Are you in a state of constant anxiety in your romantic relationship? Do you both literally and emotionally tiptoe around your partner in case you upset them? Well then, you’re probably in a walking-on-eggshells relationship. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, imagine actually walking on eggshells. You’re terrified of breaking them, of creating a mess that you will probably have to clean up alone. If this is how you’re feeling in your relationship, you’re definitely walking on eggshells.
If you’re thinking about signs and trying to gauge the walking on eggshells meaning, we’re here to help. We talked to counseling psychologist Kavita Panyam (Masters in Psychology and international affiliate with the American Psychological Association), who has been helping couples work through their relationship issues for over two decades, for tips and tricks on navigating a delicate relationship and taking care of yourself in the process.
What Does It Mean To Walk On Eggshells In A Relationship?
What does it mean to walk on eggshells with someone? Kavita explains, “When you’re overtly and covertly careful around someone because they’re too sensitive, you’re walking on eggshells, meaning you watch your words, how you behave, how you interact, even what you wear, and what you think.
“It’s usually around narcissists that people walk on eggshells because they can sense overt and covert behavior and pick on you. Narcissists are unpredictable, so those close to them are constantly treading on eggshells so as not to upset them.
“People around whom we walk on eggshells get upset quickly even over things that are barely worth a discussion. They are controlling by nature, very emotional, often selfish, and prone to anger issues and abuse.”
She adds, “If you’re constantly walking on eggshells at home, or living with a husband you walk on eggshells around, you become overly careful about what you say and do. You cannot be your authentic self and you’re constantly guarded around them. You start operating from a place of barricades and not boundaries.
“We start treading on eggshells when our intimate partners are judgmental, critical and always angry with us. They pull down our self-worth and confidence, and then we end up with an identity crisis. It’s also important to remember that these people themselves operate from a place of lack. That is, because they have intense insecurities and feel unattractive or incompetent, they try and bring us down as well.”
Related Reading: 21 Ways To Tell You Have A Narcissist Husband
12 Signs You Are Walking On Eggshells In Your Relationship
If a boyfriend says he is walking on eggshells, or a girlfriend is always tense and anxious, chances are they are walking on eggshells in their relationship. While we’ve gone extensively into the walking on eggshells meaning, here are some specific warning signs and red flags to look out for. Read on.
1. You’re always afraid of upsetting your partner
It’s impossible to be in an intimate relationship without occasionally upsetting or setting your partner off. As flawed human beings, we’re wired to get upset and behave irrationally on occasion. However, ask yourself if your partner is always in that headspace. And if you’re treading on eggshells every second of every day because you’re terrified of upsetting them.
“My wife is a strong-minded, opinionated person and it was one of the main reasons I fell in love with her,” says Brian. “But once we got married and were sharing living space, I was constantly walking on eggshells at home. She went from being strong-minded to severely critical, was constantly screaming at how I did everything wrong and never measured up to her standards. Anything I did or said was wrong, or not enough. Or then she would simply resort to stonewalling me. It came to a point where I barely spoke anymore, because I was terrified of setting her off.”
“In a walking-on-eggshells relationship, one little upset can lead to a major downward spiral,” says Kavita. “You start cringing around your partner because any small thing you do or say can lead to severe repercussions – anger, tears, reproaches – for days or even months.”
2. You second-guess yourself
If you’re living with a husband you walk on eggshells around, or a wife for that matter, you’ll find yourself unable to make strong decisions or have any faith in your own ability to be competent or successful at what you want to do.
Constant criticism and living in fear eat away at our self-esteem, which means that every time we think of doing anything, we second-guess ourselves. It could be something as small as picking out a restaurant for dinner, or a major life decision like changing jobs. You’ll go one way, and then the other, because your mind has gotten used to being told it’s no good.
Walking on eggshells in a relationship, therefore, makes you question every decision you take, and you might even find yourself handing over all decisions to your partner, thereby skewing the relationship power dynamics even more.
3. Your relationship has trust issues
Trust is a major pillar that holds up all healthy relationships, romantic or otherwise. However, if you’re always treading on eggshells and focusing on navigating the delicate relationship you have with your partner, it’s hard to develop trust.
Casey says, “Whenever I thought of trust issues, I thought of cheating and infidelity. But then, I started living with my partner, and I was constantly walking on eggshells. He didn’t trust me to make good decisions and do the right thing. I didn’t trust him to be understanding or kind or empathetic. Worst of all, I lost trust in my own abilities to be a strong, independent person. I’ve never looked at trust the same way since.”
“A walking-on-eggshells relationship can easily cross over into abuse,” warns Kavita. “You will not feel seen, you will not feel heard. Partners who force you to walk on eggshells are often highly manipulative, and their abusive behavior, no matter how subtle, will give you low self-esteem and demean your self-worth. In other words, they betray your trust both in them and in yourself.”
Related Reading: 8 Signs You Have A Controlling And Manipulative Husband
4. You constantly edit your thoughts and speech
Saying hurtful things in a relationship is never ideal, and needs to be avoided as much as possible. But what if you’re constantly checking yourself before you speak? Or even checking your thoughts before they’re fully formed?
‘What does it mean to walk on eggshells with someone?’ you wonder. Well, one sign is that you’ll have an internal editor constantly plaguing your existence. You could be getting ready to say something as innocuous as, “I think the new Jumanji movies are better than the old one,” and you’ll bite your own tongue before saying a word because God alone knows how your partner might react or how they’ll play off your relationship insecurities.
Treading on eggshells in a relationship becomes like being in an emotional bind where you’re never free to speak your mind or even think your own thoughts because you don’t want to upset your partner, or you’re just tired of them making a scene out of nothing.
5. You never know what could set your partner off
Unpredictability is a trademark behavior of narcissists and master manipulators. In a relationship meant to be built on trust, we do expect a certain level of stability and peace. Sudden, volatile behavior upsets both our individual equilibrium, and that of the relationship.
“I never know what might upset my partner,” says Linda. “We could be having dinner and a perfectly normal conversation and she’ll suddenly erupt on some small thing I said. Or something I didn’t do. I remember one time she was very upset because the water tumblers didn’t match, and she blamed me.”
Linda feels she is constantly walking on eggshells in her relationship, and constantly teetering on the edge of disaster. “It’s taken a terrible toll on my health because I never know what fresh hell the next day will bring,” she says.
Keeping a partner uncertain is a way of controlling the relationship. When you’re always in a state of limbo, wondering what to do and how to avoid an unpleasant situation, you’re less likely to focus on yourself and your own happiness, making you more dependent on your partner.
6. You’re always tense
Love and intimate relationships aren’t easy at the best of times. They come with their share of troubles and side-effects. But a healthy relationship will also be freeing and joyful most of the time.
When you’re walking on eggshells, meaning you’re always trying to stay on your partner’s right side, or stay out of their way, you’ll be in a constant state of tension and anxiety, or may even feel trapped in the relationship.
This could manifest in physical symptoms such as finding that you’re walking around with your shoulders hunched, your neck in a spasm and your hands balled into fists. You could feel hitches in your breathing, your stomach always in knots and trouble falling asleep.
Constant tension eats away at your peace of mind and leaves you perpetually exhausted. In a walking-on-eggshells relationship, this could be the way you always are.
7. You’ve lost your core identity
A line from a favorite movie of mine says, ‘Being in love is about being yourself, only with someone else.’ It sounds simple enough, but I always find it to be one of the deepest, most complex truths about identity and intimacy.
Love comes with compromise, as we all know. But healthy relationship boundaries are a must if you’re going to retain your happiest, most authentic self. It’s important to know where you’re willing to compromise, and what you’ll stand firm on.
When you’re treading on eggshells in your relationship, you tend to become a manifestation of how your partner sees you. If they’re constantly criticizing you, you start to feel that you really are no good. If you’re constantly watching what you say and do, you lose all sense of original thought and feeling.
Such a relationship leaves you a mere shadow of who you used to be because you’re never tapping into your deepest self or even taking time to find out and explore who you really are. What does it mean to walk on eggshells with someone? You lose all sense of self.
8. You fear their responses
“Every time I ask my partner a question, I realize I’m cringing in anticipation of what she’ll say,” says Mike. “It’s like I’m asking permission to ask a question in the first place and I’m afraid I don’t even have that right.”
At some level, most of us seek and enjoy approval from those we love. We want to please them and we want them to like and celebrate who we are and what we do. When the responses are not what we expect, there can be a sense of intense disappointment and relationship doubts.
In a walking-on-eggshells relationship, this gets dialed up in a major and disturbing manner. When you’re afraid of how they’ll respond all the time, you’ve already internalized that disappointment and self-doubt. Whether you ask them if they like the flowers you’ve arranged, or a new dress you’ve worn, you’re already prepared to be told that it’s all wrong.
9. Your relationship has no equality
“If a partner is constantly critical of you, you don’t share a healthy connection. There is no equality and no respect. Even if there is respect, it is forced rather than natural. And while you can respect someone without loving them, you cannot love someone without respecting them. This then becomes a dominant-submissive relationship, where you are the constant submissive,” Kavita says.
Related Reading: Are Men Turned Off By Feminists
There is no such thing as a perfectly equal relationship. Power imbalances sneak in no matter how woke you think you are, simply because we’re so deeply conditioned into certain roles and beliefs. But when you’re constantly treading on eggshells around your partner , you realize that you’re mostly giving up all your power to them all the time.
When you’re always trying to please them, to mold yourself into someone they’ll be happy with, but getting nothing in return, your relationship is completely and unhealthily out of balance.
10. Constant manipulation
As we’ve said, partners who constantly have you walking on eggshells are often narcissistic and masters of manipulation. This means they will do everything in their power to control your behavior and keep you dependent on them as far as possible.
If a boyfriend says he is walking on eggshells, or a girlfriend feels she is being overly controlled in her relationship, it’s a sign that they are being manipulated and thus are constantly treading on eggshells.
Romantic manipulation can be overt, which means your partner could straight-up tell you you’re no good, and too weak/incompetent/unattractive to make your own in the world. Or, it could be more subtle. Signs of this include cutting off access to finances, making ‘casual’ hurtful remarks, or causing you to withdraw from friends, family and your wider social network and support system.
This level of manipulation definitely counts as abuse and will have you perennially walking on eggshells. What’s worse is, that constant uncertainty and fear renders you incapable of recognizing what’s being done to you. And even if you do recognize it, it’s entirely possible you’ll be stripped of the emotional and financial resources to do anything about it.
11. You overlook all their flaws
“My partner’s not the best, but…” is a sentence that comes up very often when people walking on eggshells try to defend their relationship and their partners.
Again, no one’s perfect, and in a healthy relationship, looking for perfection isn’t a great way to go about things. It is important, however, to acknowledge and address each other’s flaws, especially if they are detrimental to the relationship and your own mental health.
In a walking-on-eggshells relationship, though, you’ll find yourself overlooking all their flaws. Even if you zone in on one in your mind, you’ll probably be too fearful to articulate it.
Your partner may have convinced you that they are superior in every way, that any redeeming qualities you have is because of their reflected glory. In such situations, no matter how abusive or manipulative they are, you will not have the energy to point out their flaws, let alone address them.
12. You’re not happy
Of course, the best of love stories come with their share of tears, loss and arguments. But the basis of a healthy love affair is that both partners are truly, deeply happy. Happy being themselves, and happy being with each other.
“I felt like a cloud of doom loomed over me and my relationship all the time,” says Gretchen. “I was always so miserable, so anxious, so uncertain. And I could never quite pinpoint why. It took years of therapy and introspection to recognize that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and walking on eggshells to navigate it.”
Joy is sometimes the most easily sacrificed emotion. We’re rarely taught that happiness is a fundamental right in everyone’s life. And in so many cases, when you’ve found a partner, when you’re in a relationship, it’s easier to remain with what you know, than to step out and find or reclaim your joy.
Related Reading: Should You Stay In An Unhappy Marriage With Kids?
In a relationship where you’re always walking on eggshells, you’ll always be conscious of a nagging misery, little pin-pricks of resentment and anger that tell you you’re not happy.
“Such relationships hamper your quality of life,” says Kavita, adding, “If you’re always cautious and fearful of being in the wrong, you start seeing yourself as someone worthy only of rejection. And then, you nurture a strong inner critic that leads to a low life drive.
“You’ll keep getting flashbacks of your partner’s harsh words and you’ll start to feel low no matter where you are. This is an emotional repercussion of what happened earlier, because your feelings are unprocessed. Constant flashbacks could even lead to eventual depression.”
Is It Better To Leave A Relationship When You Feel Like You’re Walking On Eggshells?
“Leaving an abusive or co-dependent relationship is certainly an option if there are not too many constraints such as finances or other matters. Living with such a person who makes you walk on eggshells is not helpful for your mental health. I do advise going to an advocate for the pros and cons of moving out,” Kavita says.
She adds, “If leaving is not an option, it’s important to seek help for yourself. Come out of a codependent marriage or relationship even if you have to live under the same roof. Go to therapy by yourself and improve your own quality of life. Become assertive and look after yourself.
“Just because your partner devalues you doesn’t mean you can’t learn to value yourself. Don’t neglect yourself. You live only once, so live as happily and as peacefully as you can.”
Kavita strongly advocates seeking professional help, either individually or as a couple. She says, “Long-term effects of a walking-on-eggshells relationship could include major anger issues. Unchecked anger becomes internalized anger and you could indulge in self-harm and treat yourself badly. This can cause a lot of downward spiraling and get you stuck in the emotional debris of an unhealthy relationship.
“In the long run, if you can step out of fear, if you are resilient, if both of you can go for therapy, there is hope for healing, even if you don’t continue the relationship. Mind you, narcissists will never seek help because they feel they can do no wrong. But it is possible that the partner who is causing you unease themselves have hidden trauma in their lives. If that’s the case, then they, too, can become functional, empathetic people if they seek help.”
Ultimately, the choice is yours. No relationship is worth sacrificing your peace of mind and your authentic self. If there are circumstances that prevent you from leaving, get all the help you need, reach out to loved ones and form your own support group. You are always worth it.