It's not about walking on egg shells. Compassion is the key to a happy life together.
Sometimes our partners become very irked and wounded when we just try to make conversation. They take any little comment as a criticism of them and turn a harmless inquiry into a paranoid insult.
If it feels like you have to walk on eggshells, that doesn't mean your partner has a borderline personality disorder. They might just be a gentle soul on the verge of a breakdown.
One of the couples I see, let's call them Phil and Jen, have these kinds of exchanges frequently. Jen is highly sensitive when it comes to her appearance. All her feelings of inadequacy have been displaced onto her body, which is now the battleground for her ongoing self-improvement projects.
Phil thinks there is nothing wrong with Jen's body. He doesn't mind that she has a little fat around her belly, and is honestly convinced that she is beautiful. Jen tries to believe him but can't quite pull it off. The belief that she is unattractive is stronger than his loving reassurances.
The other day Phil comes home from work, opens the fridge and asks innocuously, "Did you finish the leftovers?" He should have known better. Jen took it as a criticism, thinking he blamed her for eating what she couldn't really allow herself to eat.
Instead of just answering yes and moving on, Jen threw a fit and blamed Phil for just not getting it. She expects him to be aware of her sensitivities at all times and hold back any comment that might be hurtful for her.
Phil in return gets mad because he feels he shouldn't have to censor his every utterance and wants Jen to just get over her sense of inadequacy.
What is required is a mutual understanding of where each partner is coming from.
Phil is already aware of Jen's vulnerabilities, but when he comes home tired and stressed and in need of some reassurance himself, he just doesn't have it in him to then go and take care of her emotional needs.
Jen too knows very well that she tends to overreact, but sometimes has only enough energy to soothe her own fears and runs out of patience when Phil too has had a bad day. This is when they clash: when both are in need of comfort, and none of them has enough to give to the other. That is when we put up a wall and get defensive.
They have learned it's best to just give each other some room to breathe and then come together and talk about what bothers each of them. Jen ultimately has to fess up to her sensibilities and try to accept that she can be difficult at times.
When we are able to make jokes about our inadequacies and not take them so seriously, that is when we are on our way to be free from the insecurities that haunt us.
Gerti Schoen is a writer and psychotherapist. In her spare time she enjoys learning, being in nature and around animals.