Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood

The Either/Or of Family Dynamics

Trapped on the Dividing Line of a Tug-Of-War

Posted Apr 26, 2014

The dictionary includes two definitions of a tug-of-war: “as a game meaning a contest in which two teams tug on opposite ends of a rope each trying to pull the other across a dividing line and as a struggle for supremacy.” Both definitions are played out between two warring parents, usually using a particular child as “the rope” – who then gets caught in a dilemma of “You’re either for me or against me.”

The details of the tug-of-war can include but are not limited to such decisions as: which parent is deemed most important -- not just more important; which parent’s needs are labeled most or more important; which parent’s biological family is most or more powerful and important; where the family permanently locates; which parent is expected to willingly sacrifice his or her dreams for the sake of the other. Behind these decisions are also cultural, religious and financial pressures that interfere with two individuals being able to find a reasonable compromise.

Many families face any number of difficult choices. When the adults can come to a reasonable decision allowing for compromise and mutual respect, each parent is better able to adjust to a new reality and their children are usually not affected. But when one or the other parent, without compromise, makes a decision -- when feelings of resentment and/or domination poison the parental relationship – then the ensuing damaging tug-of-war “game” traps the child, chosen to be the pawn, in needing not to make any decision that either parent would experience as favoring the other and allowing a win in the struggle for supremacy.

Since children do not begin to make life choices before adolescence, the years of middle childhood are usually free of the vibrations of a tug-of-war environment. Beginning with adolescence and continuing into adulthood and beyond, the individual chosen to be “the rope“ begins to be directly affected and trapped. Messages, both overt and covert, from each parent begin to feel like tugs pulling the adolescent over the dividing line. But making any choice that either parent would experience as choosing the other puts the teen into an either/or dilemma that offers no positive result. The only choice then becomes one of maintaining neutrality and not moving off the dividing line. It is not a choice of: What is best for me or best to allow me to achieve my goal -- but what choice will not create a win in the struggle for supremacy by one or the other parent which would result in my being abandoned by the parent who lost. In essence, the situation offers the young person no choice. Children think in absolutes and they are correct in continuing to think that they would be abandoned by one or the other parent, for the parents are also caught in thinking in absolutes. The power of an either/or dilemma is vested in absolute thinking.

As the young person matures, the need to not make choices and decisions leads to a state of inertia, dependency or acting out behaviors that, in turn, limit even more the power to determine one’s own life choices.

Rebecca is a good example of this paradox. She had been referred for therapy by her doctor who was concerned about her feelings of isolation and increasing sense of not having much of a future. At the time of our first meeting, Rebecca was twenty-eight years old, unmarried, completing her graduate work in English and financially dependent on her family. Her father was a successful business executive – her mother active in community and charitable organizations. There was no history of her experiencing problems as a child and her adolescent years seemed to contain normal adolescent issues although there was a sign of passivity in her inability to make decisions for herself.

It didn’t take long for another family history to emerge. Rebecca’s parents were both born and raised in New York City, had met in graduate school, and each was pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. The economic times were good and after both had graduated, the father immediately secured a position with a prestigious banking firm. The mother shifted her focus from business to health and accepted a position as an administrative assistant in a local hospital. After several years of an increasing discrepancy between the father’s rise in his world and the mother’s slow rise in hers, she was offered a promising position that offered her a chance to excel. The mother took full advantage of her new position, taking time out only to have give birth to Rebecca who was born several years after her mother’s increasing success.

Trouble started when Rebecca’s father was offered a position as CEO of a very successful business that would double his earning potential and give him a more powerful position. The only disadvantage was that it required that he and his family move to a mid-size city on the West Coast. The father’s drive for major financial success and power topped the mother’s dream of continuing her career and the family moved when Rebecca was ten years old.

A tug-of-war began with the mother’s deep resentment at her husband for forcing her to sacrifice her career once she found that there were few good opportunities for her in the new location. Her weapon of resistance took the form of minimizing her husband’s importance, denying his success and withholding affection as well as sex. His power was vested in control of the money and what it could buy or deny. As Rebecca moved through late adolescence and her early twenties, any idea or wish she expressed of pursuing some new interest or challenge would be interpreted by each parent as supporting one or the other parent, both experiencing her wish as a potential move of the “rope” in their never ending tug-of-war.

As Rebecca began to understand how and why she had gotten caught in a You’re Either for Me or Against Me dilemma, her thoughts about her future brightened. No longer caught like a child in thinking in absolutes, she began to free herself from the power of the either/or absolute thinking of her parents. Her thoughts turned to how she could move towards having a life free from her old fears of either being abandoned or abandoning one of her parents.

An important start was the recognition that either/or absolutes require a no-win analysis. A no-win strategy is a realistic way of resolving problems or dilemmas that offer no positive solutions. And being the “rope” in the tug-of-war between her parents only offered loss.

There are three steps in the no-win strategy: the first is the recognition that you are caught in a lose/lose situation, meaning that each of the choices offers more of a loss than a win; the second is the understanding that whatever you attempt to do will elicit some negative result or reaction; and the third is to make a list of what is the possible loss and resulting reaction involved in each of the choices. The decision then of what to do is based on which choice offers the lesser of the two or more losses.

Using a no-win strategy gave Rebecca important information as to what to expect from each parent as she began to make new moves and new decisions. Recognizing their possible reactions, she was better prepared to deal with -- or possibly avoid -- some of the negative fall-out.

Her plans for freedom also included: finishing grad school, which she had consistently delayed; getting a job as an English language tutor to begin to gain financial independence; not share her plans or ideas with either parent; and remaining a supportive and respectful daughter. Her plans have been working.

If you feel that you’ve been the “rope” in a tug-of-war between any two antagonists, start making a plan of your own and allow yourself the gift of living your own life.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including future blogs of the either/ors of family dynamics. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope you make an early break from being the “rope” in a hidden family tug-of-war.