No Strings Attached: Negotiating Adult Relationships Without The Guilt Trips

Here's some real-world advice on how to avoid getting roped into guilt trips.

A few months ago, we moved into a new house. Well, new to us, at least. As it turns out, it's about 100 years old and has 100-year-old house problems. But we loved the house more than we feared its problems and bought it anyway.

One of the "problems" was a cessspool in the backyard that needed to be fully decommissioned, which the seller paid for. It was great for us because it was a $6,000 project. But it created another problem: Our driveway was trashed. The heavy machinery pushed the gravel deep into the ground and left deep, muddy ruts where gravel once was.

Our neighbor asked us if we wanted to go in on a truckload of gravel with him, and we said yes. He knew a guy, and needed about one-third of the truckload.

As my husband and I talked about this super grown-up and adult thing we were about to do, he brought up the question that had crossed my mind during all of this.

Husband: What if our neighbor thinks he's doing us a favor? We don't know him that well.

Me: Well, that's a good question. But we are paying our share, will help him spread his gravel, and it seems like a pretty equal exchange where everyone wins.

Husband: That's true. But I'm worried that there will be strings attached.

Ah. Strings. Those things we get tied to, often without knowing. Those things that other people like to pull to get us to do what they want us to do, to evoke a sense of guilt or debt to get what they think we owe them.

Things can get tangled, fast.

My response to him was quick and clear.

"Strings only work if you allow yourself to be tied onto them."

We all have those friends who give with strings attached to their offerings. Sometimes the strings are bright red threads, sometimes they're more like translucent fishing line. Obvious or hidden from sight, we get tied in. Pulled in.

We are hooked.

We agree to pay the gravel guys, and help our neighbor rake his driveway. He agrees to use his connections to get a good deal on the gravel and pays his portion promptly. THE END. 

I am fortunate enough to have a tightly knit group of friends and parents who give without strings attached. We show up for each other when we need it. Sometimes the need is greater for certain people at certain times. Sometimes we have more to give, sometimes less. But nobody is keeping a running tally of what we owe each other. We give when and where we can and trust that our needs will be met when they arise. 97 percent of the time, they are. We take the pay-it-forward philosophy to heart.

But we know that the rest of the world doesn't work that way.

So, we make agreements with clear expectations with new neighbors or people who are constantly trying to harness us with their strings in one way or another. We don't take the bait, we don't buy into it, we don't allow ambiguity to hook us into emotional debt.

And occasionally, we bow out of a relationship entirely. But those instances are few and far between, and become even more rare when we are clear about the transaction, and expectations around that transaction.

For example: We agree to pay the gravel guys, and help our neighbor rake his driveway. He agrees to use his connections to get a good deal on the gravel and pays his portion promptly. THE END. That's exactly what each of us have agreed to. Neither of us are on the hook for more than that, even if one of us implies otherwise or tries to use guilt to get something more out of the deal.

Is there room for misunderstanding? Of course. But we are adults now. We can voice our ideas, concerns, agreements, and hold our boundaries. We can work out misunderstandings. But we know the fastest way to living without strings is to be up front about expectations and exchanges, even if it's uncomfortable. Like money. Like time. Like emotional sweat equity.

Get clear, stay clear, and don't accept those strings when someone tries to lasso you into their loop of indebtedness.

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