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Families Engaged in Destructive Tug of War: How to Drop the Rope

Families Engaged In Tug of War: How to Drop the RopeTug of war is an ancient game that is believed to have begun in the 8th century BC as a training exercise for warriors. Today it is a fun game usually played at social events that pits two teams against one another to reveal which team is the strongest and has the most endurance.

However, when a tug of war pits two family members against each other, it’s anything but fun. Indeed, it often turns into a deadly game — killing any safety and security that family members feel in their own home.

Here are two examples of family tug of war games.

Example 1:

“Reality shows are so stupid. I can’t believe you watch that crap.”
“You just don’t get it. They’re very entertaining.”
“They’re a complete waste of time. You have to be an idiot to watch those shows.”
“So you’re calling me an idiot.”
“Yeah, if you like those shows, you’re an idiot.”
“Listen to yourself, you moron!”

Example 2:

“It’s hot in here. Did you turn down the AC?” 
“Are you nuts? I’m freezing. Don’t touch that AC.”
“You can’t be freezing. It’s 80 degrees in here. I’m sweating.”
“You’re sweating because you’re fat. Lose some weight. Then you won’t have to turn this house into an icebox.”
“Shut your mouth. Who do you think pays the bills in this house?”
“Oh, there you go again. You’re always in the right because you pay the bills.”
“You better believe it.”

This kind of 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. She responds in kind, perhaps escalating 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: DROP THE ROPE!

“But doesn’t that mean he wins?”

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

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

Change the game. Either end the conversation or respond with an empathetic or non-judgmental response.

In the first example, it might be:

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

In the second example, it might be:

“Yes, I did turn down the AC. I was cold. It sounds like you’re feeling warm. I can put it up a degree or two.” 

“But you’d have to be a saint to respond like that after someone zinged you.”

No, you just have to DROP THE ROPE.

“Why should I do that?”

Because even though a part of you is yearning to retaliate or escalate the game, you recognize that a family tug of war game has no good ending.

There are no winners, only losers.
No closure, only continuous ill will.
No victory, only defeat.

You deserve better than that. So DROP THE ROPE. Then find another less toxic game to play.

“I will not play tug o’war.
I’d rather play hug o’war.
Where everyone hugs instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles and rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses and everyone grins
and everyone cuddles and everyone wins.”

– Shel Silverstein

Families Engaged in Destructive Tug of War: How to Drop the Rope

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice who specializes in helping people become the best they can be. You can reach her at [email protected] Visit her website at Follow her on FB:

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APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2018). Families Engaged in Destructive Tug of War: How to Drop the Rope. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.