Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Here’s a question: Why do we so often have trouble being real with the people we love? You would think that people who really love each other, who know each other inside out, could also talk about whatever is on their mind. I mean, just walk in and say it, without fear of being judged, without fear of being misunderstood, without fear that they might say something that will lead to a blow up.
Yes, in a perfect world. But the world isn’t perfect, and humans aren’t perfect. We’re all kind of figuring things out as we go along. Two steps forward, one step back.
Sure, it’s not always easy to say what’s on your mind. Past experience tells us that certain topics are difficult to talk about, upsetting for us, and upsetting for a loved one to listen to. Those experiences might have been so difficult, with tears or anger, for example, that we have come to the conclusion that it might be better just to hold back.
But what does it cost you—and your relationship—by not saying what’s on your mind?
I often write about how hard it is to communicate with partners and family members. Living with a chronic condition can make communication even more complicated.
If you’re living with diabetes or any chronic condition, being supported means being able to talk about what’s on your mind. The good, the bad, the ugly, as the expression goes. As well as being able to ask for what you need.
If you’re the partner or family member of someone living with a chronic condition, then most likely you’ve had your own struggles with trying to figure out what you want to say, what you should say, what you don’t think you can say. Along with needing support, too.
Yup. Walking on eggshells. Kind of leaves you with an image of someone walking in the door of their own home, pausing to take their shoes off in the entryway, and then walking on tiptoes. A good way to get achy feet.
If this is your house, you’re not alone. I so often talk to my clients about the eggshells laying around on the floor at their house and their concern that if they say the wrong thing, the sudden crunching sound may bring down the whole house.
There’s an alternative to tiptoeing around each other to avoid the crunch of those eggshells. And it’s not silence.
Here’s help for sweeping those eggshells out of the way.
How about starting every day with three words: I love you. Saying those three words is a great reminder that, no matter what happens, you and your loved one are on the same page. That’s called being proactive. “I love you” can help dial back any tension in the air.
Have a talk about how to have a talk. There are lots of books about how to communicate in a relationship, but THE perfect book doesn’t exist. That’s because each relationship is made up of individuals who bring their own experiences, viewpoints, strengths, and weaknesses to the party. What does your partner do that pushes your buttons and what do you do that pushes theirs? Sit down and hash it out together. You might be surprised at what you learn.
Be willing to agree to disagree. It’s pretty much impossible for two people to agree on everything. And to expect otherwise is to set expectations that your relationship can’t meet. You can have differences of opinion and not fall apart, individually or as a couple. So when you do disagree, don’t turn that into a catastrophe. Nod, smile, shrug your shoulders, and say: “I know we don’t see this the same way. But I just wanted to let you know how I’m feeling.”
Use “trigger alerts” if it helps. By now, you know each other well enough to be able to anticipate when you may be about to say something that may be upsetting to your partner. After all, that’s why you’re walking on eggshells in the first place. So when you find yourself about to step into risky territory, you might try letting your partner know ahead of time. It’s as simple as: “I know it’s hard for us to talk about _____, but I need to run something past you. Okay?”
And ask: “How can we work together on this?” Being in a relationship means making some accommodations and some compromises—to benefit the other person and to benefit your relationship. How about opening the door to coming to an understanding?
Let go of the need to be right. Needing to be right means making your partner wrong. If you need to prove that you’re right, you’re more likely to react to something your partner says. And vice versa. By the same token, if you know your partner is going to need to be right, you’re most likely going to avoid saying what’s on your mind. As they say, “let’s not go there.” As a result, eggshells everywhere.
Do your part to change the tone. It starts by listening. Really listening. Not making assumptions about your partner’s intentions before you hear them out. And not falling into your usual response, whether it is to become reactive or defensive. This may take some practice. How about asking your partner to give you a hand? Look at this way: letting your guard down invites your partner to do the same.
No need to cringe at the sound of eggshells crunching. A little crunch never hurt anybody. It’s the silence that can be deafening.