Fragilizing: What It Means And How To Stop It From Affecting Your Relationship

Uncomfortable emotions are difficult to deal with, especially in a relational context. 

Think about that time when your spouse wanted to go out on a Saturday night. You'd partied the last two weekends and you really wanted a weekend in but your partner was eager to go out and they wanted you to come along. Did you want to say no but didn't? Were you afraid of how they'd react? What about the time when a close friend of yours wanted to use your home as a venue for a birthday party? You'd just finished putting in new carpets and there was a lot more refurbishment to get done but you just didn't want to say no. You knew your friend would get upset and you didn't want to make them feel bad.

Both of those instances could have warranted a well-explained (and justified) refusal from your end but instead, you said yes. Maybe you even felt a tinge of resentment toward your partner and friend for not being able to do what you felt like doing that weekend and for having to clean up a big mess after the party at your house. While this might seem like something natural for you to do in all of your relationships, there is, in fact, a term for it — it's called fragilizing. And it's affecting your relationships. There's a very good chance it's a toxic relationship habit that most people think is healthy. 

What is fragilizing?

Think of an egg. It's very easy to break an egg because its shell is fragile. According to leadership coach and psychologist Dr. John Townsend, fragilizing is about treating your partner (or others) as very fragile individuals. It's about tip-toeing around their emotions for fear of upsetting them. And while in theory, this might not seem like an awful trait, in reality, fragilizing says a lot about your own inability to sit with the uncomfortable emotions that could arise with you saying no. You may think you're doing your spouse a favor by being selfless and accommodating but what you're actually doing is protecting yourself. You're protecting yourself from their angry or upset reaction and how that would make you feel as a result. 

There are many possible reasons why you're prone to fragilizing. Perhaps you grew up in a conflict-ridden household and wish to avoid arguments at all costs as an adult. Maybe you have a lot of anxiety surrounding disappointing the people you love. 

Fragilizing might look innocent, but it's actually negatively affecting your relationship. For one, you're setting yourself up for eventual failure because you're not speaking your truth to your partner. You're pushing your likes and dislikes down on the priority list and allowing room for blurred boundaries. If you've been doing it for years, it's also possible that you're building resentment — unconsciously or consciously — for your significant other. There are, however, ways to turn things around. 

Putting a stop to fragilizing has to start with you

More often than not, the way we behave gives us a lot of insight into who we are. Once you've uncovered your own anxious emotions surrounding disappointing others (and where they come from), it's time to put a stop to this behavior. 

Townsend recommends distinguishing between sensitive and/or reactive people and someone who is truly fragile. "As a psychologist, I have dealt with many fragile people, and, even if they want to hear hard truths, they are too damaged to hear them, and need intensive healing over time. A sensitive or reactive person, however, has deep feelings and may get upset easily, but he can still rally, adapt, function, perform and stabilize his feelings," he explained. It's highly possible that your partner might just be sensitive or highly reactive. Not going along with everything they want to do is not going to break them. You can even use yourself as an example, per Townsend. When was the last time you received some bad news? How did you handle it? Sure, you might have been upset for a little while but didn't you bounce back? The same logic applies to your loved one. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy specialist Debra Kissen told Refinery29 that it's important to flex your muscles of dealing with your partner's uncomfortable emotions. Start small and speak your truth firmly and kindly. It's an exercise in self-care that can change your relationship for the better.