Without it, you’ll feel like something is missing.
September 26, 2021
In my experience, after physical safety, the number one challenge to healthy relationships is a lack of emotional safety.
In working with individuals and couples — and with myself — I see it over and over. It’s the off-limit topics that make relationships feel unsafe. It’s the unspoken wants and grievances that keep partnerships superficial or in pain.
Through my clients, and a lifetime of my own trial and error, I learned an important lesson. Before we make long-term relationship commitments, we must know that we can talk about the things we believe we can’t talk about. In fact, they’re the only things we have to talk about.
It doesn’t matter if it’s about money, monogamy, religion, politics, or sex.
Suppose you can’t find a way to communicate about the things that matter to you? In that case, be prepared to lose yourself in the relationship.
I recently participated in a therapist training on the impact of porn on partnerships. One of my takeaways was how few couples have an agreed-upon contract or understanding about what they think is acceptable or unacceptable behavior.
Then, a few months, years, or decades into the relationship, all hell breaks loose when they finally blow up and say what they think.
Do you know what your partner’s spending habits are?
What about their beliefs about having, raising, and disciplining children?
Is flirting infidelity?
Does one of you vote liberal, and the other conservative? Do you care?
Are you religious and your partner’s an atheist?
Does one of you crave travel but the other wants to stay at home?
Do you like the beach and they love Disney World?
It’s Not About Agreement
We don’t experience emotional safety when we finally agree on everything. A couples therapist mentor of mine says that most couples believe they will have to agree to disagree on fifteen or twenty percent of their issues. However, her experience says that most partners will end up agreeing to disagree about their differences closer to sixty-five percent of the time.
And that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong.
Emotional safety isn’t about agreeing. It is about collaboration, negotiation, and teamwork to solve problems no matter what they are.
How to Cultivate Emotional Safety
It doesn’t just happen. It’s hard work that many couples never do. But when partners work together as a team on this stuff, I’ve seen remarkable shifts in relationships.
Many of us go into relationships believing we know our partners inside and out. The reality is that most of us are still struggling to know ourselves, much less ‘get’ somebody else.
We are two separate people. We have different personalities, neurologies, psychosocial and cultural histories, and a completely different set of maturation experiences. So, the likelihood that we can read our partner’s mind is, at best, remote.
Allow Mutual Influence
To understand each other, we need to know what triggers our reactivity and what behaviors trigger our partner’s reactivity.
Just because you were raised in a boisterous house where everybody yelled at each other, doesn’t mean your partner was raised the same way.
We need to be willing to modify the behaviors that cause the reactivity. Not because either of us is wrong, but because we care about our partner’s sense of safety with us, and we want to increase that.
If I think I already know what you’re going to say, I’ll stop listening. I will be busy preparing my argument against your position.
Listening well requires that we suspend judgment and meet our partner every day as though it’s the first time. We start with the intention to get to know them once again. Because we understand we are both changing all the time.
If we’re not keeping up with the changes, we’re going to wake up one morning with a stranger.
Learn to Tolerate Discomfort
If we avoid the minor discomforts, we’re surely going to avoid the big ones. Minor discomforts offer us a practice ground for the big ones.
When I was married, there were things we didn’t talk about because we didn’t know how. It felt awkward to bring up something once again and watch him roll his eyes, indicating the unspoken, “Not this again.” We blamed each other for our lack of skills.
Today, it still isn’t easy. But the short-term discomfort of talking about hard things is worth the long-term sense of safety.
Keep Each Other Accountable with Humor, Kindness, and Persistence
How often has your partner responded well to criticism, nagging, or passive-aggressive jabs?
Kindness and humor are salves for open wounds. When we can laugh at ourselves, and together laugh at our foibles, everything lightens up.
Have you ever caught yourself in the middle of a ridiculous conflict that is irrelevant? Next time, try interrupting yourself with an “Oh my God, this is nuts, honey!” See what happens. You have nothing to lose and a day or two of getting along to gain.
Persistence means you don’t give up at the first sign of disagreement or misunderstanding. You might walk away to regroup, but then you come back having found new ways or words to communicate your ideas more effectively. And you try to meet your partner where they are, not where you think they should be.
Pay Attention to Your Partner’s Wishes
Just because your partner’s want seems trivial doesn’t mean it is. Our wants come from a history that no one else may fully understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to ignore them.
Telling your partner that you care about what matters to them, without explaining why their want doesn’t really matter, will give them a sense of emotional safety.
Identify and Express Your Wants as Requests, not Demands
Think about the last time you explained something that you wanted from your partner. Was there a hint of ‘if you don’t comply, you’re probably in trouble?’
A request allows the person on the receiving end to say yes, no, or maybe. After all, that’s what we want from them when they request something from us.
Focus on What Works, not on What Doesn’t
The “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. John Gottman, a well-known researcher on what does and doesn’t work in relationships, says that for every negative interaction during a conflict, a stable and happy partnership has five (or more) positive interactions.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. How are you doing?
Give What You Want to Get
When you love someone, you want them to feel it, right? And you want them to feel safe. So, think about having a conversation with your partner to make sure they’re feeling as safe and loved as they want or need to feel.
Walk together through each idea. Ask each other how you’re doing. And then listen with an open mind and an open heart. You have nothing to lose, and a relationship to gain.