How to Create Emotional Safety in a Relationship
How do you create emotional safety in a relationship? It’s not a 1-2-3 process, but it’s also not so complex that there aren’t guidelines for making it happen. Obviously, you want to avoid sarcasm, accusations, name-calling, defensiveness and offensive body language. Read on for guidelines on what makes for genuine emotional intimacy.
Most couples come to see me and want to jump right into talking about major relationship problems: he doesn’t spend enough quality times with the kids, she’s negative and critical, she hoards every penny, he can’t spend money fast enough. But talking about differences can’t be done in a productive way without feeling safe enough to share your honest emotions and thoughts openly. That can happen only if you believe that no harm will come to you in doing so—not only physical harm (that goes without saying), but emotional harm as well. If there’s a fear of any type of reprisal, forget about creating a safe space. Instead, seek therapy to learn how to create it.
In my experience (which includes my own three-decades-plus marriage after years of dating), couples want to trust their partners to do the following:
- Listen actively and attentively: This can only happen when you’re doing nothing else (no TV, no computer, no phone). It involves making eye contact, using facial expressions to encourage your partner to share and not making negative faces. It requires you to hold your words as thoughts (right ‘em down if you must) until your partner has finished speaking. It demands that you reply appropriately.
- Be curious, not judgmental: You might loathe what your partner is saying, but that doesn’t make him or her a bad person. Rather than shut someone down with judgment, ask questions so that you understand better where your loved one is coming from. Too often we judge before we fully understand what’s being said.
- No retaliation: There needs to be an agreement that you won’t be frozen out or sandbagged at another time due to sharing your thoughts or feelings. Revenge is childish and is not part of emotional safety. Trust is built upon believing that sharing will only help and never harm you, even when you’re sharing painful truths.
- No domination: You either want “power with” your partner or you want “power over” him or her. You can’t have both. Sometimes you’re going to win an argument and sometimes you’ll lose. If you can’t abide that dynamic, you do not have what it takes to be in an intimate relationship. Safety and trust come from knowing that your spouse isn’t trying to out-argue you, only trying to understand you (assuming they’re not abusers). This also means sharing talking time. Use a timer if necessary, so that you each have equal air time.
- Lead with empathy and compassion: Focus on what you know about your partner that makes him or her say certain things or feel a particular way. Try to give the benefit of the doubt that someone is being reactive from her or his history and is not trying to eat or bury you alive. Much of what we say and do that gets us into trouble is because we’re reacting too quickly to internal triggers. Remember that what someone says is about them, not about you, even if it has your name attached to it.
- Offer lots of validation: Indicate that you understand what someone is saying with statements such as, “I can see how you’d feel that way; I totally understand; In your shoes, I might feel the same way; I don’t like to hear what you’re saying, but I see where you’re coming from.” Nod your head. Rather than try to make your partner feel bad or wrong, let her or him know that you recognize his or her viewpoint.
- Toss in some compassion: If your spouse is suffering emotionally, be kind. It doesn’t make him or her right or you wrong. Being compassionate costs nothing. It makes you seem like a nice person or a nicer one than you’re feeling like at the moment. If you’re compassionate, it sets the tone for the discussion and you might even receive and appreciate some of the same in return.
- Prioritize emotional safety over problem resolution: Sometimes it takes several conversations to resolve an issue. If things get too heated (aka unsafe), stop discussion and resume when tempers have cooled. Don’t leave that to chance. Pinpoint a time to pick up where you left off. Agreeing to end discussion is preferable to one of you clamming up or walking away or blowing up.
- Keep talking about emotional safety: If you have a disagreement, Monday night quarter-back it with a follow up talk about how you both did on Tuesday. Tell your partner which behaviors made you feel safe and which didn’t. Share what you wish you’d done differently. Apologize where appropriate or, at the least, say that you feel badly for hurting your partner’s feelings.
Practice generating emotional safety in all your relationships—at home, work or play.
Make sure you create safe space especially for and with your children. If you don’t, you may end up wondering down the road why they don’t want to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Think of safe space as a work in progress, not a perfect destination. If you and your partner have difficulty creating or maintaining safe emotional space, it’s time to pay a visit to your friendly, neighborhood therapist.