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.
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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
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.
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