Maybe it’s a sibling. Maybe it’s a friend. Could be, it’s a romantic partner or spouse whose feelings you tiptoe around — for fear of offending, angering, or inadvertently setting off. So you’re walking on eggshells. Often.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you didn’t have to tiptoe around moods, subject matter, and emotional triggers that keep cropping up?
Are You Tiptoeing Through the Love Nest?
I’ve always thought of these challenging relationships as characterized by “tiptoeing” — maneuvering with care and trepidation around sudden anger, snarling sore spots, ill humour, and recurring battles of will I preferred not to engage in.
While I may view myself as the one who has tiptoed through the love nest too often in life, I’m certain there have been periods when the shoe was on the other foot, and I was the one perceived as touchy, temperamental or overly sensitive on specific topics.
Don’t most of us go through vulnerable periods, times when we feel fragile in some way? Aren’t we more volatile, and consequently, not connecting as well with a spouse, a partner, family or friends?
Perhaps the question we might ask is whether or not this is a persistent state or an exceptional period. And if it is a persistent state, or one that lasts so long you can’t recall what it was like before, what’s really going on?
Joe Navarro, FBI veteran and author of Spycatcher, refers to these challenging personality combos as eggshell relationships. He describes these as:
… relationships where you have to tread lightly — each day you wake up you are figuratively having to walk on eggshells because your partner or someone you know behaves or acts all too frequently with a constellation of traits that are just simply toxic… you have to be ever so careful around them lest they lash out at you. They do so because they are emotionally unstable.
Pass the DSM…
Emotionally unstable. Hmmm. That label gives me pause.
Curious as to what the gurus define as “emotionally unstable,” I searched. And all my searches led to Borderline Personality Disorder. Now, I can see where one who suffers from BPD could be described as emotionally unstable. However, a person who is emotionally unstable is not necessarily due the BPD designation, much less any other in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
After a death in the family, a messy divorce, a painful breakup, or a layoff at the worst possible time — aren’t we “emotionally unstable” — prone to tears or anger or bouts of the blues? If a manipulative hubby or wife is pushing our emotional hot buttons with increasing frequency, won’t our rollercoaster reactions seem unreasonable to others who have no idea what it’s like?
That tells me that the erratic responses or behaviors need to be persistent, untriggered by a game playing puppeteer, and not explicitly associated with a life event that sends us reeling.
The Unstable Personality
To be fair, Mr. Navarro describes the emotionally unstable personality, and he provides a quickie Litmus test for those who demand a degree of what I might call “eggshell avoidance in extremis.” He suggests that if we see eight, ten, twelve or more adjectives from a specific list, we could be dealing with a “toxic” individual.
And for anyone who has lived with a personality that consistently displays the behaviors Mr. Navarro identifies, you know the strain of tiptoeing around their unpredictable and unsettling actions.
Among the words in Mr. Navarro’s list:
… angry, bitter, clingy, controlling, cruel, demeaning, destructive, impulsive, inappropriate, masochistic, mean, mercurial, rage-filled, resentful, tormented, tormentor, unforgiving, unhappy, unhinged, violent, volatile…
Loving Someone With BPD
I have loved a narcissist or two, not to mention a consummate albeit charming manipulator. I know what it is to love someone who is depressed, and as a result, I can imagine how hard it was for the man who once loved me in that same sad and distant state. But I have never loved someone who is borderline — at least, not that I’m aware of. That is a degree of delicate navigation around moods that I can’t imagine, except when I think back to my mother’s emotional volatility, which I suspect had some undiagnosed chemical component.
To clarify, the National Institute of Mental Health describes Borderline Personality Disorder as:
… marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships…
There’s a great deal more to BPD, which may include reckless or risky behavior, as well as
… high rates of co-occurring disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders, along with self-harm, suicidal behaviors, and completed suicides.
Clearly, BPD is a very serious disorder that demands proper professional attention.
So what about toxic relationships? Who popularized that label? Why does it now fall so trippingly off the tongue? Is it yet one more term to toss out so we can extricate ourselves from any situation where we’re uncomfortable?
Shouldn’t we reserve “toxic” for people and relationships that are truly poisonous? Can we be honest in deeming others what they are — too difficult or complicated for us to deal with, which may suggest that our resources, emotional and otherwise, are insufficient? That our desire or commitment is not adequate or appropriate to the task? That we’re simply not a good fit?
Mercurial, moody, tormented. These make Mr. Navarro’s master list, and often describe a dashing, brooding, and darkly romantic figure in our darkly romantic literary hearts.
It’s all very Heathcliff.
Of course, if the couple is content, good for them. The point in the description of tiptoeing around ye olde hearth is this: One person is putting the other through a miserable time, and a potentially destructive one at that. Tiptoeing around a person you love is like picking your way through a minefield. It’s a lousy way to live. And you may be the casualty.
Mr. Navarro’s range of potential personality attributes is startling, particularly as many of the traits he notes are the stuff of those tempestuous love affairs that some are drawn to — my Heathcliff example — which certainly doesn’t mean that ‘happily ever after’ ensues.
In fact, many of the terms offered as insight indicate narcissism and depression, both of which are running rampant in contemporary life.
Perhaps we should page through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to check the boxes for society as a whole. Isn’t there such a degree of instability in our so-called social infrastructure that we ought to shift the psychological spotlight to the root of the problem, or at least expand the scope of our attention? How can we ignore the metaphorical earth moving beneath our feet in fundamental facets of life — family, work, health?
What about our tendency to dispose of people? Do we (over)use labels like ‘toxic’ to excuse ourselves from responsibility? From sticking around long enough to sweep away the eggshells beneath our feet — as a team or a community?
Are we in a period of widespread societal cowardice, as beliefs in each other and our institutions have become so shaky that the Spycatcher’s list describes society as a whole?
My opinion is clear. I’m curious to know yours.
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