Have you ever loved someone but didn’t feel internally relaxed with him or her? Have you experienced a longing to connect, but something kept disrupting the closeness you wanted?
It’s frustrating to love someone but not experience the trust and safety that would allow the relationship to deepen. The intimacy we want may seem so close, yet sadly elusive.
Feeling emotionally safe is an essential foundation for any intimate relationship. Although not easy to build, it creates the necessary climate for closeness.
Some Elements of Emotional Safety
Feeling emotionally safe means feeling internally relaxed with a person. We feel free to let down our guard and show our authentic self, including our hurts, fears, and longings.
Defensiveness is one of four key factors (along with criticism, contempt, and stonewalling) that lead to troubled relationships, according to researcher John Gottman. What we often defend against is potential criticism, blaming, shaming, or rejection. We stay defended when we don’t feel safe. We may shield ourselves by being critical of others, minimizing their feelings or needs when they try to reveal them, or turning the tables on them when they express a discontent (“Well you’re not a good listener either!”).
When we feel safe with a person, we don’t need to be so defensive because there is little to defend against. As we feel consistently held with respect, kindness, and caring, we relax with a person. As we trust that our partner or friend has the intention, interest, and capacity to see us, hear us, and understand us—even if they fall short sometimes—we relax more and more with them, which strengthens the foundation for intimacy.
Of course, such intimacy deepens even more if we’re reciprocating by extending ourselves toward another’s world in a way that allows them to feel emotionally safe with us. It takes two self-aware and undefended people who are emotionally honest with themselves and each other to enjoy the dance of intimacy.
Being Ourselves and Being Truthful
One of the blessings of a truly intimate relationship is that we feel free to be ourselves with a person. If we’ve been hurt in past relationships, we may have vowed never to trust again. Our heart may display the hidden sign: “not open for business.”
It may be easier to feel free if we’re not inconvenienced by having to share our world with anyone. But the resulting isolation may lead to a dry and empty existence. Life is richer when we find a partner or friends with whom we can feel free to be ourselves and be connected.
As two people feel safe to be vulnerable with each other–expressing tender feelings and desires without fearing criticism or rejection–the connection grows.
Emotional safety also requires truth-telling and keeping agreements. We can’t feel safe with a person who is deceiving us or breaking agreements without discussion or renegotiation. Authentic, open communication is the life-blood of an intimate relationship.
Of course, no one is perfect, including ourselves. Trust will be inevitably broken, even in the best of relationships. But emotional safety can be restored through a mutual willingness to address the breach through open, non-defensive dialogue, such as by using the non-violent communication approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
There may be instances where we don’t feel emotionally safe due to our own unhealed wounds and fears from past relationships, whether in our family of origin or past partnership. As Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons state in their excellent book, Undefended Love:
“Finding intimacy begins with discovering ourselves…We have to be visible before we can be seen. We have to be available before our hearts can be affected. And we have to be present before we can be intimate.”
Taking the risk to show ourselves lets us sense whether or not we feel emotionally safe enough to continue being open and vulnerable. If we never take the risk to reveal our feelings and wants in a non-defended way, we may never give the relationship a chance to deepen.
It’s easier to love a person than to feel intimate with them. Intimacy requires emotional safety. Stay tuned for a future article on why it’s so important to feel emotional safety and what it takes to build it.