“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:
“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.
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.”
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).
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?
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.
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!