One partner in a couple who have been married nearly four decades, reported that she felt controlled by her husband. When asked if it was always the case, she responded in the affirmative and when taken a step further, and asked why she married him, she shrugged her shoulders and sadly said, “Low self-esteem, I guess.”
She admitted that their interactions over the years only served to deepen the divide between them. At a loss to know how to resolve her dilemma, she was willing to do what she could to establish some semblance of control in an otherwise untenable situation by working on improved self-care that could reflect how she wanted to feel.
Another woman who had been married nearly a dozen years and is now single, expressed that there were times when she felt judged and criticized by her spouse and was often hyper-vigilant so as not to incur disapproval. In symbolic conversation with him (since he was not available for a face to face dialog) she said she wished he had been kinder and more patient.
Neither of these two women would say that they felt emotionally safe in their relationships. Both were abundantly aware that, on some level, they permitted the behavior to continue, since each of them had options to leave and chose not to. The first is still in the relationship and the second was widowed. The former is not motivated to leave, but is contemplating if it is possible and what it would take to move away from this aspect of her life.
What is the origin of emotional safety?
In an ideal situation, a newborn would bond with the parent from the moment he or she leaves the comfort of the womb. Each of his or her needs were met, for comfort and nourishment in utero. Sadly, that is not always the case once the little one is in the world. In circumstances where abuse and neglect occur, a child is at risk for developing an insecure attachment style, identified as ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’. It could easily set the tone for adult relationships.
In the process of writing this article I came upon a quiz offered on the Psych Central site that measured attachment style and was relieved to have read the results indicating a secure attachment style. Does it mean that I don’t have angst about relationships and what they entail? Not necessarily so. Even though I did grow up with my needs met, support offered and encouragement in abundance, there have been times when my relationship skills were less than stellar and my sense of safety in question.
In my marriage, I experienced a lack of that security when the ways in which my husband expressed dissatisfaction landed as overtly critical, rather than constructive. It was then that I needed to examine ways to feel emotionally protected… Shields Up! That cycle was perpetuated throughout the time we were wedded. By the time he had passed, I felt a sense of relief that included a multitude of sub-emotions, gratitude that he was no longer suffering and freedom from the emotional turmoil that swirled about our paradoxical marriage.
Now, 19 years later, I maintain a watchful eye and shielded heart when venturing into new relationship territory, as I question whether I will need to ‘guard the castle,’ from marauding intruders into my serene emotional abode. Easier to write about, speak about and counsel in that realm than to live it day-to-day.
Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD is the author of Why Can’t You Read My Mind?, which focuses on destructive paradigms in relationships. He encourages readers to be aware of toxic thoughts they may be holding against their partner, to be emotionally consistent which is not always easy when one or both are facing mood instability, as well as acting in support of the relationship.
What are hallmarks of an emotionally safe relationship?
- Trust that the other person has your best interest at heart and treat them as if you do.
- Accountability and reliability.
- Saying what you mean, meaning what you say, but not saying it meanly.
- No name calling or use of demeaning language.
- Taking responsibility for your own feelings, not casting blame.
- No verbal threats.
- Treat your relationship as if it is a living breathing entity.
- Give it room to grow rather than stagnate from neglect.
- Be your partner’s most ardent cheerleader.
- Don’t hold your partner hostage with demands for how a relationship should be.
- Negotiate your individual needs.
- Touch by consent only.
- Don’t withhold resentments only to use them as ammunition.
- Be open to having inevitable difficult conversations, going for a win-win solution.
- See your partner as an ally and not an adversary.
- Recognize that relationships are not 50/50, but 100/100 with each partner bringing all of who they are to the table.
- Be willing to break destructive patterns, knowing that history is not destiny.
- Look to parental role models for what to emulate and what to avoid.
Others’ thoughts on emotional safety:
“In order to feel emotionally safe, I have to feel like there’s mutual honesty and respect. As far as with colleagues, who we don’t get to choose, open communication is key to developing a connection.”
“I give my undivided attention. I make sure they feel heard and understood! Because those are the things that are most important to me.”
“Respect, honesty, and credibility. Lying for any reason, is a deal breaker.”
“Respect, communication, and honesty. Lying in any form is a deal breaker and relationship ender.”
“Authenticity and Honesty. Wearing who you are on your sleeve for all to see and never hiding from your truth. Family, friends or lovers may not always agree with your truth but if they truly love you they will honor and respect it as you honor and respect theirs. Namaste.”
“YOU can’t create emotional safety; if they’re not in your ‘safety zone’ from the beginning, there’s nothing you can do to change that. All you have to do is set up your own parameters and stick with them.”
“I think it only requires that both parties are willing to make a space that is emotionally safe. If that is true, you have one by default. And if it is not true, you don’t have one. Both my husband and I remark often at how different it is when the two of us talk versus either one of us in previous relationships. Early on in our relationship we committed to honesty between us, especially when it is hard. And each time we talk in that way it builds the trust that it is safe to do so.
“I don’t think it is all that different for people that are not significant others. You start with small things and if the reaction is without judgement or expectation, you have a ‘good’ conversation. An emotionally safe relationship builds from there. ‘Build’ being the key word.”