relationship tug of war, Tara Fields, Ph.D., LMFT

Feeling Frayed from a Tug Of War with your Partner? End it today!

November 8, 2016

Feeling anxious and powerless? You are not alone. Anxiety and feelings of powerlessness are at an all time high. To assuage those feelings it helps to take charge of the things you can control. If you are in a power struggle with your partner you have the power to end it today.

Here’s how….

   Imagine a tug of war. You’re gripping one side of the rope and your partner is gripping the other. Between you is a pit of mud. And you’re both pulling as hard as you can, straining your muscles and your mind and your emotions to haul your partner through the mud to your side.

   Winning means pulling until the other person falls down. Losing means letting go and getting dragged. Win or lose, in both cases, the war is over. Unfortunately, in this tug of war, when one person wins or loses, the relationship is over as well. You can’t exist as a slave to your partner’s needs and as much as you keep fighting to haul your partner into your understanding, that’s no way for your partner to live, either. No matter if you or your partner ends up in the mud, when either of you falls down you both lose.

    Maybe you know why you and your partner are pulling or maybe you started gradually and now it’s been so long you can’t even remember what started the war. But now it feels like you can’t stop – at least that keeps the flag centered between you, right? Wrong. There’s another answer. The answer is to both stop pulling at the same time.

    If you are like most people you are probably thinking  what if my partner doesn’t want to drop the rope? As always, you have a choice as to how to react, no matter what your partner decides. Either pack your bags and move out or take a one-way ticket out of ego land and ask yourself, what is the most loving thing you can do in the situation? If you let go of the rope, your partner will fall on his or her tush! Is that really what you want? Remember, your intention is to be loving! No more tug of war.(remember your intention is to be loving … no more tug of war!  If you ease up on the rope equally, the flag will stay centered. Eventually when neither you nor your partner is pulling the rope, you can lay it down. Eventually, you can walk away from the rope completely.

   Now comes the fun part where we get to explore, identify, and figure out just what kind of Come Close, Go Away tug of war you are in. There are four scenarios:

  1. You are both afraid. One of you fears abandonment while the other fears being consumed.
  2. Both of you are afraid of being vulnerable, exposed—warts and all—which you to push and pull.
  3. You and your partner have not defined your roles as a family man or woman! What are your rituals? Celebrations? Do you want kids? These things must be identified separately from your upbringings. Family means the two of you, not how you were raised.
  4. You and your partner see sex in different ways. One of you hopes for an emotional connection to the other just as they do to themselves—usually the man, while the other hopes to connect from the heart and to feel open and available sexually—usually the woman.

   In what I call the  Come Close, Go Away partners pull against a weight that is set in the opposite direction.  The partner who needs reassurance is matched with a partner who needs space; the partner who uses sex to feel close is matched with a partner who has to feel close in order to have sex; the partner who pursues a string of un-winnable trophy dates is matched with a person who thinks that beneath her trophy exterior she is unlovable. In all these cases, it’s more than a one-person problem.   In these loops, it takes two to sides to make a tug of war and you can’t ask your partner to stop pulling unless you’re willing to do the same. Most importantly regardless of your partners choice to explore and take ownership for his or her part the choice and power to dissolve your tug of war is always in your hands.

There has never been a better time to choose Love not War.


Resolving conflict in relationships by Dr. Tara Fields, LMFT, Ph.D.

Tangled Up and Blue?

How To Ease A Conflict Loop In Your Relationship

Conflict and Protections in Childhood

One thing we learn in childhood is how to create ways to feel safe and protect ourselves. As children, we are living in the land of giants and even if we have loving parents, there is still the occasion where a parent is towering over us with a red face. Sheepishly running away, cowering in a bedroom closet with a economy-size bag of chips, waiting for the storm to subside are behaviors that may be the ideal strategy for the situation. It keeps you safe long enough for the parent to realize they were out of control.

As an adult, protections may take another form. Reactionary behaviors—nasty, hurtful remarks or zingers that go straight to the heart, or withdrawing and retreating, are not protections. They assist in creating the very thing you think you are protecting yourself against: heartache, loneliness, rejection, conflict. In an adult relationship, you may not feel strong enough to endure one more tedious argument and consciously or unconsciously find a way to retreat. If it’s an out-of- control argument, that may still be a wise choice. However, if it’s a conflict loop that keeps recurring and your partner is not out of control, but is merely frustrated, withdrawing may reinforce the loop.


“…Both Partners Have a Part in Every Conflict Loop”

What habitual behaviors do you use to avoid pain or escape anger? What are you asking for that your partner is unwilling to give? And what is on the other side of this argument – what is your partner not getting that they need to feel heard, understood, respected, loved, safe enough to open up? Understand that both partners have a part in every conflict loop. Think about it: you can’t sustain a Come Close, Go Away loop unless one partner pushes and the other pulls. But at the core of every destructive behavioral pattern is a deep desire to be loved, appreciated, heard, and understood. 

In the heat of the moment, however, the last thing people want to do is take responsibility for their role. No one wants to stop and say, “Gee, let me step back and take ownership for my part.” It’s difficult to accept responsibility, and normal to avoid it. But it can become a major problem when couples become like dogs with a bone, rabidly insisting that their problems are—solely and completely—the other person’s fault. He doesn’t listen. She’s clingy and needy. It’s all her fault. It’s all his problem. Looking at your part in the matter is a crucial part of the process. Muster up the courage to understand your role and your partner’s in order for the two of you to make the necessary changes that will breathe new life into your relationship. For more advice and the steps, Heartwork, and 3-Minute Fixes to transform your conflict loop into a Circle of Love, check out my book The Love Fix: Repair and Restore Your Relationship Now.

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