How to Stop Walking on Eggshells in Your Relationship

Signs you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship
on July 12, 2023
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Healthy relationships are designed to bring out the best in each other. By communicating with your partner, it’s easier to predict how they react to certain situations or events. 

If your partner is unpredictable or emotionally reactive, it creates the almost nauseating feeling of walking on eggshells. This overly cautious approach is a trained behavior, whereby you’re constantly anxious that your partner may lash out — so you do everything you can to avoid this reaction. 

Walking on eggshells doesn’t always indicate an emotionally abusive dynamic, but it’s important to know how to deal with this behavior — for both the preservation of a healthy relationship and your own mental health. 

What does walking on eggshells mean? 

Walking on eggshells is a sign of an unhealthy relationship dynamic, whereby one partner is overly cautious or nervous around their significant other. This feeling often indicates that one partner is demonstrating abusive behaviors, with a total lack of communication skills preventing a healthy relationship from forming. 

“Walking on eggshells means that someone is very cautious and even nervous, about doing or saying the wrong thing in front of their partner due to fearing that their partner will become upset or reactive,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, a psychotherapist, and licensed professional counselor.

“Due to this fear, the individual will often be guarded and on edge and will be very slow and hesitant in the things they say or do around their partner.” 

If this behavior is short-lived it’s not usually a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship but rather a reaction to an isolated scenario. For example, your partner got some bad news at work and you’re cautious about what you do or say so as not to incite a negative reaction. 

“When it is consistent and persistent in the relationship it can cause instability,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“This is due to one person not being able to regulate their emotions, especially when navigating reasonable feedback, a stressor, or a request from their partner.” 

Within healthy relationships, this kind of behavior is not normal. If this dynamic is allowed to continue, it can lead to reduced self-esteem, confidence, and sense of self as well as have an overall negative impact on your mental health. 

What causes you to walk on eggshells in your relationship? 

While some people are naturally more timid or shy, this does not carry the same feeling as walking on eggshells. This response is more of a trained behavior in a relationship, whereby past experiences with your loved one cause you to act in a more reserved way. 

“Individuals start walking on eggshells in a relationship when there have been repeated instances of their partner getting angry or upset about something the individual has said or done,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“Often, their partner might get upset without warning, and the individual might have no clue that they were doing or saying something that was offensive. Thus, they are frequently caught off guard by their partner’s reactions, which can become distressing and unsettling.” 

So why does your partner act in this way? Although this behavior is commonly indicative of an unhealthy relationship, there are a number of underlying causes that should also be considered. 

“If the feeling of walking on eggshells is new, along with talking to your partner about it, it’s key to look at what major life events could be impacting it,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Such as if your partner is grieving or navigating depression. Although you are uncomfortable, looking at the eggshell in isolation will often further the problem.”

If your partner has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), it may cause them to become emotionally reactive in this way. Narcissists or those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) also demonstrate this kind of behavior, with irrational rages and reactions dominating their intimate relationships and lapsing into emotional abuse. 

“This reactive behavior can become very confusing for an individual because they are not certain what might set off their partner and so they just become overly cautious about most interactions,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

Even though there may be underlying causes, it’s important to know when it’s time to consider the future of the relationship — especially if it’s negatively impacting you. 

How does it feel to walk on eggshells?

The feeling of walking on eggshells is incredibly impactful on your relationship and your well-being. 

“You may experience a sensation of tightness, discomfort, or uneasiness in your body when communicating with your partner,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“This is often accompanied by a sense of dread, which can manifest as an empty feeling in your stomach and a clenching of your jaw. However, everyone experiences this differently.”

If you feel like your relationship works in this way, it can affect how you act around your partner. This can also expand outside your relationship, with this timid trained behavior spilling out into your interactions with your family members or other loved ones. 

“The important thing is to pay attention to whether your body shifts from feeling safe to feeling fearful, worried, or anxious during these conversations. Be mindful of what you are experiencing in these moments,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Within toxic relationships, these behaviors can be calculated so as to assert a certain level of control over their partner. This leads to the development of codependent relationships, where it can be more difficult to recognize emotional abuse or set boundaries to prevent these behaviors. 

“It feels very unsafe and unsettling to be in this type of relationship because you can never be fully relaxed or feel secure,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“You are constantly worrying what you might say or do that will set your partner off next, and thus, many people start to withdraw and interact less and less.”

This can make it difficult to state or even form your own opinions in the first place, as you are just trying to avoid conflict. Being constantly subjected to these emotional outbursts can really take its toll and isn’t sustainable in a long-term relationship. 

“It creates a lot of uncertainty and timidness in this individual due to fear of their partner unexpectedly becoming angry or lashing out,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“Being in this type of relationship often leads to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression due to an increase in fear and worry.” 

10 signs of walking on eggshells in your relationship 

When you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, it can be easy to justify your partner’s behavior. 

However, according to our experts, there are a number of signs to look out for that indicate you’re consistently walking on eggshells in your relationship. 

You constantly worry about the things you say or do in front of your partner.
You tend to overthink your interactions with your partner due to wondering if you upset them.
You become hypervigilant of any shift in your partner’s moods, facial expressions, and behaviors trying to determine if they’re upset about something you have said or done.
You tend to apologize frequently and excessively, even when you have done nothing wrong.
You overexplain your decisions or behaviors.
You are frequently in a state of fear or discomfort due to not knowing how your partner might handle something.
Your personality shifts as you withdraw and interact with others less.
You second-guess yourself a lot and have a difficult time making decisions on your own.
Increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
You often check in with other people for validation to see if how you are thinking and feeling makes sense to them.

Is walking on eggshells a sign of an unhealthy relationship?

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, it could indicate unhealthy behaviors or patterns in your relationship. However, since there are various causes of this kind of behavior, it doesn’t always mean that the relationship is toxic. 

“Walking on eggshells can certainly be a sign of an unhealthy relationship if these behaviors are the result of events that have taken place in this relationship,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“For example, if the individual did not engage in eggshell walking behaviors prior to this relationship but has started to engage in this way due to their partner’s repeated outbursts, overreactions, or frequency of getting angry and upset, then yes, this could definitely be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.” 

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, it isn’t always helpful to jump to conclusions about emotional abuse or toxicity in the relationship. 

“It can be a sign of something bigger going on, it’s worth getting curious about what brought this on before thinking that it will continue forever,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Therefore, just because some of these behaviors are present — it doesn’t have to tarnish the relationship if communicated and dealt with in a healthy and safe way. 

What are the benefits of walking on eggshells? 

Since walking on eggshells is commonly considered a reactive response to emotional abuse, it can be hard to consider whether there are any benefits to this behavior. 

However, if this emotion is an isolated feeling and isn’t a continuous feature of the relationship, it can open up new lines of communication in the relationship when addressed. 

“Although it may not seem like it, being cautious and sensitive in a relationship can actually strengthen it,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Being aware of your partner’s feelings and learning how to respect their emotions is a key foundation of any relationship. While walking on eggshells may be regarded as an extreme example of this, it isn’t an entirely toxic notion at its core. 

“If your partner is openly dealing with a major event and discussing their capabilities and external support, it can lead to a deeper understanding of each other and vulnerability in your relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Inevitably, there will be challenges in any relationship, but how they are handled together as a couple can make all the difference. Especially how strong you can feel as a couple when you are able to intentionally not have this be an active part of your relationship.”

How to deal with walking on eggshells in your relationship

Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship is exhausting. Once you recognize this behavior, it’s important to try and break the cycle. 

This may involve seeking professional help, or in certain cases, this can be worked through with the help of your partner. 

“If you recognize that you’re walking on eggshells in a relationship, it’s crucial to communicate this concern to your partner to request that you work together on improving this aspect of your relationship,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“However, walking on eggshells is often one component of a toxic relationship, and so sometimes it’s helpful to assess if there are other toxic behaviors present in your relationship.” 

According to Fedrick, some of these toxic behaviors can include:
  • Physical, mental, emotional, sexual, (or any type of) abuse.*
  • A perpetual cycle of intense infatuation, intense conflict, breaking up, not resolving the issue, and then back to intense infatuation.
  • The frequent use of manipulation to control the other partner.
  • Repeated violation of boundaries.
  • Refusal to engage in therapy or other methods of healing and self-improvement.
  • A lack of safety to openly express wants, needs, desires, concerns, hurts, etc.
  • Repeatedly making empty promises to change or that ‘next time’ will be different.
  • One or both partners constantly feel as though they are walking on eggshells.
  • Embarrassing or putting each other down (especially in public settings).
  • Lack of ownership or remorse for maladaptive behaviors.
  • Frequently playing the 'victim' or 'martyr' role.
  • Not creating a general sense of trust, safety, and respect in the relationship.
  • Threatening self-harm or other violence if the relationship were to end.

If you find yourself being subjected to these toxic behaviors, it’s important to take stock of how you feel in your relationship without any interference from your partner. 

“If you believe you might be in a toxic relationship, one of the best places to start is self-reflection,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“Stop to consider how your mental health has changed since getting into this relationship, if this relationship brings out the best or worst in you if you are starting to behave in ways you don’t recognize.” 

These unrecognizable new behaviors may include the feeling of walking on eggshells and how this has warped your personality within the relationship. Understanding and recognizing these issues can be very overwhelming, so it’s important to seek practical advice and professional help to get your life back on track. 

“If you recognize that you are participating in a toxic relationship, it’s crucial to find a mental health professional who specializes in relationships and trauma, to assist you in processing this dynamic and your behaviors,” says Dr. Fedrick. 

“It’s also critical to seek help to identify ways to work towards healthier behaviors, as well as to possibly get support to leave this relational dynamic if necessary.” 

*National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 and ask for the police.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is walking on eggshells a trauma response?

    Walking on eggshells is generally triggered by your partner’s emotional reaction to various issues or circumstances. However, this behavior can be more likely to manifest itself if the person has experienced unhealthy relationship patterns in the past. “Walking on eggshells can be a trauma response depending on the situation,” says Dr. Fedrick. “Many of our behaviors in our adult romantic relationships are developed from our ‘relational programming’, which are the experiences from childhood with our primary caregivers that shape what we think about relationships, including how we should behave and be treated in relationships.” “Thus, if you were programmed to think that chaotic people or relationships are ‘normal’, you’ll be more likely drawn to these types of dynamics, which in turn often leads to increased walking on eggshell behaviors.”
  • Where does the phrase walking on eggshells come from?

    This phrase is an idiomatic expression of which the origin is not entirely clear. Some theories suggest that it can simply be interpreted literally, with the act in question requiring great care and delicate. However, other theories suggest that it may come from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, where the noblemen would place painted eggs on the ground and try to walk over them without breaking them to showcase their agility and grace.
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