Stopping the Relationship “Tug-of-war”
We have all heard of the childhood game of “Tug-of-war”. This is a test of strength, where each end of a single rope is pulled by opposing sides, both of which hope to gain control and take the rope from the other. The one who ends up with the entire rope wins – usually with the opposing side face down in the mud.
This is not unlike how many people deal with significant relationships in their lives. The rope represents attention, power, time, or anything else both people may want from the other. Either or both people may begin with love and benevolence, freely handing the rope to the significant other. Over time, however, perceived injustices, hurts, and misunderstandings may cause them to pull back. This is when the war ensues. The game looks different depending on who participates. Two major players of this game are the Givers and the Takers.
“I’ve found him, Kimmie! He’s the one! I am going to make him so happy!!”
Familiar words from a Giver. Givers are those who believe that their worth comes nearly exclusively from what they can give or do for others. Takers, on the other hand, tend toward the automatic assumption that their partner will withhold from or take advantage of them. Givers do not always attract Takers (or, vice versa), but it is fairly common.
The Giver believes the other person’s happiness is their responsibility and, if they do not perform as required, the other side will have no need for them and will leave. In the beginning of a relationship, the Giver gladly hands over control of the rope to their partner. They might even give the entire rope, endlessly attempting to provide whatever the other person wants while requiring nothing in return. They want to please and become indispensableto the other. They may do irrational things, such as trying to guess what their partner needs and supply it without being asked. Whatever way they operate, the result is emotional, mental, and/or physical depletion. They will eventually need to pull back.
Takers begin their relationships expecting to hold all of the rope. If the relationship continues long, it will often be because the partner is attracted to the strength of the Taker. They look competent, in charge, and fearless. However, at some point, the other side will want some control or attention for themselves. The relational health of the person attempting to attach to a Taker determines how long it takes for the war to start.
If relationships are not built on honesty and a genuine acceptance of each other’s strengths and challenges, then it is usually a matter of time before the tug-of-war begins. Suppose a Giver begins a new relationship…it often goes like this:
The new relationship develops. A Giver sees themselves as giving and loving, not always realizing that they are handing over control to their partner. The Receiver in the relationship expects the control and gladly takes the rope, pulling and pulling, oblivious to how it truly affects the Giver. The Giver drives themselves into the ground trying to accommodate and even forecast their partner’s every need. They become more and more tired, lonely, and resentful. The Giver begins to pull back. This shocks their partner, who has learned the role of Receiver – doing for the Giver was not what they signed up for. They pull back. The Giver begins to become angry and pulls back harder, adding criticism and contempt to the relationship. The partner often responds with anger or withdrawal. They pull harder by becoming demanding and even abusive. The Giver begins to despair and starts to give up the fight…eventually, they end up face down in the relationship mud with no sense of control at all.
True security in a relationship is dropping the rope entirely. Giving and receiving need not be a game where one has all and the other has nothing. It is acceptable and necessary to have needs of your own. Asking for what you want means you are engaging in an authentic, real relationship. Anything else is coercion and there is no real relationship. At The Center, we know this game and are adept at helping people disengage from it. We teach the skills necessary to enliven compassion, fairness, and self-respect. Whatever your relationship status, there is always something to learn and we would love to walk with you on this journey of changing the game of your life!
Questions to Ponder
To start on the road to healthier relationships, answer these questions.
- Are you a Giver, a Taker, or would you classify yourself another way?
- Do you tend to attract Givers or Takers?
- What is the rope for you?
- How do you handle other people’s boundaries?
- What are your warning signs that you are engaging in a Tug-of-War?
- Journal about a possible plan to help you drop the rope
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board Certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.