Are you in a constant state of 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 the signs of such a relationship 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 this 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 who are close to them are constantly treading on eggshells trying 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.
“If you’re constantly walking on eggshells at home around your wife or husband or partner, you become 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, leaving us with an identity crisis. It’s also important to remember that these people themselves operate from a place of inadequacy. Just because they have intense insecurities and feel unattractive or incompetent, they try to 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 someone says they get very conscious around their partner, or they’re always tense and anxious in the company of their loved one, chances are they are walking on eggshells in their relationship. We have seen many such dysfunctional relationships where one partner always avoids getting in the other’s way because they are not sure which action or choice of words might trigger their partner to react erratically.
The effects of walking on eggshells can go so far as to ruin the core essence of a relationship. Eventually, the intimacy among couples fades away leading to the final nail in the relationship coffin. While we’ve gone extensively into the walking on eggshells meaning, here are some specific warning signs and red flags to look out for:
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 a living space, I was constantly walking on eggshells at home. She went from being strong-minded to severely critical, was always screaming at how I did everything wrong, and never measured up to her standards. Anything I did or said was wrong, or not enough. Then she would resort to emotional stonewalling to torture 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 setback 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 any partner for that matter, you’ll find yourself unable to make strong decisions. You’ll lose faith in your own ability to be competent or successful at what you 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.
“Effects of walking on eggshells can badly damage your level of confidence in the long run even if you don’t realize that while being in the relationship,” says Olivia, a 27-year-old high school teacher, “I once dated a man with a narcissistic personality for four years. Throughout that period, he kept passing negative remarks on my capabilities as an educator and all other life choices that I made. I even gave up on my passion for photography as he convinced me that my work was pretty average.”
Walking on eggshells in a relationship, therefore, makes you question every decision you take, and if you are stuck in a walking-on-eggshell relationship for a long time, 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. When you have to walk on eggshells around someone all day, you won’t be able to open up to them about sensitive issues like your emotional distress or insecurities. Because far from being supportive or understanding about it, your partner always puts them on a scale of hierarchy and trivializes the matter.
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? 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 ones,” and you’ll bite your own tongue before saying a word because God knows how your partner might react or how they’ll play off your relationship insecurities.
Perhaps you found a meme relatable to your relationship or thought of a joke, but do you share it with them? I have a hunch that you would say ‘no’. Because if you have learned anything from the past experiences, they will find a way to take it personally and get offended. Incidents like these make it quite evident that you are constantly walking on eggshells.
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. Say, it was just one day when you were under a lot of pressure at work and it slipped your mind to return your partner’s call. And boom! By the time you are free to call, they have practically blocked you everywhere – social media and your number. That’s how unstable it is when you walk on eggshells around someone.
“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 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, you’re always trying to stay on your partner’s good side or you stay out of their way, so you’ll be in a constant state of tension. You may even feel trapped in the relationship.
Walking on eggshells around husband or wife is even worse, given that your lives are intertwined by all means. You share a home after all. No matter how much you try not to disrupt their peace, at some point or the other, you will step on their toes. And you are terrified of these encounters. What if they shout in front of the kids? What if they shift bedrooms again? Constant worrying about the upcoming predicaments may take a toll on your mental health and affect your personal and professional life.
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
What does it mean to walk on eggshells with someone? You lose all sense of self. 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. The fact that you are disparaging your self-worth, holding yourself back from expressing your opinion, and all that only to not upset someone, are signs you’re walking on eggshells.
To this day, my friend Sam tries to escape movie dates with his partner because every time he would come out of the theater all excited about a great film, his partner would judge him for his poor taste in movies. Such a relationship leaves you as a mere shadow of who you used to be because you never get the scope to tap into your deepest self or even take the time to explore who you really are.
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. In a walking-on-eggshell relationship like ours, there’s nothing you can ever do that will make your partner feel happy or proud of you. Every question you ask is stupid, the chores you voluntarily do at home are done in a wrong way, all your investment plans are short-sighted. Seriously, there is no winning with them.”
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. As a matter of fact, constantly walking on eggshells can affect your future relationships to a large extent as this habit of tiptoeing will make it difficult for you to ever have a spontaneous conversation or be vulnerable in fear of being judged.
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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. Soon, it becomes a dominant-submissive relationship where you are the constant submissive,” Kavita says.
There is no such thing as a perfectly equal relationship. Power imbalances sneak in no matter how woke you think you are, 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 controlled in her relationship, it’s a sign that they are being manipulated and are thus, 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 place 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 render 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 are trying 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 a flaw 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 are 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.
When you have to walk on eggshells around someone, you will be so busy minding your own actions that judging theirs would seem like a giant task. Plus, are you even ready to deal with the reaction coming your way if you point out one little flaw in your partner? Overlooking your partner’s mistakes and magnifying your own, even though you are hardly wrong in most cases, is one of the major signs you’re walking on eggshells.
Related Reading: Should You Stay In An Unhappy Marriage With Kids?
12. You’re not happy
Of course, the best of love stories come with their share of tears, losses, 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. And if you are miserable from walking on eggshells around husband, wife, or partner, maybe it’s time to reconsider the future of this relationship.
“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 was walking on eggshells to navigate it.”
Joy is sometimes the most easily sacrificed emotion, especially if you have to walk on eggshells around someone. 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, it’s easier to remain with what you know, than to step out and find or reclaim your joy. In a relationship where you’re always walking on eggshells, you’ll always be conscious of a nagging misery, little pinpricks of resentment and anger that tell you you’re not happy.
“Such relationships hamper your quality of life,” says Kavita, “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 the hurtful things your partner said to you 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 codependent 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 has hidden trauma in their lives. If that’s the case, then they too can become functional and empathetic if they seek help.”
So, if you are seeking professional help, skilled and experienced counselors on Bonobology’s panel of experts are here for you. 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.
If you are in an unhealthy relationship where your partner’s sole purpose in life is focused on judging you, saying harsh words, belittling your efforts or achievements, or showing anger at trivial matters, you may feel like walking on eggshells trying not to trigger them.
Making your partner walk on eggshells is abusive which may come in different forms, be it verbal or physical. A narcissistic or manipulative person could also resort to silent treatment to intimidate their partner.
It should be considered abuse, given that it affects the mental and physical health of the bullied partner, ruining their self-worth, confidence, and ability to make a decision or trust someone ever again.
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