In a previous article I discussed how emotional safety is an essential foundation for intimate partnerships and close friendships. If we can deeply understand how intimacy gets disrupted, we can become more mindful about what it takes to create emotionally safe relationships. We’re wired with a human longing for secure, satisfying connections, but sadly, we may not be fully aware of how we create barriers to the intimacy we want.
Feeling emotionally safe means feeling internally relaxed and open. A nourishing intimacy can happen when barriers melt and hearts open, while also maintaining appropriate boundaries as necessary. When we’re intimate, we’re feeling connected. When we’re not connected, we feel distant, protective, or cautious.
Researcher John Gottman has identified criticism and contempt as intimacy-busters. In fact, contempt is the number one predictor of divorce, according to Gottman. Whenever we diminish a person through hurtful criticisms or sarcasm, we trigger their self-protective mechanisms. Just as a flower won’t bloom until conditions are supportive, our tender self won’t bloom unless we feel internally safe. Consistent respect, kindness, and appreciation, which are antidotes to criticism and contempt, are necessary conditions for a deepening intimacy.
In romantic relationships, love is a good start. But if we want to enjoy a healthy, secure attachment and the enduring connection of mature love, we need to feel safe. Such safety creates a foundation for emotional and sexual intimacy.
Early in a romantic relationship, our sexual attraction is often strong. We may wonder why it has faded over time. We might conclude that this isn’t the right partner or perhaps stray into an affair.
One reason that attraction may lessen is the loss of emotional safety. Trust is a fragile flower. If we’re feeling frequently blamed or shamed rather than respected and cherished, our tender heart may go into hiding as we feel unsafe to show our vulnerable self.
We might think we should be stronger and just let things roll off our back. And in fact it may help to explore whether we’re taking things too personally, losing perspective, or feeling overly offended by light-hearted teasing. But hurtful teasing or shaming that poke our partner’s tender spots are likely to push him or her away, thereby frustrating our desire to connect.
If you’re experiencing a loss of emotional, sexual, or spiritual intimacy, you might want to explore your possible contribution to the dilemma. Are you feeling angry, hurt, or fearful and acting-out these feelings indirectly rather than expressing your feelings and needs in a non-blaming, mature way? Do you tend to react defensively or not take your partners feelings and preferences seriously enough? Is your partner distancing from you because you insist on being right, or you’re not listening respectfully, or you’re using words, body language (eye-rolling, head-shaking), or a denigrating tone of voice that raises your partner’s shields?
Building emotional safety begins by becoming mindful about what not to do in relationships. The subtle or not-so-subtle ways we blame, criticize, and shame people is kryptonite to intimacy. We may not be fully aware of the slow, steady drip of harm we inflict on our relationships by lashing out or being snarky in our communication.
Feeling emotionally safe allows us to feel free to share our feelings, thoughts, and desires without undue fear. It takes courage and mindfulness to understand the shadow parts of our psyche that might unknowingly sabotage our longing for love and connection. When two people are committed to the process of creating a nurturing, supportive relationship and are willing to develop the skills necessary to create a safe climate to do so (perhaps with the help of couples counseling), relationships are more likely to thrive and endure.