Stop Holding Your Breath And Walking On Eggshells
Are you expending a lot of energy to keep the peace in your relationship? Then you are setting your relationship up to fail. In a strong relationship you and your partner are able to confront issues head on without one or both partners trying to down regulate the mood, feelings or reaction of the other. Walking on eggshells in your relationship is a way to avoid the big, and small issues, that cause friction in your relationship.
Avoided conversations are like ideas locked in an attic. Over time, neglected ideas grow into big deformed monsters in the mind. Neglected ideas have to be brought into the light and given space to breathe or turn bitter.
A relationship that neglects big and small issues, is a relationship where each partner feels misunderstood. It doesn’t matter whether you are a “nice” eggshell walker or a “bad” expressive partner, when it comes to avoidance, both partners feel their needs aren’t being met. Avoided issues start what’s called a snowball of resentment.
Resentment grows in stages. The first stage is always resistance. Resistance occurs when you fail to speak up over an injustice, big or small, that you feel perpetrated against you, by your partner. Resistance is a feeling of unfairness, mistreatment, or some form of being taken for granted or being taken advantage of.
Here is an example: Your spouse keeps asking you to help out in his or her business. They want help because they don’t trust the employee they’ve hired. You feel mistreated, because they are asking you to do the job of someone else. You also feel it’s not fair for you to carry the responsibility for your partner’s success at work. Besides, you have your own job to manage. You feel your partner is blind to the pressures you face at work. You feel a little taken for granted by his/her request for help. You feel your partner is dumping on you, instead of stepping up themselves. This example of resistance is common and it’s the first stage of resentment.
The Second Stage
The second stage of resentment produces disappointment and hard feelings.
Example continued: You want to provide positive criticism, but at this stage you feel hurt, so you complain a little. You tell your partner the expectations you have for the relationship. You don’t come out and state that you feel it’s unfair for you to do the work of his/her employee. You try to shift the conversation around something positive, like your desire for more couple-time. You talk about creating a better relationship together. You choose your words carefully, you don’t want to be perceived as unsupportive. You never get around to sharing that you felt your partner’s request was unfair and that you feel like you’re being taken for granted. You console yourself as you swallow the “negative” feelings, by saying “this is how you compromise.” Your partner listens to your expectations and agrees with a dry “Eh-hm”. But his/her behavior doesn’t change much.
I Deserve Empathy And You Don’t
Example continued: A couple of days later you feel disappointed that your desires are not being met by your partner. Feelings of hurt and being unheard seep into your mind. You feel a question forming, “Does he/she even care about how I feel?”. The next time he or she asks you to make dinner, because they have to work, you blow up. You feel justified. Any empathy or understanding you had is now gone. The ideas in your mind have turned bitter. You feel certain your partner doesn’t care about your feelings. So why should you care about theirs. Your partner tries to make you understand their situation, but you don’t have a free nerve to give a damn. “They deserve it” you say to yourself and unleash your full fury. The result is that you both feel hurt and mistreated. Your situation has snowballed.
The Cycle Continues
Struggling couples cycle through resistance and disappointment often. Committed love will drown in a sea of unspoken pain and a build up of unprocessed and unheard feelings, eventually cause a partner to lash- out in harsh words that pollute the air in a relationship.
Over time resistance turns into bitter resentment. A couple mired in resentment can’t see the pain of their partner. A resentful partner feels their pain is deserving of empathy and that their partner's pain is not. Resentful couples will compete over whose pain is more legit. This pushes couples into the next stage of resentment, which is rejection, emotional, sexual, or physical.
Example continued: Your partner starts to complain that they had to fire their bad employee. They feel overloaded and stressed. You think “Good! Now he/she knows how I feel!”. You say to your partner “ That’s your problem. I told you to fire them a long time ago, but you never listen to me.” You’ve made it clear by your words and actions, that your partner’s pain doesn't count in this situation. He/she is disqualified from receiving empathy because, in the big picture, they started this whole mess.
This type of couple exchange doesn’t accomplish much, but it is effective at spreading resentment.
False Remedies For Resentment
The worst thing a couple can do, when things start to snowball in their relationship, is hope it all will go away on its own. Time doesn’t heal resentment, time breeds resentment. The longer you sit on feelings of unfairness, hurt and unmet needs, the bigger the rift in love gets. Action is necessary, but acting in these two following areas will only increase a couple's problems:
Pulling For Increased Intimacy
A resentful couple will double down to improve trust and intimacy. Resentful couples see trust and intimacy as a solution to the harsh words that threaten their love and relationship. It seems logical, but this is a false remedy. Emotional and physical intimacy can’t defuse resentment. It’s like throwing water on a grease fire. (For those who don’t know, water can’t extinguish a grease fire, it only splashes the grease around and spreads the fire.) If a couple moves into physical or emotional intimacy, with uncleared resentments still intact, one or both of the partners will feel used.
Why? Pushing for intimacy while resentment is fresh, creates a new layer of resistance on top of the old ones. Being intimate when you still have resentful feelings, means suppressing your feelings of hurt to connect. Do that enough and you will become resentful of intimacy itself. Resentment has to be addressed before intimacy can flow, otherwise it will surface during an attempt at intimacy.
Forgive And Forget
It’s common to forget the initial cause of anger over time. However, the pain and hurt is never forgotten. This is why forgive and forget doesn’t work with resentment. Not only that, but to forgive completely you need to cleanse resentment out of your system on a physical, mental and emotional level. Resentment clearing is tricky stuff. Many couples never really clear anger they have about past events. It’s doubly tough when one partner either won’t or can’t forgive a situation. Forgive and forget is like cutting a weed at the surface, eventually the weed grows back and spreads.
So What Can A Couple Do On Their Own?
For a resentful couple to clear resentments on their own, a couple needs to fight more often. A whole lot more. Why? Because as mentioned, resentment comes from resistance and a couple in the habit of speaking their resistance, doesn’t let them grow into resentment. Now, I am not suggesting a couple engage in a yelling match. I am saying if you want to clear resentment, then you must notice every time you feel resistant to your partner and say so.
You may be thinking “ I don’t notice I am angry until some time after an incident.” This happens to most people and is the literal definition of resentment. To overcome resentment and clear it from your relationship, you’ll need to become hyper sensitive towards any feelings of injustice and unfairness you have. That doesn’t sound right, but feel into it, because it is.
Ready, Set, Fight!
The advice to fight more is fraught with danger, but so is living in a resentment filled relationship. A relationship will eventually die from resentment unless struggling couples learn to “bicker”, the moment they feel something is unfair or unjust in their relationship. Bickering is just like it sounds. Bickering is a way to give a verbal pinch to a partner when they set up an injustice. Bickering gets a partner’s attention right away, but without causing any hurt and further resentment.
Learn To Bicker Better
I have a system for helping couples clear longstanding resentments and keep resentment from taking root, I call it “Better Bickering”. I can’t teach this system in an article. It’s something I use in retreats (although an online class is coming soon). But here are a few tips to help you bicker better:
What’s Worth Bickering Over?
The first question a “Better Bickering Couple” must answer is “Which situations are worthy of bickering over and which are not?” A bicker-worthy situation is anything you feel resistance towards concerning your partner. A caveat is important here. Don’t bicker about work, frustration with the kids, or societal concerns. These are topics for an entirely different type of conversation. The focus of bickering should be limited to injustices and pain between spouses or partners.
Once you know how and when to fight, “Better Bickering” will keep the air between couples clean. Bickering is not starting an argument. When you use “Better Bickering” you “push back” against injustice and unfairness. “Better Bickering” is not “killing” your partner verbally either, it is strongly suggesting they back away from a line of injustice or unfairness. “Bickering Better” can be as simple as asking “ Are you ordering me around?” or as deep as going into your personal history around authority figures and how they make you want to rebel.
Here are four areas that scream for couples to bicker instead of making excuses, or trying to mitigate a situation by walking on eggshells:
Imposing A World View
When one partner feels their ideas are the “only” logical or appropriate way to approach a situation, they are trying to impose their world view on their partner. This is always a problem, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s around the correct way to brew coffee, or the right way to dress, it’s always a demand to regulate the world of another person. When your spouse or partner tries to impose a “should” or a “have to” on you, start bickering.
Being Treated Unfairly
Inequality happens, especially in family life. But nothing makes a person more angry and hostile than being treated unfairly by someone they love. In committed love everything won’t be equal, but everything should be fair. When something in your partnership is unfair, you have to bicker about it. This is a big deal, so don’t let things slide in the area of unfairness.
For example: Your partner comes home late from a last minute work meeting at the bar, again. You feel it’s unfair to you, because you are left alone to put your daughter to bed and the situation is cutting into your “me time”. You feel a burn in your chest around it, but you don’t want to be unsupportive. In the past you would swallow the lump in your throat and let the situation go. But now you opt for “Better Bickering”. Instead of holding your feelings of unfairness in, and exploding later, you speak up while the pressure is still rooted in your chest. You ask your partner for two minutes to “bitch” about the situation. Then share your feelings on the situation, making it clear you understand that the situation can’t be undone and that you fully support your partner. Next, you ask for what you need to feel that fairness is restored. Maybe that’s some time to yourself or for your partner to hire a babysitter over the weekend.
Now, this may sound like a messy process, but with practice (and mistakes), you’ll become good at it.
You’re Not Listening To Me
The last bicker worthy situation is when you feel unheard. Everytime you feel shutdown by your partner or like you’re not getting your partner’s full attention, start bickering. The prolonged effect of not being heard produces severe consequences on love. Problems, from emotional decoupling to betrayal to divorce, occur when one partner feels like what they have to say doesn’t matter.
Most lack of support feelings in marriage can be directly traced to a sense that one partner is not valuing what the other is saying. This is an internal knowing and one each person has to tune into for themselves. Start by asking yourself “Do I feel heard, in this moment?”
The desire to be heard is a human one. My two year old daughter can feel when my attention is split between her and thoughts in my mind. And she knows how to bicker for my attention. But instead of whining or crying, like my daughter, I want you to “strongly insist” that you be heard. Once you get your partners attention, it’s important to have something meaningful to say.
When Not To Fight
“Better Bickering” will not work in all relationship situations. Some problems are beyond the scope of bickering. A marital problem that stems from an individual issue of one partner, is not a bicker worthy problem. Here are three examples of problems that require relationship help, but not “Better Bickering”:
The later partner: A person’s tardiness has nothing to do with his or her partner. Being late is a reflection of how a person feels about time. Tardiness is not a reflection of the love and care a tardy person feels toward his/her spouse or partner. To combat tardiness, take separate cars, or give your partner an earlier start time to ensure they are on-time when they need to be. But don’t bicker over tardiness, it’s the tardy partner’s problem alone.
Low Libido: A lack of sexual desire, typically has nothing to do with one partner’s feeling of attractiveness towards the other. A lack of sexual desire could be physical or psychological (performance based). Sex problems are common in the U.S. and stem primarily from our culture’s repression of sexual desire, while simultaneously (and grossly) glorifying the sex act.
A couple can’t bicker their way into better sex or more sex, so don’t try. Instead seek professional help for sex problems, and work on clearing up any resentments that can be weighing down sexual energy.
The depressed partner: The mind is a mysterious thing and we can’t always control it. Depression is an example of one of these instances. Typically, depression is communicating to the depressed person, that they need to make an immediate change in their current situation. Change can mean stopping a behavior, starting a new behavior, or giving attention to neglected feelings. But note that, none of these changes have anything to do with the partner. So if you are the partner of a depressed person, support them by getting them the help they need. Don’t make their brain’s misfire about you. It’s not. And a depressed person really needs their partner to be clear on that subject.
Walking on eggshells and suppressing feelings to be “nice” will ruin a relationship, and foster resentment and feelings of hurt. Over time resentment becomes a cancer that kills love. To cleanse resentment, you’ll need to fight more often with your partner. Fighting includes advocating for yourself when you feel things are unfair and unjust. Better Bickering is a way to verbally pinch your partner to let them know when they have crossed a line with you. Bickering works in situations where you feel any level of resistance. Bickering is not appropriate when the problems you have with your partner are clearly their individual problems and not your problem.
If your relationship is suffering from resentment, please do yourself a favor and sign up for The Relationship Inventory. In it you'll get a better understanding of what you are fighting about and clarity around the needs of the relationship. Click here for more information.