Dear Therapist,

I’m in a loving relationship with someone I consider my best friend. We both have very similar histories so understand each other’s fears of infidelity and abandonment, but this can sometimes be tricky to manage. For example, jealousy comes up a lot on both sides. Feeling neglected and so hurt in social situations as well. 

For the most part, we are able to treat each other with sensitivity and care, and avoid such triggering situations, but inevitably there are times we get it wrong and the rows are spectacular. It can take days, sometimes weeks, to recover from these.  

After years of working on this, the blow ups are fewer and farther between but we remain scared and anxious around each other a lot of the time lest we provoke another fallout.


Walking on Eggshells

Dear Walking on Eggshells,

‘Scared and anxious a lot of the time’ does sound exhausting for the both of you so I’m glad you wrote. From your brief letter, it sounds like you are organising your lives together around avoiding triggers rather than building your capacity to handle the aftermath, the emotional charge the trigger unleashes.  

While understandable (who wants to step into a minefield?), it is almost impossible to sidestep every potential provocation. And as you’re finding, it takes enormous effort to even try. Often the energy required to avoid discomfort is far greater than what is required to deal with it. So my suggestion is to switch the focus from avoiding to managing. I’m reminded of a Buddhist teaching: ‘It is easier to put on a pair of shoes than to wrap the earth in leather.’ 

Donning the proverbial shoes may be easier which is not to say it is easy. It requires bolstering the essential life skill of emotional regulation which, again, may seem simple in theory but can feel near impossible when we are emotionally hijacked and our stress response kicks in. So we must practise.   

It sounds like you have built enough self-awareness to know which situations might be tricky for you. Do you also have a sense of the bodily cues that alert you to being dysregulated? Does your heart start beating a bit faster? Hands start shaking? Breathing become a bit more difficult? Getting familiar with how your body speaks to you will help you note when it is time to pause and take care. This is perhaps the most challenging step, but essentially it is an intention to never act from that high alert place and instead use the bodily cues as a giant ‘STOP’ sign.  

In the pause, we can look at the ‘Four Ns’:

  • Notice what is happening in the body;
  • Name any associated emotional quality (‘I feel scared…I feel angry…)
  • Normalise our reaction – too often we either minimise our experience and in a way shame ourselves for having it, or we catastrophise and make a difficult situation even worse. The idea is to find a middle ground, a sense of ‘this is tough so it’s understandable I feel this way.’
  • Nurture ourselves using whatever feels right to take care.  Maybe it is merely reminding ourselves how hard we find these types of situations and taking a few moments to breathe through it or give ourselves a little self hug.  Perhaps we state explicitly ‘that was then, this is now’ and look at the differences between our difficult history getting recalled in the moment, and how we have more options and resources in the present. 

Of course, reaching out to a trusted friend or loved one can nurture us as well (and at times such co-regulation is entirely appropriate, even necessary) but I would encourage working on self-soothing as a first port of call if at all possible. I sometimes work with couples who have becomes so used to turning to each other for help in distressing situations – or even blaming the other for them! – that it starts to burden the relationship and disempower the individuals. A sort of dependency co-created that weighs heavily on all. 

Once we’re in a more emotionally regulated place, we can look at the situation more objectively. We can then ask ourselves whether it calls for a reasonable request of our partner, or whether it is a situation where we, as adults, need to evolve beyond earlier wounding and not let it us keep us (and our partners) hostage in the present. This latter consideration is key: it is useful to notice and assess the lens with which we view events, and recognise when a lens formed in former years is no longer relevant and needs updating.


Do you have a question for Dear Therapist? Send it to [email protected] with Dear Therapist in the subject line and Charlotte Fox Weber or Kelly Hearn will get back to you.