This is Part 1 of a 3 Part Series on Emotional Safety in a Marriage.
When we talk about emotional safety what do we mean?
Maybe a quick story will help:
Years ago I met Pete and Jen. They seemed like an average family. Both had good jobs. Both worked extra hours occasionally.
I got involved’ a little too late. By the time they came to me, it was obvious Pete was broken and unwilling to continue the relationship.
In Pete’s words: “I’ve lost my manhood and humanity to that woman. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again!”
He was a mess.
Without placing full responsibility for the demise of their marriage on Jen (we are all responsibility for our lives and what we tolerate), I want to paint a picture of what happened. It’s a classic case of the lack of emotional safety in a relationship.
So what happened?
In his words…
“She criticizes me over every decision I make. But not just that, she undermines me. It’s often subtle, but it’s always there. She has a way of letting me know she doesn’t approve of the choices and decisions I make. Even the little ones.
“If I ever make a mistake, I always hear about it. ‘I told you so…’ or ‘I knew that was dumb, but you did it anyway.’
“Look, I know I’m not perfect…everybody makes mistakes…but that’s all they are: mistakes. It’s not like I lost the house gambling. She criticizes every $#@&* decision I make.
“I can’t stand it. And I can’t take it anymore!”
There is obviously more to the situation (we’ll get to some of that later), but Jens constant negative criticism caused Pete to become emotionally closed. Verbally silent. Unwilling to be vulnerable. Bottom line is he wasn’t free to be himself in their relationship. This is a classic picture of what it means to feel unsafe in your marriage.
Let’s Get Technical for a Minute
Let’s start with a technical definition, then this article will explore six characteristics of an emotionally safe relationship. The six terms I’ve selected to demonstrate this are:
What is Emotional Safety?
Let’s start with a quick definition. Emotional safety in a marriage is the assurance you can be who are without judgment, criticism or rejection.
Merriam-Webster gives a definition of security that fits this well:
The quality or state of being secure:
a: freedom from danger: Safety
b: freedom from fear or anxiety
c: freedom from the prospect of being laid off
It is an emotional state achieved in attachment relationships wherein each individual is open and vulnerable. (Wikipedia)
In other words, trust. A relationship where you trust one another on a deep, emotional level. A place where you feel safe to be yourself.
It’s that sense that allows us to let down walls so we can connect with our spouse on a deeper level.
We can’t ‘feel’ close if we are afraid of being rejected. So being safe means we are relaxed enough to be vulnerable. This can only happen when we know we are fully accepted.We can’t ‘feel’ close if we are afraid of being rejected. So being safe means we are relaxed enough to be vulnerable. This can only happen when we know we are fully accepted. Click To Tweet
My wife likes to use the phrase: Celebrated, not tolerated.
I like that. It pinpoints the heart of emotional safety. You trust your partner enough to be transparent and open because you know you are celebrated. Flaws and all.
Trust is that magic word. It’s a cornerstone of what we teach and believe at The Healthy Marriage. You cannot fully commit to a relationship if you don’t trust that the other person loves you and accepts you.
How Jen Lost Her Marriage
Back to Pete and Jen…
Pete knew Jen would never harm him. Physically he had the upper hand. He was bigger and stronger. So it wasn’t an issue of physical (or even verbal) abuse. It was an issue of trust. Pete didn’t trust her with his heart.
Ironically, Jen was the one to reach out. She wanted to know why her husband was so closed. Why there was so much distance in their marriage.
It didn’t take long for me to see first-hand how berating she could be.
Even during our sessions together she would often correct him. Over silly things. Pete? He nodded and closed up more.We usually either feel celebrated or tolerated in marriage? Being tolerated equals rejection. Celebrated equals acceptance. Click To Tweet
Sadly, Jen couldn’t see how she was contributing to their problems. In her mind, it was all about him needing to learn to communicate. He needed to be more open. Talk more. Be more outgoing.
What she didn’t see was his lack of trust. Sure, he felt confident she was faithful to him. But that’s not the essence of trust. Real trust implies you can be vulnerable because you know you are accepted, loved unconditionally, and celebrated as a person. Pete felt none of that.
Eventually, they separated and divorced. I haven’t spoken with them in a while, but the affects of that relationship were toxic for both of them. Pete is insecure, unsure and isolated. He still doesn’t trust well.
Jen is bitter, negative and toxic. She believes all men are the same. Partly because she keeps running to the same type man as Pete. She hasn’t yet figured out she picks the same type of man (insecure to begin with), and that she re-creates Pete in every man she connects with.
Most of this transpires because neither Pete nor Jen know how to have an emotionally safe relationship. Violating this principle is continuing to wreck their lives.
6 Characteristics of Emotional Safety
Let’s look at the characteristics of emotional safety. What it looks like. Feels like. And behaves like.
Below are six key components. They comprise the framework of safety and security in a healthy marriage. There is more that can (and probably should) be added to this list. But these six will help lay a solid foundation for your marriage.
In Pete and Jen’s case, trust was not about fidelity. Pete was confident that Jen was faithful. She wasn’t cheating.
The real issue had to do with his emotional safety.
Trust is knowing that your spouse has ‘your’ interest at heart, not just their own.
It’s knowing that your spouse wants the best for you. That they invest their time, energy and resources to make sure you know you are celebrated.
Trust knows when push comes to shove, they love you more than they love themselves. You are confident that the decisions they make are in your favor.
Pete was lacking this confidence.
By the way, I chose the to use the story of Pete and Jen specifically. There are countless examples available. Many are where the wife is the victim of an unsafe environment. Don’t let this fool you. There are many examples where the man experiences the lack of trust in his partner.
We will look things that kill emotional safety in the next section. As we do, keep in mind that one symptom is a lack of openness. It is not a personality issue (some people are introverts); it is an issue of feeling safe – loved, accepted and valued.
Billy Graham once said:
Nothing can bring a real sense of security into the home except true love. Billy Graham
One of the first signs I look for in a healthy relationship is trust. Can you trust your mate to always have your best interest at heart; even if it means they lose? If not, you have the framework of an unsafe relationship.
The feeling of insecurity is inimical to our sense of well-being, as it causes anxiety and stress, which harms our physical and mental health. It is no surprise then that, according to some surveys, workers across the world value job security more highly than wages. Ha-Joon Chang
Translate this into marriage: Without security that comes from trust, there is no relationship well-being.
Shared values doesn’t mean you enjoy or like the same things.
For example, my wife and I lived for a while in Colorado. We fell in love with the mountains. One thing we enjoyed doing together was hiking. We still love it.
Yet having a similar interest doesn’t guarantee shared values.
What Constitutes Shared Values
We may enjoy hiking, but have completely different values in friendships, spiritual desires, and how to ‘do’ family. Hiking will not keep us together, or help us move in the same direction. It is nice, but unnecessary. Many couples do not have shared interest. But their values match.
Values revolve around how you do life. It reflects what is important to you deep down. How you want to live your life.Values revolve around how you do life. It reflects what is important to you deep down. How you want to live your life. Click To Tweet
While my wife and I like to hike together, there are many hobbies she does not share with me. Our bucket lists look very different. Sky-diving, Scuba-diving and flying airplanes. These things are not on her list. Yet they are things I love.
What we share in common is faith, principles that govern our decisions, and a deep sense of belonging. We believe we belong together because we have a shared purpose. This gives us shared values. These are just a few, but they are important to us. We do life the same.
This is what I mean by shared values.
The Example of Money
The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.
It’s amazing how many couples are out of step with each other concerning their view of money. It goes much deeper than one being a saver; the other a spender.
Shared values show how you look at money; your mentality about what it represents and what it means. Spenders and savers can coexist though it makes for rough waters when tough decisions have to be made. But two different money values will struggle over almost every other issue.
Motivational speaker Brian Tracy says:
Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance.
Knowing how you will do life is crucial to a healthy marriage.
When a marriage is healthy, there is a mutual ability to be transparent. Knowledge you can be yourself and still be accepted.
One of my friends often quips when I introduce him, ‘I’ve known Joseph a long time…and I still love him!’ The joke gets old; but the security it brings our friendship is priceless.
Acceptance cancels rejection. When we know we are accepted it removes the fear of being abandoned emotionally.
Tara Brach is an author, teacher and psychologist. I like the way she describes acceptance:
My first book, ‘Radical Acceptance’, grew out of the suffering of feeling personally deficient and unworthy. Because most of us are so quick to turn against ourselves, the teachings and practices of radical acceptance continue as a strong current in ‘True Refuge’: nurturing a forgiving, understanding heart is a basic step on the path.
My wife often says, “Honey, I know you are not perfect, but your are perfect for me!” I smile as I write those words because they make me secure on a deep emotional level.
Acceptance doesn’t mean she likes all my decisions, or everything I do. It does mean that she knows I love her and would do nothing to intentionally hurt her.
Acceptance doesn’t mean we always see eye to eye or feel warm and fuzzy. It does mean that we love each other enough to allow for a bad day. A bad doesn’t equal bad character.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that I always understand her perfectly; but I do try. Our gender differences and personal perspective sometimes get cross-ways; but she accepts me as I am and doesn’t try to change me through manipulation. We talk openly about our desires, needs and wants.
Therefore, I trust her. I am safe.
Do you feel accepted in your relationship?
Do you know you are loved without reservation?
Do you feel you can be transparent with your spouse?
These are important questions we need to ask ourselves.
Our Quest for Acceptance
In the mid-1900’s, a Swiss physician named Paul Tournier developed a form of counseling that married traditional (modern) psychological practices with religious training (often termed psychospiritual). Through his years of developing this idea, he summarized it this way:
At the heart of personality is the need to feel a sense of being lovable without having to qualify for that acceptance.
Interesting that at the heart of man’s most valued pursuits is the quest for love and acceptance.
Marriage should be the proving ground for this attitude. When it is, health results. When it isn’t, all of life deteriorates.
When I’m confident in my relationship it produces two similar emotions:
1. Confidence. I know she is on my side in life. She will not abandon me, use me, or discard me.
2. Confidentiality. I know I can share anything with her and she will understand. Or if she doesn’t (because men and women are different), she will try.
Confident means I trust my partner will guard my secrets (inner fears and struggles), keep their word, and protect my heart at all cost.
Vicki Morgan tells the story about a time her husband, Bruce, made an off-hand joke at her expense at a company Christmas party.
Here’s how she relates it:
He was distributing gift certificates and gag gifts to people in the audience, and the scene was jovial. But when Bruce picked up the Cold Stone Creamery certificate to give away to someone in the crowd, he lightheartedly commented that it reminded him of his wife in bed. I couldn’t believe what was happening. The thoughts racing through my brain were something like His wife in bed? Are you kidding me? I couldn’t believe he could be so insensitive to me — to us! I was mortified…
As a result, I became emotionally unsafe for both of us.
This crass attempt at comedy at his wife’s expense wounded her. It made her feel insecure. Vulnerable.
An emotionally safe relationship should make us feel…safe! Not exposed.
Are You Confident in Your Relationship
Are you confident in your marriage? Do you believe your spouse will keep your confidence? Or do you fear you will be the butt of his jokes?
I once knew a guy who would constantly comment to his friends about his wife, ‘Here she is, you can have her!’ or ‘You want her, she’s all yours!’ They eventually divorced. Was it because of those statements? No, not really. But his comments revealed a disregard he held for his wife. Even if he was joking, it bred a lack of confidence in her. Eventually she did walk away.
A picture of a healthy marriage is one where both partners are confident (creating confidence and confidentiality) in their relationship.A picture of a healthy marriage is one where both partners are confident (creating confidence and confidentiality) in their relationship. Click To Tweet
Empathy is the ability to ‘be’ in your spouses place. To identify with them to love them better. To truly connect with their inner conflict, hurt and pain.
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
I like to add this:
Empathy doesn’t just feel FOR her; it feels WITH her.
When this happens, they forge a strong bond. A bond that is not easily broken.
Empathy brings freedom.Empathy doesn’t just feel FOR your spouse; it feels WITH them. Click To Tweet
Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. says:
“Empathy helps create emotional safety by affirming that our struggles are okay – not necessarily right or wrong, but okay. This helps us to let down our negative judgment and barriers. When you felt “Safe “as a child, you explored your surroundings. When you felt “safe “in the classroom, you raise your hand without fear.
When you feel safe in your relationship, you can express your emotional needs and be true to them – that’s emotional safety. And that’s a beautiful thing!”
We Don’t Have to Agree to Empathize
Empathy can happen even when we disagree. It has nothing to do with agreement; it has everything to do with understanding.
I might not agree how a person responds to a situation. But I can put myself in their place to see how they might feel the way they do.
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems. Stephen Covey
This is one of the biggest factors in emotional safety: feeling chosen.
I’m sure we can all relate to a situation in our life when we were not chosen.
Not Being Picked for the Team
I remember the first time I tried out for basketball in Middle School. The tryout was grueling. Even for a young boy.
But I was confident I did good. I also was on the track team with the same coach. I gave it my best but when the boys who made the team were asked to step forward; I wasn’t one of them. I felt humiliation. Rejection. Awkward. As if I had to come up with something to justify why I wasn’t chosen.
When We Don’t Feel Chosen
That sense of not being chosen eats away at our sense of identity.
On the flip side, when we know we are chosen, it gives us confidence, security and a sense of identity.
Our marriage is no different. It is our goal (at least in a healthy marriage) to make sure our spouse knows they are the one and only.
It often comes back around to that term: celebrated. We should feel celebrated, not tolerated.
When we feel celebrated as a person, it validates that we are chosen. Special.
Everybody should feel they are that special one for someone. It should be our spouse (it needs to be our spouse) that makes us feel that way.
You can’t imagine how many lives are broken because a careless spouse flirted with someone at an office party, or made an off-hand comment about another man (or woman). It breeds insecurity. It destroys that key component of a vibrant relationship – feeling chosen. Knowing you are special above all others.
Does your spouse know…really know…they are chosen by you above all others?
What can you do to ensure that your spouse feels emotionally safe with you?
This only scratches the surface of what it means to be in an emotionally safe relationship.
These characteristics build the framework for a healthy marriage. In the second part of this series we will discuss seven things that kill emotional safety. LINK
If you want to dig deeper into this issue I recommend reading John Gottman’s ‘The Science of Trust.’ (affiliate link)
If you are struggling in your marriage and don’t know what to do next, Dr. Lee Baucom offers insight in how to rebuild your relationship even if you feel you are the only one trying. Every relationship is at different stages. What works in one stage doesn’t necessarily work in another. It’s important to identify where you are, then get a game plan so you know exactly what you need to do. Check out ‘Save the Marriage’ to help you get practical help on what to do next.
I’d love to hear from you.
Which characteristic do you think is the most important? Why?
Leave me a comment and share your thoughts.
If you have a question, post it below.