Talk to Me! 6 Ways to Create Emotional Safety in your Relationship

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“Why didn’t you tell me?” “You never share with me!” “How come you are so quiet when I try to talk to you?” “Answer me!” “You’re so secretive!” “You never talk!” “Why don’t you ever tell me how you’re feeling?”

Have you said those things to your partner? Has your partner said any of the above to you?

How about when you do decide to share and the other person reacts defensively (yells, cries, criticizes) leaving you to make comments such as:

“That’s why I don’t tell you anything!”
“I can’t talk to you!”
“That’s not what I meant”
“I should’ve just kept my mouth shut!”

If the comments above sound familiar, if you’ve heard them or said them, chances are…at least one of you, probably both of you, do not feel safe in your relationship.

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When working with a new couple, one of the standard questions I ask is, “do you feel safe in your relationship?”

Usually people think I am talking about domestic violence in the form of physical violence (which I do ask more explicitly with a different question). When I ask if each partner in the couple relationship feels safe, I am referring to some of the following:

safe to express themselves
safe to share dissatisfaction about something their partner did
safe to share sexual fantasies
safe to share insecurities
safe to share their fears with one another
safe to have a conversation without it escalating to a full blown argument

The final question being:
Have you worked together to create a safe space for one another?
Usually, the answer is, no.

According to the merriam-webster dictionary the definition of safety is “freedom from harm or danger : the state of being safe. : the state of not being dangerous or harmful. : a place that is free from harm or danger : a safe place.”

A safe place requires that you do not feel as if you are at risk of harm or danger and with emotional safety it means knowing that you will not be criticized, blamed, rejected, or dismissed by your partner.

Maslow believed that people’s behaviors are motivated through different stages of five needs. The second stage of the hierarchy of needs being safety and security (emotional safety included), the third love and belonging, and the forth being esteem (accepted and valued by others).

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As you move through stage 2 through stage 4, there is a strong connection to feeling emotionally safe, loved and connected, and valued by others. If we think about that in the context of our romantic relationships, it seems reasonable to believe that if we are not having those needs met, it will show up in our behavior in a negative or maladaptive way. If those needs are being met, the behavior will probably be more loving, trusting, and positive.

If your partner does not share with you, if your partner shuts down, if your partner finds it easier to talk to other people than to talk to you, instead of engaging in name calling and blaming (you’re secretive, you don’t know how to express yourself, you never talk, you’re such a coward, you don’t respect me, etc), turn inward and ask yourself:

What am “I” doing or not doing that my partner is struggling to feel safe talking to me?

While we can not take full ownership of another person’s feelings, what we can do is acknowledge and hold ourselves accountable for how we are showing up in the relationship. What are you doing to create safety for yourself and for your partner?
  

6 Ways to Create Safety in your Relationship

1) Listen non-defensively – listen to understand the emotions and feelings coming up for your partner and validate them. Having empathy is important, however even if you are struggling with feeling empathy you can still practice validation. Usually, when people do not share it is because of fear of being misunderstood or dismissed. Vulnerability is nakedness, and most people do not feel comfortable being vulnerable with someone they feel is a potential threat. If you want your partner to open up, create a space in which they will be able to do so.

Damage is done when you: get defensive, tell your partner not to feel the way they do, name call and/or blame, dismiss what they are feeling/sharing, change the subject, do not acknowledge or speak to their feelings, make overall invalidating comments.

 Safety is created when you: validate their feelings, when you empathize with what they are sharing, when you listen non-judgmentally, when you do not internalize and make it about you, focus on trying to understand your partners feelings.

 
2) Let go of toxic thoughts about your partner
. Rather than holding them to old labels you may have for your partner (overly sensitive, stubborn, combative, weak), open yourself to seeing them differently. Extend a tabula rasa aka clean slate. Challenge your cognitions, and instead of thinking “She feels like this because she is overly sensitive” practice not labeling who she is or her emotions. If you hear your husband share his feelings, try not to jump to “of course he’s feeling this way, he never sees anyone else’s point of view” challenge yourself to ask questions rooted in what feelings are coming up for him. As soon as you realize you are labeling your partner, identify it as a toxic thought, and make the decision to change it!

Damage is done when you: hold your partner to old negative labels of who they are, are bought into the belief that they will never change, struggle to give your partner the benefit of the doubt.

Safety is created when you: give your partner an opportunity to show you something different, shift any negative/toxic thoughts to positive and loving thoughts, enter into the conversation open to experiencing them in a more positive light, practice trust.

 
3) Body language and Touch matter
. Body language matters a great deal in creating a safe space. Research shows that over 55% of communication is non-verbal. While there is some controversy around the actual percentage, current research tells us that it’s anywhere between 55% – 90%, in other words, it is pretty important. While words matter, body language matters just as much, if not more.

Damage is done when: you turn your back, roll your eyes, walk away, fold your arms, stand/sit at a distance, have a tense facial expression, sigh, etc

Safety is created when you: turn towards your partner, give them eye contact, make facial expressions that show them they have your attention, sit/stand in close proximity, touch their hand. In other words, join them where they are.

4) Emphasize and Reinforce your commitment. The most damaging reactions a partner can have is using exit language (I want out of this relationship, maybe we should break up, I want a divorce), or shutting down/withdrawing emotionally. These two behaviors are extremely damaging as they lead the partner to feel unsafe, insecure, and abandoned. If you want to create a safe space, reminding yourself and your partner that you are in this together and committed to figuring things out is imperative to creating a safe space. Statements such as “we really need to figure this out” “we are better than this” “we’ve got this” “I’m not going anywhere” “I may be feeling hurt right now, but that doesn’t mean we are breaking up” all support reinforcing the fact that you are committed to your partner.

Damage is done when you: use exit language (break up, divorce, moving out, etc.), withdraw/shut down emotionally, and/or give your attention to other people.

Safety is created when you: make “we” statements around resolutions, talk about future hopes and goals for the relationship, speak to the commitment such as “we will get through this,” and comments/statements to let your partner know that you are committed to figuring things out and continuing to work on the relationship.

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5) Thank Them – whenever your partner shares with you, regardless of the content and how it made you feel, thank your partner for opening up. Thank them for trusting you, thank them for being vulnerable in front of you, let them know that you appreciate learning more about them. It does not matter if you do not see eye to eye, what matters is that you trust one another enough to have the conversation.

 Damage is done when you: do not acknowledge when your partner has been vulnerable and/or make negative comments around them having brought up a particular subject matter.

Safety is created when you: acknowledge that being vulnerable is not easy, thank them for trusting you enough to share their feelings, encourage them to continue to open up and know that they will be met with understanding, love, and trust.

6) Be Consistent – with your words and actions. Consistency builds trust, because you know what to expect, words and actions are aligned, you learn you can count on your partner. Be consistent with your partner, if you say you are going to do something, do it. If your behaviors and your words are not consistent with one another, it will be hard for your partner to trust you. If you are consistently inconsistent, you are ultimately sending a message to your partner that you can not be trusted.

Damage is done when you: make promises that you do not keep, treat your partner lovingly and shower them with attention one day, and then have limited interaction with them the next day for no reason, you tell your partner that they can call you anytime and you will be there for them and when they call you are not available/do not pick up. Damage is done when you commit to do something and do not follow through. Inconsistency and unpredictability cause people to be constantly on guard which is a major cause of anxiety and stress, making it nearly impossible for someone to feel safe.

Safety is created when you: follow through on what you say you are going to do, keep your word, establish trust by being consistent. Be yourself at all times and if you put your best foot forward in the beginning of the relationship, then put your best foot forward throughout your relationship. Consistency sends a message to others that you can be trusted.

Remember, you are part of a couple relationship and if either you or your partner does not feel safe in any capacity, then you both play a part in what has been created. When emotional safety is created, conversations are better, trust is established, connection is stronger, and sex is better! The great news is that at any point, the two of you can make a decision to create safety in your relationship, as long as you are both committed to the process and take ownership of your role.

As always, best of luck creating the relationship you desire!

 

Make this “Your Year!” An Intention Setting Guide for Couples and Individuals

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I’ve heard clients, friends, and family make comments such as, “this is going to be my year,” “last year was not my year,” “I’m hoping that this will be my year.” I’ve noticed that making it their year is contingent on some sort of achievement or gain. It often sounds like: “this year I plan to get in shape,” “I hope to get a promotion,” “I will become a homeowner,” “I plan to find a partner,” “I’m hoping to get engaged,” etc. What do you need to experience, see, or accomplish to consider this “your year?”

Are you goal oriented? So, what are your goals for the new year? If you’re a goal oriented person, that question will not bother you, in fact, it may stimulate you. You may be able to fire those goals out to anyone who asks in a manner that exudes an eloquent confidence with specifics around steps and dates within the year in which you plan to achieve those goals. Congratulations, on your ability to focus, create detailed task lists and actually complete them! Being goal oriented supports many people, some people thrive from setting goals, competing, and healthy stress. For those of you out there that embrace the word, “goal,” who turn that energy into action, (and I say this sincerely) yay you!

For many others (the vast majority), the mere word, “goal” brings with it feelings of pressure, anxiety, stress and expectation (immediate migraine). I have observed clients show signs of distress during session, such as fidgeting, rapid heart rate and speech when the word, “goal” is brought up since there are various cognitions and feelings attached to it. The thought of having to sit down and come up with a “plan” around achieving your “goals” for the new year can feel like going on a job interview when you have just been laid off! In which there is a lot riding on what you do, you fear judgment, and there is a belief that you have to get everything just right in order to be considered a success and worthy of being on the team! You either get the job or you don’t. You either pass or fail.

The idea of setting intentions seems so much friendlier, when the word intention is shared during session, clients usually breath deeper, become pensive , speak softly and share in a more concise way. The word intention is soothing, it evokes hope, a gentle nudge. Rather than the idea of sitting across from someone in a stuffy suit on the other end of a desk in an unfamiliar setting who you feel will judge you, I encourage you to envision a cup of hot chocolate or tea in hand, perhaps a glass of wine or beer and sitting back on a comfy sofa, legs propped up, sitting next to an encouraging family member or close friend and discussing some things that you would like to do or have always dreamed about doing and then envision making that a reality. Think about how you can create the life you want in the new year, and yes, I mean this year!

A goal is measurable, it places value, either you achieve your goal or you fail (that seems harsh)! It is often born in the rational, 3-D mind, is black or white and can be non-forgiving

Intentions come from within, your deepest desires, the song in your heart and the energy of your soul coming together to create an intention. Intentions are compassionate, forgiving, ever growing, and evolving.

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How to Set Intentions for yourself:

Step 1: Commit to/Set aside time to relax and be fully present with yourself. Some people find this works best while they meditate, however if meditation is not something that you believe works for you, finding a quiet place where you are comfortable works just as well.

Examples for quiet time/a quiet place: Sitting in a warm bath (a lavender or vanilla scented candle, bath salt or bath gel can enhance the experience), drinking a warm beverage in your favorite chair, sitting in nature (in the park watching the birds, squirrels, the leaves sway in the trees, at the beach, the ocean waves, the stillness of a lake, in your car parked under a tree, in NYC you can park by the Hudson or East River, etc). Give yourself at least 60 minutes, turn electronics off, let your loved ones know you will be unavailable and prioritize listening to yourself.

Step 2: Take deep breaths (to calm your heart rate) and allow thoughts of what you enjoy most in life to surface, what about life makes you smile, what makes you feel like moving freely and laughing, when do you feel like the most authentic version of yourself, what would you like to create, and what do you wish you had more time to do?

Step 3: Once you have created the opportunity to think, reflect, and envision, write down the questions above and write down what your thoughts are about them. The act of writing them down is cathartic, it supports bringing thoughts and feelings that may have been residing dormant within you to the surface. Once brought to the surface they bring with them the awareness necessary to support intentions to manifest. In other words, writing brings with it an awareness of your deepest thoughts and feelings which you may have been unaware of, having this awareness will empower you to bring about the change you seek.

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Examples of Individual Intentions:

I intend to recognize at least one positive thing in every situation. (this will support elevating mood, and appreciation).

I intend to take ownership of my role in situations, understanding that everyone plays a role in an outcome. (this will promote self-awareness and internal growth)

I intend to practice trust in the outcome of everyday and identify a lesson/positive even when things do not go according to my plan. (this will support letting go of rigid attachments, and decreasing anxiety)

I intend to do more of what makes me smile, such as reading and spending more time with friends. (this will support happiness and a sense of fulfillment)

I intend to use my natural gifts more often to support myself as well as others. (this will support self-esteem, self-worth and sense of purpose)

I intend to lead an active lifestyle, to keep myself as healthy as possible to be around for my loved ones. (this promotes elevated mood due to the release of endorphins and a sense of accomplishment)

I intend to acknowledge when fears are limiting me and make a decision to practice trust around my own ability to handle any outcome. (this will decrease anxiety and support growth and self-esteem)

I intend to recognize when past wounds are influencing decisions and move towards making decisions rooted in love and trust to create a life of fulfillment in my authenticity. (this will support healing and self actualization)

I intend to practice appreciation everyday for the life I am already living (this supports gratitude, happiness, and contentment)

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How to Set Intentions for your Relationship:

Step 1: Discuss your desire to come up with intentions for your relationship in a collaborative manner. Each of you can identify what tool you will be using to begin (a notepad, phone app, or in a word document) so that you can refer back to the questions and answers throughout the year and also provide a copy to one another.

Step 2: Think/Reflect around what type of relationship you would like to create. Answer the following questions: When was I happiest in the relationship? When did I feel safest? How do I enjoy receiving love? How do I enjoy showing love? What do I still want to do individually? What do I want to do with my partner? Do I believe we are working as a team? When do I feel most connected? How are we connecting? What are our couple strengths? What areas would I like us to grow in?

Step 3: Once you have both written and reflected on the questions above, schedule a time to sit together and share your responses. Use this time to truly connect, view it as a positive experience, and rid yourselves of all distractions (electronic devices). Allocate at least a couple of hours to the conversation, perhaps while sharing a meal. Together you can gain insight around your partner and set intentions for your relationship which you are aligned with and both take ownership around.

Examples of Relationship Intentions:

We intend to listen to one another from a place of love and trust in an effort to practice empathy, compassion, and validation. (this will support arguing less)

We intend to recognize old coping mechanisms and make a decision to be unguarded and vulnerable. (this will support conflict resolution, de-escalating, and connection)

We intend to continue to grow our relationship based on how we relate to one another and the place we have in one another’s hearts and not be influenced by the expectations and views of others. (this supports overall happiness, stepping away from roles imposed by family and society)

We intend to share our truth, views, and opinions with our partner to promote understanding, and not impose those said views and opinions on them. (this will support safety and connection).

We intend to spend quality time together being fully present and engaged. (this will support connection, intimacy, and trust).

We intend to continue to get to know one another as we recognize that we are individuals who continue to grow, evolve and change. We will not assume to know what the other is thinking or feeling, we will approach one another with love and curiosity. (this will promote intimacy, attraction, and connection)

We intend to create a safe space for one another by communicating in a validating, compassionate manner, being mindful of our tone and body language. (this will support intimacy and safety)

Ready? you Set your Intention…now, Go!

So now that you have created your individual and/or relationship intentions, come up with ways to ensure those intentions come to fruition. In order for intentions to manifest, you must not only think about them, you must have a deeper awareness of the fact that they exist and then practice something different.

If one of your individual intentions was “to recognize when fears are limiting me and make a decision to practice trust around my ability to handle any outcome.” The action would be the awareness around what you are fearing. Example: Let’s say that you are not going out socializing because you do not have as many friends as you once had. You have convinced yourself that you just do not want to go out, you are an introvert, do not really need or like people and just want to stay to yourself. While this may be true for some people, for many people it is not and the recognition may be around the fact that you are fearful that you can not make new friends, that you are not interesting, that others find you boring and that you will have a difficult time. Once you are aware of that fear, the next step is practicing something different. You can join a meetup with people who have similar interests, join a club, begin a new healthy hobby such as walking or jogging, all with the intention to meet new people. If that seems overwhelming to you, you may make a decision to go to therapy to work on shyness and discover social anxiety may be what has been standing in your way. You have increased your awareness and decided to do something different, you are being intentional.

In your couple relationship, if you intend to “recognize old coping mechanisms and make a decision to be unguarded and vulnerable” what does that look like in awareness? Example: You and your partner have a disagreement, he wants to go out for dinner and you want to stay in. He begins to say that you always want to stay in and he is bored staying in. You hear that as him calling you boring. You may get defensive. Your defensiveness may look like shutting down (not saying anything), lashing out (name calling, screaming), walking away, beginning to laugh (deflecting with humor or passive aggressive sarcasm), use of exit language (I can’t deal with this anymore, I’m going to pack my bags and leave, I think we should get a divorce). Those are all coping mechanisms aka guards, aka defense mechanisms.

Do you know what yours are? (once again, awareness). Ask yourself, what are my  defense mechanisms? How do I protect myself? If you do know what yours are, you now have the opportunity to do something different. If you usually internalize what people share and shut down, make the decision to share differently, stating, “that was a trigger for me, I heard that as you calling me boring.” In that simple statement you are now doing something intentionally different and giving your partner the opportunity to show up differently as well. If you are prone to lash out, escalate the argument quickly, engage in name calling, start to yell and blame, then your something different will come in the form of learning how to self-soothe. Recognizing that you have been triggered and turning inward to feel better. Sharing, “I’m upset and need to take a few minutes to calm down before we continue to have this conversation” will be the intentional change needed for a different outcome. The awareness will lead to increased intentionality.

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Begin with a quiet space,  a restful heart, and a quiet mind. Set your intentions and practice awareness. When awareness and intentionality exist simultaneously, the desires from within are able to manifest. Set your intention, hold yourself accountable, do something different and allow life to unfold.

The fact is, that every year is your year.

This is already your year,

How will you decide to experience it?