Editor’s Note: This article is based on studies conducted by the author, as Principal Investigator, and funded by a research award (#1360530) from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences. “… implications for how to help people have happier relationships … when one has a chronically insecure partner” was one of the hopefully anticipated outcomes of the program.
Dealing with chronic anxiety can be challenging. But anxiety, like almost everything else in life, is usually not managed in isolation. Close relationship partners, such as close friends and romantic partners, often play a role in managing one’s anxiety. My research has examined how people cope with having a chronically anxious friend or romantic partner. Typically, the examination is of a specific type of anxiety that psychologists refer to as “attachment anxiety,” which involves chronic worries about being unloved, rejected or abandoned by others. Attachment anxiety is similar to social anxiety and separation anxiety disorder . All of these anxieties deal with inter-related relationship concerns of being negatively evaluated, rejected, and abandoned by others.
” …anxiety is not just managed on one’s own; rather, one’s important relationship partners also change their own thinking, motivations, and behaviors to manage anxiety.”
The research suggests that attachment anxiety is detected by other people. Anxious people are perceived as anxious by others, especially friends and romantic partners, who have had plenty of opportunities to observe their behavior. There are many behavioral cues that may help friends and romantic partners learn about the anxiety. For example, chronically anxious people may often express anxiety to their relationship partners by:
- Openly talking about their anxiety
- Through displays of negative emotions (such as crying, pouting, or yelling)
- Overreacting to negative events (such as reading too much into others’ behaviors and making small problems out to be more important than they are)
The Research Studies
All of these behaviors may help friends and romantic partners learn that someone is anxious. The studies examine whether friends and romantic partners detect each other’s attachment anxiety. Both members of friendship or romantic relationship pairs (called “dyads”) are asked to participate in a study. Typically, between 100 and 200 dyads per study are assessed.
Each person completes a well-validated self-report measure of attachment anxiety. An example item on one of these measures is, “I often worry that other people don’t really love me.” Participants indicate their level of agreement to several of these statements to assess their own anxiety. In addition, participants complete a similar self-report measure of their perceptions of their friend’s or romantic partner’s attachment anxiety (e.g., “My partner often worries that other people don’t really love him/her”).
Given that both members of the dyads participate in the studies, I can examine the correlation between one person’s perceptions of their relationship partner’s attachment anxiety and their relationship partner’s self-reports of their own attachment anxiety. Across several studies, this correlation was found to be positive and statistically significant, indicating that people who report that they are more anxious tend to be perceived as more anxious by their friends and romantic partners. In other words, anxiety is often accurately detected.
” … if a sensitive topic of conversation comes up, they might tell the anxious partner what they want to hear rather than being honest … “
According to the findings, once people observe these behaviors and learn that their friend or romantic partner is anxious and easily upset, they become highly motivated to avoid doing things that might upset the anxious individual, and they change their behaviors accordingly. For example, if a sensitive topic of conversation comes up, they might tell the anxious partner what they want to hear rather than being honest about their opinions.
Or they might change the topic of conversation altogether. They may also give excessive amounts of praise, more than they would ordinarily, to keep the anxious person feeling loved and valued. They may also feel pressure to agree to requests made by the anxious person so that the anxious person doesn’t feel hurt.
Walking On Eggshells
Colloquially, we often refer to this pattern of behavior as “walking on eggshells” – people tiptoe around anxious people to avoid upsetting them. Several studies have been conducted suggesting that people behave in this way around anxious relationship partners.
In one study, participants brought a friend or romantic partner to the laboratory. They were placed into separate rooms and asked to rate their friend or romantic partner on several traits and abilities (e.g., physically attractive, intelligent, socially skilled, interesting to talk to). Then they completed several other measures related to a different investigation so they would forget what they said on these ratings.
At the end of the one-hour appointment, they were asked to rate their friend or romantic partner again on the same traits and abilities, but this time some participants were told that their friend or romantic partner waiting in the other room would get to see their ratings.
Participants who had detected that their friend or romantic partner was highly anxious tended to inflate their ratings during this second assessment, changing some of their lower ratings to more positive ratings, if they believed their anxious friend or romantic partner would be viewing their ratings. Participants who had non-anxious friends or romantic partners did not do this – they were more likely to express their negative evaluations, if they had them, to their non-anxious friend or romantic partner.
These results provide direct evidence that people are sometimes extra careful around anxious partners. In addition, in several other studies, participants were asked to complete self-report measures of their tendencies to “walk on eggshells.” These measures assessed whether one hides complaints, exaggerates their positive thoughts and feelings, and is reluctant to turn down the partner’s requests (e.g., ” I never say “no” when he/she asks me for help”; “When I am feeling negative emotions about him/her, I am careful not to express them”).
I have repeatedly found positive and statistically significant associations between perceptions of a partner’s anxiety and these self-reported behaviors, suggesting that people who detect their relationship partners’ high anxiety tend to report “walking on eggshells” around those anxious partners. This is the case for both friends and romantic partners.
People who have heard about this research often ask, is this “good” or “bad” for relationships? Well, just like almost everything, the answer is not that simple because there are both costs and benefits. On the one hand, having to “walk on eggshells” to help an anxious person manage their feelings can be burdensome.
It is unpleasant to regularly be in a state of waiting for the other shoe to drop, worrying that one could accidentally say or do the wrong thing and incite the negative emotions of an easily upset partner. My work suggests that this can take a toll on one’s happiness in the relationship – people were less satisfied with their romantic relationships on days they reported “walking on eggshells” around their romantic partners.
” … walking-on-eggshells behavior seemed to make highly anxious people feel just as loved and valued as non-anxious people.”
On the other hand, “walking on eggshells” around anxious partners can help those anxious partners feel more valued and loved, which could reduce conflict and improve the relationship for both people. The research also suggests that this does occur. People who were high in attachment anxiety did not feel more insecure about their romantic relationships than people who were low in anxiety on days following their partner’s “walking on eggshells.” In other words, this walking-on-eggshells behavior seemed to make highly anxious people feel just as loved and valued as non-anxious people. So, as with most things in life, there is a trade-off here.
Is This Dysfunctional Behavior?
“Walking on eggshells” around anxious partners may appear to be dysfunctional from some perspectives, and it’s important to consider these perspectives. For instance, one could argue that it is dysfunctional to be in relationships in which we have to mask our thoughts and feelings; that we should seek friends and romantic partners who allow us to feel comfortable enough to express whatever is on our mind; and be our “true selves,” unfettered by concerns about upsetting them.
Such a high level of comfort would certainly be ideal. However, this level of comfort may be unrealistic. Most people do tailor their behavior in one way or another to accommodate the personality characteristics and feelings of their relationship partners. Indeed, changing one’s behavior to accommodate a relationship partner is thought to serve as proof that a close relationship exists, as is being concerned for a partner’s emotional welfare and behaving in ways that enhance the partner’s welfare.
“Most people do tailor their behavior in one way or another to accommodate the personality characteristics and feelings of their relationship partners.”
So most of us actually don’t live up to this ideal – we don’t express whatever is on our mind without consideration of others’ feelings, because that’s not how most close relationships work. Some may also characterize this “walking on eggshells” pattern as a “co-dependent relationship” – a relationship in which one person is dependent on the other for self-worth, approval, or identity. Although this dependence seems to be evident for anxious people in my studies, this type of dependence is not all that uncommon or pathological. Most of us depend, to some degree, on receiving approval, validation, and care from our close relationships.
Happiest When We Receive Approval and Love
Although some of us like to think of ourselves as unconcerned and uninfluenced by social approval, this is a denial of our social nature. A large body of research suggests that receiving approval, acceptance, and love matters to most of us, and that we’re happiest and healthiest when we receive it.
So we all exhibit aspects of this “co-dependence,” although anxious people seem to display it in stronger form, which is what sets the stage for the “walking on eggshells” process. We could think of it as taking normal dependence and sacrifice to overdrive in the service of managing anxiety.
What Does It All Mean?
This work has many practical implications. For example, clinicians may want to consider interventions that help close relationship partners manage the challenges of maintaining a relationship with an anxious person and become more supportive and supported in those relationships. People who suffer from anxiety may want to consider whether their relationship partners have become cautious or stressed, and have open discussions with their partners regarding anxiety and the best way to manage it in their relationship.
Partners of anxious people should realize that the urge to walk on eggshells around anxious people is common, and should consider the costs and benefits of this strategy. Intervening on interpersonal relationships may be a useful component of a comprehensive approach to anxiety treatment.
Now, of course, this pattern doesn’t describe everyone. It is based on statistical analysis that averages across responses made by hundreds of participants. Not every person and relationship may function in this way. Nevertheless, this research demonstrates that, for many anxious people, anxiety is not just managed on one’s own; rather, one’s important relationship partners also change their own thinking, motivations, and behaviors to manage anxiety.
The National Science Foundation funded the research described above, and I am grateful for their support.
Edward Lemay is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, specializing in Social Psychology. He directs the Interpersonal Relationships Lab, focusing on cognition, emotion, and behavior in close relationships. His research covers topics like relationship goals, managing insecure partners, trust, and interpersonal influence. Dr. Lemay has published in prestigious journals and received several awards, including the Caryl Rusbult Early Career Award and being nominated as a "Rising Star" by the Association for Psychological Science.