I saw a counselor during my second marriage to help me unwind some of the issues that we were having. It seemed that I could never make any headway in communicating my needs or in solving issues. I felt voiceless. For instance, I’d want to talk about the fact that we were running out of money every month, and we needed discipline around spending. I’d pick a time that was more relaxing and bring it up. All of a sudden, I was the problem. I was controlling. I was always bringing up “problems”. I spent more money than he did. The discussion would culminate in an argument where I was the issue..
I played back one of these pointless circular arguments to my counselor, and she introduced the “tar-baby” to me. The Tar-Baby is one of the Uncle Remus stories published in 1881. Br’er Fox constructed a doll made of tar to distract Br’er Rabbit. When Br’er Rabbit engaged with this tar-baby, he’d get stuck in the sticky tar. No matter what he did, the more he engaged, the worse off he was.
She said that people who don’t want to deal with problems will often fling forth a tar-baby. My ex was effectively distracting me from the real issue at hand by bringing up another unsolvable and more sticky issue. This would send me off on a battle with a tar-baby that would entrap me and, since there was no resolution, deflect the initial problem. The answer, she said, was to disengage with the tar-baby. Keep going back to the real issue.
I still remember the moment I spotted my first tar-baby. It was profound. I got really good at avoiding them in this relationship. In fact, the practice of ignoring the tar-baby was probably the root of the demise of that marriage. As I stayed focused on the real issues, it became obvious the problems were unsolvable because he would not engage, and he became more and more evasive and emotionally violent.
If you have someone that is evading issues because they throw up tar-babies, there are really some simple steps to follow.
During this work in deflecting tar-babies with him, I learned that in some ways I benefitted from the distraction, too. It kept me confused about what I really needed to do in this relationship. It was a toxic relationship with a lot of toxic patterns. It eventually became clear to me that my choices were to stay in this gridlock or start to work my way out of it. By deflecting the tar-babies, the true issues became clear, and I could make better decisions on the problems. Some were small problems that could be ignored. But they were blown into big problems due to the tar-baby discussions. Others were too big to ignore.
Is there a person in your life that uses tar-babies to keep you under control? What are the typical ones they use? How can you deflect them in the future?