“I’m always walking on eggshells. I don’t want to upset my partner.”

Walking on Diamonds" Astronaut Eugene Cernan
In the Permanent Collection of the Smithsonian

by Mimi Stuart ©

If you are walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting your partner, that means you are allowing yourself to be controlled by your partner’s reactivity. Of course, it’s nice to be considerate of your partner’s feelings, but not at the expense of your own.

The best relationships are between people who are “differentiated,” that is, able to be emotionally objective and separate, while at the same time being intimate and caring. Differentiation allows intense involvement without becoming infected with your partner’s anxiety, and without one person needing to withdraw or interfere with the partner.

The great psychologist Murray Bowen was the first to discuss differentiation, describing it as “living according to your own values and beliefs in the face of opposition… while also having the ability to change your values, beliefs, and behavior when your well-considered judgment or concern for others dictates it.”

Undifferentiated, or fused, couples tend to modify their behavior out of fear of their partner’s reactions. Eventually they come to feel as though they have lost who they are.

Being true to yourself when you relate to others is what makes a relationship interesting, passionate and sustainable.

So when you feel that you have to walk on eggshells, take a moment to figure out what you feel and believe. Central to differentiation is facing your discomfort with your partner’s anger, cold shoulder, or other reactivity. Learn how to be diplomatic and kind to your partner, while standing firm in being true to yourself.

When you expect a negative reaction, be prepared to accept it. If your partner becomes angry, don’t take it personally. State calmly, “You may not like my position, but this is how I feel/what I think/what I’d like to do.” Leave the room if necessary, but with a faith that you are walking on diamonds, not eggshells.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Emotional Intimacy.”

Recommended: Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.

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