship than you do about winning the argument.

“But doesn’t that mean he wins?”

Nope, it means that you refuse to play a destructive game.

"Well, what should I do if I’m being insulted?”

Change the game. End the conversation.

Or respond with an empathetic or non-judgmental response.

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Responding with empathy

In the first example, the reality TV-loving brother might say:

“I know you don’t like reality shows. You think they’re a huge waste of time. But I find them entertaining. I guess it’s different strokes for different folks.”  

In the second example, the tenant might respond:

“Yes, I did turn down the AC. I was cold. I can cool it a degree or two If you’re feeling too warm.” 

But wouldn't you almost have to be a saint to respond like that after someone zinged you?

No, you just have to drop the rope.

But why would you do that?

Because even though a part of you yearns to retaliate, to escalate the game, you remember that a family tug-of-war has no good ending.

No winners, only losers.

No closure, only ill will.

No victory, only defeat.

You deserve better than that.

So drop the rope!

Then find a fun game to play. Anyone for chess or backgammon?

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Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and coach in private practice who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior, especially procrastination, fear, and passive-aggressive behavior.