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.
- Recognize a tar-baby when one appears. It’s pretty simple. If you bring up an issue, and they try to distract by insulting you, bringing up one of your issues or even bringing up another or different issue of their own, they just threw you a tar-baby. The issue at hand is the one you brought up. Period.
- Do not be distracted. Continue to reiterate the issue you want to solve – no matter what they say, no matter what happens. The path to solve this issue is the objective of the conversation. With a healthy person who may not realize they are doing this, they will appreciate the focus. With someone who likes distracting the conversation, they will continue to throw tar-baby after tar-baby. You can always say, “We’ll discuss that issue at another time. Right now, we are discussing this issue.”
- Come up with a mutually-satisfying resolution or end the conversation by accepting the problem will not be solved in this conversation. I would usually end one of these painful stand-offs by admitting we were not going to solve the issue today and offering him an opportunity to discuss it later. If it was a problem that was urgent, I would offer that I would resolve it on my own.
- Do not allow the avoidance of the issue to table the issue long-term. If the issue is truly important to you, it needs to be resolved. It may be that you have to resolve it on your own. The other person is trying to avoid the issue. That’s the purpose of the tar-baby. Don’t let that happen.
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?