Walking on Eggshells

Walking on Eggshells

Walking on Eggshells

Heal Your Relationship

​Have you ever felt like you were walking on eggshells around your partner? Like no matter what you say, it is taken as a criticism and erupts in defensiveness or walking away? Or do you feel you have to be really careful or you’re going to get “in trouble” for doing something the wrong way and get blamed and nagged by your partner? In my work as a marriage and family therapist, it’s common for couples to begin counseling because of similar feelings like the ones above. Typically, one partner will feel like they are constantly having to “be careful” while the other partner has no idea they feel this way.

I see couples all of the time who say, “I feel like I have to walk on eggshells.”   

Walking on eggshells is usually a misguided attempt at preserving a relationship. In other words, partners are afraid of expressing their more vulnerable thoughts and feelings out of fear that they won’t be heard or understood and that it will somehow cause conflict or arguing in the relationship. The good news is that this is a pattern that many couples face and it can be worked through. The bad news is that if walking on eggshells becomes a pervasive pattern in your relationship it leaves both partners feeling alone and misunderstood. 

Prioritize Emotional Connection

It’s sad when partners feel like they walk on eggshells because it usually means that they aren’t connecting emotionally. If you constantly watch what you say to avoid offending your partner, it is usually because what you say strikes a nerve deep within them. The nerve may have developed when they were younger or it may be from a past relationship. Perhaps they perceive what you’re saying as criticism and it strikes their nerve of “i’m not good enough.” That shame quickly turns into anger and they get defensive or simply give in to what you say without really hearing you. Even something as simple as “Will you please put the crackers on the bottom shelf next time?” can land as a criticism and can start the reactions. Maybe your partner checks out emotionally or leaves the room by the end of the argument.

While this may make you feel misunderstood and angry, your partner shutting down or leaving is an attempt at preserving the relationship. They may feel they need to leave in order to avoid further conflict or avoid saying something they don’t mean.

Chances are the reasons you feel anxious and angry is because you actually care about your partner and you long to connect with them better. There is a fear that you might lose them. If you didn’t care about them, it probably wouldn’t bring up these types of emotions. 

There are some things you can do on your end if you play the role of this partner in your relationship. Instead of worrying about where your partner puts things in the fridge or how they pack the kids’ lunches for school, try to recognize your need for emotional connection with your partner and prioritize that.

Grow, Together.

Before we sought help from you, I was at a point in my relationship that I had really given up on hope... you have changed our lives.

— Couples Counseling Client

You Control How You React

If you feel you need to walk on eggshells or your partner will find fault in something you do, nag you, criticize you, or blame you, you are not alone. Maybe you’re even aware that the nagging, criticizing and blaming not only makes you angry, but makes you feel inadequate or that you’re falling short. You probably find yourself shutting down emotionally or physically leaving the scene either to avoid getting into a bigger conflict or simply as an act of self-preservation.  These are natural reactions to this common occurrence in relationships.

However, the problem is, your partner is trying to reach you for emotional connection. I know it sounds strange, but it’s true. The nagging, criticizing, and even the blaming is an attempt to reach you emotionally. (I didn’t say it was a good attempt, but it is an attempt nonetheless.) So, when you leave, that strikes fear deep in the heart of your partner such as “I can’t count on him,” or  “What if I lose her?”

Once you can access these thoughts and feelings, you will immediately have more control over them. You can decide how you will react.  

Access Vulnerability in Your Relationship

Sometimes when we approach our partners about sensitive topics we are defensive or upset.  This almost always leaves the other person feeling blamed. But when we come from a more vulnerable place, when we’ve accessed those tender feelings beneath the surface and we are able to express those to our partner, they can usually hear us.  

Learning How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships is an important step in any relationship and a relationship-saving tool that you and your partner can work on together.

See the Argument Through a Different Lens

Try and see the argument through a different lens. Is the argument really about where to put the crackers on the shelf, or is someone feeling a lack of connection? Is the argument really about the kids or is someone looking for reassurance and safety? If you can work with your partner on filling in the blanks below, you will be on your way to a solid foundation, rather than those fragile eggshells.

  • This is what I yearn for in the relationship (security, a sense of belonging, to matter)
  • When the thing I yearn for is not happening, I feel (loneliness, shame, danger)
  • When the above feeling is too difficult or vulnerable, I feel (Angry, frustrated, confused)
  • What I think about myself is (I’ve got this wrong, I’m not enough, I can only take care of myself)
  • What I think about my partner is (He doesn’t care, she doesn’t listen, he’s so irresponsible)
  • So I try to take care of myself by (controlling, blaming, walking away, zoning out) and this triggers my partner. And we go back to the beginning.

See how it works?    

Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples therapy called this “The Dance.”  All couples have a dance they do and when couples are caught in this negative cycle it leaves people feeling bad and alone, and like they are walking on eggshells to avoid fighting.

If you feel like you and your partner can work together to change this dance, there are great tools out there for couples. My favorite book to recommend to my friends and family is “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson. It teaches couples about how and why they are walking on eggshells and provides powerful exercises and talking points to explore this with your partner and improve emotional connection.

If you feel like you’re too stuck and the thought of bringing up any of this with your partner feels like it will end in a major battle, find a trained couples therapist who will help you get unstuck!

Wishing you happiness,
Stephanie Oliver, M.A., UKCP

Online Therapist UK Relationship Counselling Online

Stephanie Oliver, M.A., UKCP Family and Systemic Therapist is an active, engaged, and down to earth counselor who takes great interest in your overall well-being. She works with couples, families, and individuals to help them reach their full potential in life and their relationships.

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.

 

Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.

 

Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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Why Constructive Conflict is Vital to Every Relationship

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Having conflict in a relationship is often viewed as a negative thing. In reality, having disagreements is not just inevitable — successfully working through differences is what leads to health and growth in a relationship. Constructive conflict allows you to talk about the most important things, and find positive resolution for both of you. 

Literally, all couples will have different expectations, preferences or hopes around certain things. This causes friction, AND this is normal and expected — not a sign that there is anything wrong with your relationship.

The Difference Between Constructive Conflict and DEstructive Conflict

DE-structive conflict occurs (ironically) when people try to avoid conflict, and let things build up to the point where they’re angry, hurt, or explosively reactive. Generally, this happens between two people who love each other, don’t want to rock the boat, or who don’t know how to talk about their feelings in the moment. 

They tend to NOT engage in conflict until their feelings build up to the point that they are feeling really hurt, resentful or angry. Then they lash out or act out in ways that lead to unproductive conflict that often makes things worse instead of better.

Learning the keys to constructive conflict can help you avoid this.

Learning How to Talk Through Differences Constructively and Compassionately

The first key of constructive conflict is changing your internal beliefs about what “conflict” is. Try this on for size: 

  1. Conflict is NORMAL: Two people will of course have differences of opinion, different needs, different expectations or different wants. All “conflict” is, is discussing those things openly for the purpose of finding compromise and solutions. That’s all! 
  2. Constructive Conflict is GOOD: Talking through differences constructively will not just resolve the issues, these conversations are the vehicle for partners to understand each other more deeply, strengthen their bond, and develop a more satisfying and functional relationship for both people. In this way, “conflict” (at least, constructive conflict) leads to deeper connection.
  3. Not Addressing Conflict is BAD: In contrast, couples who don’t talk through problems openly and honestly will instead often begin to ruminate about unresolved issues, feel increasingly resentful, and feel more hopeless about the relationship itself. Particularly when people have negative beliefs about “conflict,” they may find it difficult to explicitly express moments when they feel hurt, disappointed, or frustrated. Instead, they stuff their feelings, don’t talk about it… and then it festers like an infected wound.
  4. Avoiding Conflict Damages Your Relationship: When “festering” happens, people become reactive. They are walking around feeling low-grade annoyed and resentful much of the time, and when they have a new (even fairly neutral) interaction with their partner, the anger and hurt feelings they’ve been holding on to often come out sideways. People will be snappy, critical, snarky, or cold.
  5. Avoiding Conflict Creates a Toxic Dynamic: Often the reactions seem out of proportion to the current situation because they are the buildup of unresolved feelings that are (ironically) created by attempting to avoid conflict in the first place. But — here’s the hard part — because in their partner’s eyes they’re behaving jerkily, without obvious cause, their partner will react negatively to them. That’s when an actual fight starts.

Avoiding Conflict Perpetuates Problems

Couples who are not able to learn how to communicate with each other and talk through problems constructively will often have repeated nasty feeling fights about the same issues over and over again. Arguments that never end in increased understanding or positive change, but rather partners feeling increasingly distant and alone. Over time, this rots a relationship from the inside out. 

Couples who have been bashing at each other unsuccessfully for years will get to a point where they don’t fight anymore. That’s when couples are on the brink of divorce: They’ve stopped engaging with each other because they have given up believing that change is possible for their relationship. They are emotionally withdrawing from the relationship. It’s only a matter of time before it ends. 

There Are a Number of Crucial Conversations that Every Couple Should Have

On an ongoing basis as the relationship and life circumstances continue to evolve “going there,” and talking about points of potential conflict as soon as you and your partner feel out of alignment with each other will help you both get back on track, understand each other’s perspective, find solutions, and build bridges to the center. These conversations don’t just solve problems and reduce conflict; they are the engine of growth for a relationship. 

Talking About Expectations in a Relationship

Couples (hopefully!) come from different families. Every family has a culture; a way of doing things, and a set of unspoken expectations about what “should” happen that is transmitted to their children — sometimes explicitly, but often not. When two people come together to form a new family they each carry with them a set of subconscious beliefs about what their partner should be doing or not doing as they build their life together. 

These expectations will often lead to conflict sooner or later, as each partner does what feels normal to them — unintentionally ruffling the feathers of their spouse. This is especially true for partners whose families differed in the way that love was shown or the way that people communicated. It’s critical that partners have self-awareness about their own beliefs, and understand that their expectations are simply a byproduct of their own family of origin experience, not necessarily “correct.” 

Being able to talk through their beliefs openly and honestly can help a couple understand each other’s perspective, gain empathy for why the other person behaves the way they do, and find ways of meeting each partner’s needs. Ideally, in doing so, they explicitly create a new family culture together; one that they both feel good about.

Talking About The Way You Talk

Couples will always have to talk about the way they talk to each other. As described above, when people don’t know how to lean into hard conversations constructively, negativity in a relationship increases. Then, when topics do come to a head, there is often a lot of negative energy around them. People then begin fighting with each other about the way they’re communicating, rather than about the problem itself. Learning how to stay calm and listen non-defensively is a core skill that is often hard-won for many couples. 

Furthermore, because people come from different places, they carry with them different expectations about how to communicate. One partner may be more conflict-averse, believing that “if we’re not fighting we are okay.” They may seem distant and uncommunicative to their partner, which is problematic. Another person may come from a high conflict family with an aggressive communication style, and their “normal” may be perceived as threatening or hostile. Still others may come from families where things are not addressed directly, but rather through behaviors. They may feel very frustrated when their partner is “not understanding them” when they are, in fact, not actually saying how they feel, or what they need out loud.

The variations of these differences are endless. But without an open discussion of them, and a willingness to learn new skills and bend in each other’s direction, these types of communication issues can cripple a relationship. 

Talking About Teamwork

When you’re dating, and in the early stages of a romantic relationship, your connection centers around being companions and finding novel ways to have a good time. As you enter into a committed partnership and begin building a life together, each partner needs to be putting time, energy, and work in creating and maintaining that life. 

As we all know, “adulting” is actually a lot of work: Jobs must be worked, homes must be cleaned, meals must be prepared, finances must be managed, yards and cars must be maintained. Throw a few kids and pets into the mix, and very quickly, life becomes a lot of care-taking.

All couples will encounter bumps in the road as their partnership evolves into one of increasing responsibility due to each of their expectations about what should be happening. Frequently one partner will begin to feel that their shared responsibilities are out of balance and that their partner is not contributing enough or in the way that they would like them to. [More on this: How to Create a More Egalitarian Partnership] Sometimes this is as a result of subconscious family of origin expectations or gendered roles that overly burden one partner (often the female, in heterosexual relationships).

This is not bad; it’s normal. All it means is that conversations are required to discuss how you’re each feeling, create new agreements, and find new routines that work for both of you. When this happens, and both people step up and follow through, balance and harmony are regained.

Leaning Into The Three “Touchy” Topics of All Relationships

How to Talk About MONEY

Most couples have conflict about money, sooner or later. This too is inevitable; money means very different things to different people. Each individual in a couple has a different relationship with money, different approaches to handling it, and different expectations about what should be done with it. In nearly all relationships, one person will have a more conservative approach to money (the “saver”), and the other person will be a bit more liberal (the “spender.”)

Again this is completely normal. All couples need to build a bridge to the center and create agreements around what “we” are doing with money that feel good for both partners. Many couples clash and fight about this topic, which is simply a sign that they’ve not yet come to agreements and learned how to work together as financial partners. Having constructive conflict where they each feel heard and understood by the other allows them to create a shared vision for their financial lives, as well as a plan for how to work together financially to achieve their goals. 

How to Talk About SEX 

Sexuality is another emotionally charged topic for many couples. Over the course of a long term partnership, most couples will experience ebbs and flows in their sex life. Sometimes people become disconnected sexually when they have a lot of unresolved conflict in their relationship, or their emotional needs are not being met by their partner. This is especially true for women. Other times, life circumstances such as job stress or having children make it difficult for partners to have the time and energy for a healthy sex life. 

While it’s normal for all couples to go through a “dry spell,” losing your sexual relationship can start to erode the foundation of what makes you a couple (rather than roommates, or friends). Because sexuality can be so strongly linked to attachment needs, body image, and self-esteem issues, people are often hurt or angered by the experiences they have (or don’t have!) with each other sexually. Conversations about this topic can feel extremely tense, uncomfortable, and even hurtful. Many couples find this subject more comfortable to avoid than to address, but avoiding it only leads to increasing distance.

It’s vital for couples to talk with each other about how they are feeling about their sex life so that they can reconnect with each other in the bedroom. Over the course of a long-term relationship, as the road of life twists and turns, this conversation may need to happen over and over again as you both evolve physically and as your family structure changes.

How to Talk About PARENTING

The parenting of children is another area in which couples will always have differences that need to be addressed and agreed upon. This is largely due to our family of origin experiences; we all subconsciously parent the way we were parented. (Or we parent as a conscious decision to NOT parent the way we were parented if coming from a patently abusive or neglectful background). 

There is a spectrum of approaches to parenting that range from more authoritarian to more easygoing. The problem is that couples may have highly negative reactions to the way the other person is interacting with or caring for their shared children if things are happening that are different from the way they think parenting “should” be. This is also an extremely triggering topic for people because of the deep love they have for their kids. When they see their partner doing (or not doing) something that they view as having a negative impact on the children, it’s completely understandable that people get emotional. 

The path to resolution is being able to respectfully talk through each of your feelings, perspectives, and preferences and find ways of parenting together that feel good (enough) for both of you. Remembering that there is no “right” way to parent is often extremely helpful for couples attempting to find unity in this area. 

Remember, addressing conflict openly, authentically, and compassionately IS The Path to a strong healthy relationship. (NOT the symptom of a problem!)

Differences are normal and expected. After all, you’re not marrying your clone! Getting married is an event. Becoming married is a process. All couples need to have a series of conversations as they do the work of coming together and creating agreements for how they communicate, how they show each other love and respect, how they work together as a team, manage money, and parent children. These conversations are critical, not just to resolve problems, but to grow together as a couple. Healthy, productive conflict is absolutely necessary for couples to flourish. Lean in!

All the best to you both,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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As a marriage therapist and parenting coach, a lot of my clients have been reaching out with questions and concerns surrounding this whole COVID-19 quarantine. I want to share my favorite helpful tips to survive quarantine with kids (especially school age!). 

Wake Up Before the Kids

Although sacrificing sleep is always a challenge and very much a sacrifice, it will feel worth it. Waking up before the kids 20-30 minutes allows you to take care of yourself first, have a moment of peace, and do something to set yourself up for success for the rest of the day (whether you are organizing your work from home space, prepping your mind with positive thoughts for the day, or searching for cardboard boxes to built the best forts with your kiddos).

Practice Mindfulness

Use mindfulness as a way to bring yourself back into the present moment when you’re starting to feel your blood boil or you’re having a moment of intense panic. Tune into what you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Or walk yourself through a deep breathing exercise (breathe in 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, out for 4 counts, repeat 4 times). 

Set Up a Schedule for Both Yourself and the Kids

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Enforce Quiet Time

Being home all day long together can feel overly stimulating. Building an hour of quiet time into the day can give everyone a break and a moment to recharge. During this time kids are expected to be in their rooms napping or engaged in a quiet independent activity. I tell my parenting coaching clients that this is an excellent time to practice self-awareness, meditation, and resetting before continuing through the rest of the day (and a little social distancing from the newness of being around eah other 24/7 for an hour never hurts…).

Use Dinner Time to Practice Gratitude as a Family

Cultivating gratitude is consistently shown to positively impact overall happiness so, using dinner time to practice gratitude as a family is an excellent time for cultivating gratitude with your children. Go around the table and say one thing you feel grateful for during dinner. Doing this regularly helps everyone start to tune in to what they feel grateful for throughout the day, it also reminds us that even on our hardest days there is something to be thankful for.

Have a Clean Up Dance Party at the End of the Day

Ending the day with a clean(ish) house may help everyone feel a bit more settled, so take 10 minutes before bedtime to blast the tunes and straighten up the days’ mess. The music makes it feel fun and special and may even end up in an all out dance party which is great for boosting mood and getting some extra exercise. Having a clean home at the end of the day will help set you up for success the following morning.  

Above All Else, Practice Self-Compassion and Patience!

It is A LOT to be managing work, kids, your relationship, pets, anxiety etc. Sometimes you will feel like all you’re doing is surviving and that is absolutely ok. 

This is temporary, every day is a new day and a new opportunity to try again. Sometimes you’ll be able to keep the days routine and other days you might need your kids to have a little extra screen time. Be kind to yourself and know that good enough is truly enough.

We can do hard things and we will get through this. Remember to stay connected to your friends and family and if you need some extra support, online therapy and coaching are good options to increase general self care.

Stay strong, you’ve got this.
Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT

 

P.S. If you are looking for an online support group, Growing Self is now accepting new members to our Coronavirus Support Group. Read More Here → Coping with Anxiety, Stress, and Lonliness in the Era of Coronavirus

 

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Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT is a Denver-based couples counselor, premarital counselor, therapist, and life coach who is passionate about helping individuals, families & couples create more fulfilling lives and relationships, and to function at an optimum level of health and happiness.

Jessica meets with clients both in-person at our Denver office and by online video.

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