This article is Part 2 or a 3 Part Series on Emotional Safety.
In the first installment I covered the characteristics of an emotionally safe relationship.
In this article we deal with 7 big things that kill a relationship and destroy emotional safety trust. in a marriage.
My wife loves Keanu Reeves. Not so much for his acting. I always say it’s because of his looks. She grins. Then adds, ‘I think he’s really a nice guy!’
What makes her say that? Well, several things.
He’s been caught giving up a bus seat for another passenger. Saying kind words to people who wait on him. Being friendly to people who ask for an autograph. The list really is endless.
The most recent event happened at an airport in Bakersfield, California when his flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles had to emergency land in Bakersfield.
Here’s a clip of that event in the life of Keanu. It demonstrates something very personal (and personable) about him.
Check out more on this story here.
In This Article
- What kills emotional safety in a marriage?
- Wrap Up
So, why does my wife think he is a nice guy? And why does it matter?
Her words: ‘He’s kind. So I trust him.’
For sure, neither my wife or I know Keanu personally. We can’t vouch for his beliefs, character or personal behavior in every situation. But…he has done enough in the public eye that makes him seem trustworthy.
When people are kind, genuine and authentic…when they seem to genuinely care about other people, they seem trustworthy.
This matters because it is one of the key ingredients of an emotional healthy relationship.
In Part 3 we will talk about how to build emotional trust in a marriage, but in this article I want to talk about things that can destroy trust; and ultimately kill emotional safety in a relationship.
We’ve all read stories of famous people who violated the sacred trust of their fans and it destroyed their careers. Whether it was an act of selfishness, they were rude, or simply disregarded their fan base, they hurt their career because they failed to connect. When this happens in a marriage, it damages emotional security.
Now that we know what emotional safety looks like, let’s talk about things that damage that sense of well being in a relationship.
What kills emotional safety in a marriage?
Here are 7 things that will destroy the safe zone in your relationship.
Keep in mind that these things can be communicated verbally and non-verbally. Body language is often more important than words. Never under-estimate the power of the signals you send without even meaning to.
John Gottman indicates that these first two items (criticism and contempt) are the most destructive (and often the most common) in unhealthy relationships.
Criticism can be anything from name calling, verbal threats, berating and sarcasm. Those are the verbal signals. Rolling your eyes, sighs, and shaking your head in disgust are the non-verbal signals.
Derogatory comments, even if they come as the result of a defense mechanism, are destructive to the relationship.
A couple of examples might help clarify:
Tom comes home from work and immediately begins to lay down the law to Sarah, his wife. She has had a full day with taking care of the kids, grocery shopping, laundry and other house-work. She knows that Tom will be angry if things aren’t ‘just right’ so she scrambles to make sure the house and kids are ‘in order.’
Tom immediately criticises Sarah because the kids toys are in the living room.
“What do you do all day? Sit around and play Bridge with your friends? This house is a wreck. You need to get it together. You are disorganized and messy…I swear Sarah, if you don’t stop…You are so &$%# lazy…”
Tom’s verbal attack is berating Sarah. Before asking what her day was like, he assumes she doesn’t do anything. He belittles her. Accuses her. And calls her names.
His bullying is a typical criticism tactic.Derogatory comments, even if they come as the result of a defense mechanism, are destructive to the relationship. Click To Tweet
Every time Alan is asked to do something by his wife Meg, it never meets her approval. She doesn’t say much about it, but she makes sure Alan knows exactly how she feels.
Sometimes a partner will roll their eyes in a playful way. Not the case with Meg. Her entire body language sends the message to Alan that she is disgusted with him and she does not approve.
In both of these situations, imagine how the other party feels. LINK TO PART 1 Does this open the relationship for improvement? Does it provide a safe enviornment so the relationship can move forward and experience deep connection?
Of course not.
Criticism, especially constant nagging criticism, will dismantle the ability to have a heart connection. It breaks trust.
Gottman says contempt is the #1 indicator of divorce. He has accurately predicted divorce in 94% of instances. Mostly based on the issue of contempt. (REFERENCE)
“Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm and condescension are forms of contempt.”
“Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict—particularly dangerous and destructive forms of conflict—rather than to reconciliation. “Source
Contempt can best be described as deep rooted disgust with another person.
A quick google search brings us this definition: The feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.
We could say that contempt is the opposite of empathy. Empathy puts yourself in the shoes of the other person as you try to experience what they feel. All because you care about their life. Contempt doesn’t. It doesn’t care to experience life as they see it. Doesn’t want to connect. It disengages. It minimizes the other person.
In essence, it doesn’t care for the other person. If you don’t care for the other person, you won’t care for the other person.
Did you catch the play on words?
If you do not care (love, respect, and want to connect), you will not care (provide help, healing, and safety) for them.
This is the sign of contempt.
When I see this continually occur in a marriage, I know trouble is on the way.
Trust me, we know when someone really cares and when they don’t.If you do not care (love, respect, and want to connect), you will not care (provide help, healing, and safety) for them. Click To Tweet
Back to Keanu Reeves
All those passengers on board the flight with Keanu took out their phones to capture video of Keanu. Not because he was famous. But because he was engaging. Caring.
He cared enough to connect and offer help. This built a bridge from stardom to common man.
My wife often says, ‘Never underestimate a simple act of kindness!’ How true.
Kindness is the opposite of contempt.
Contempt doesn’t care. It’s rude and selfish.
Kindness cares. It’s engaging and selfless.
What’s the Remedy for Contempt?
Most personal growth trainers and psychologist tell us the best way to change a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.
Applied to marriage this means we must change feelings of contempt with ones of fondness and admiration.
“Sharing fondness and admiration in your relationship is not complicated, and can be done even if you think those positive feelings are buried too deep beneath recent conflicts. Positive thoughts invoke positive feelings, and the goal is to turn both into positive actions that help to heal and bring companionship back to your relationship.”
The key is it has to be intentional. Left to itself, contempt will destroy your marriage and your health.Psychologist tell us the best way to change a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Click To Tweet
New research is uncovering the fact that stress in marriage conflict has tremendous negative affects on your body (as well as your emotional well being).
There is help.
“If you revive fondness and admiration for each other, you are more likely to approach conflict resolution as a team. Fondness and admiration will expand your sense of “we-ness” and solidarity as a couple, and it will keep the two of you as connected as you felt when you first met.”
Most people think of dishonesty in a relationship only on the level of marriage fidelity. This is the high end of the scale. But it’s actually the lower end issues that cause the most damage in a relationship.
I’ve seen couples work their way through an affair and rebuild a strong marriage, while other relationships erode because of ‘little’ issues.
If trust is the foundation of a healthy marriage, deception is the hammer that tears away at the foundation.
It is important to build transparency, openness and honesty into the marriage.
Dishonesty Breaks Trust
Have you ever pulled a thread on a piece of cloth only to discover that the garment begins to unravel? When trust is broken, the very fabric of the relationship begins to unravel.
We’ve already seen how trust is one of the cornerstones of a healthy marriage. Dishonesty erodes trust.If trust is the foundation of a healthy marriage, deception is the hammer that tears away at the foundation. Click To Tweet
Nobody Wants To Do Business With a Sleezeball
I’ve owned several businesses. From a promotions company in Nashville, TN to an Insurance agency. I’ve worked with people all my life. And one thing I’ve seen over and over in the business world is ‘Nobody wants to do business with someone they can’t trust!’
The sales mantra goes like this: People do business with people they know, like and trust!
When trust is broken, business deals fall apart.
Trust is the foundation for all transactions.
Think about it. If you don’t trust that the person you are dealing with is telling you the truth and giving you the product you want, you will not continue to do business with them. For business to work, you need to have confidence that the agreement you come to will be honored. Whether it is the purchase of an automobile or home, or a simple negotiation to have your yard mowed. You must have confidence the job will be done properly.
It’s the same with marriage.
There must be an underlying assurance that the marriage commitment and covenant will be honored. To the degree you believe this, you will be open, transparent, and giving in the relationship.
However, to the degree this is questionable, you will be closed, skeptical and ungiving.
Everything hinges on the element of trust.
It should be obvious that dishonesty breaks trust.There must be an underlying assurance that the marriage commitment and covenant will be honored. To the degree you believe this, you will be open, transparent, and giving in the relationship. Click To Tweet
What Breaks Trust and How to Fix Them
To have a healthy marriage we need to learn how to dismantle the things that break trust. Here’s few quick start pointers:
Don’t keep secrets
My wife knows all my passwords and has access to all my online and offline accounts.
She reads my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts. She is free to read my text messages and listen to my phone conversations. In other words, I do not have secrets. More relationships have been destroyed because of secret social media contacts than you can imagine.
When I go somewhere, she knows where.
I don’t do this because I think she is paranoid. She is not.
I do this because I never want her to feel that I am keeping secrets. I want her to KNOW that I am an open book for her.
Because she knows this, she trusts me.
Build Boundaries with the Opposite Sex
We have a standing rule: I do not have private meetings with people of the opposite sex. No coffee, lunches or closed-door meetings with other people.
If I am ever in the situation where I have to have a business meeting a client of the opposite sex, I meet in a public place and usually with third party.
Again, the reason is not because I think my wife is jealous or doesn’t trust me. It’s because I love her and never want to give her a reason to be insecure in our relationship.
Make Your Spouse Your Confidant
Meetings aren’t the only aspect of building boundaries. I have boundaries about who and what I discuss with other people.
I never confide in another person something that I won’t discuss with my wife.
I want my wife to be my confidant; not someone else.
Sure, I have buddies I talk about ‘guy stuff’ with. She has women she discusses ‘girl stuff’ with. But we make sure our deepest dreams, most important desires, and biggest life issues are shared with each other.
She knows she is my best friend.
Dishonesty will unravel a relationship over time.
But in the same way, if you put these three things in place in your marriage, you will strengthen the bond you have as husband and wife.
Anytime two people are engaged in relationship over an extended period of time you will have disagreement. It happens in the best of marriages. It’s normal and even healthy.
However, how people deal with disagreements, conflict and problems determines the health of the relationship.
The reason I bring this up? When conflict arises, we often don’t like the decision the other party makes. This again is normal. The problem comes in when we allow this to fester into deep seated resentment.
Don’t Get Petty Over Preferences
It’s childish to resent our spouse over a decision about which movie to watch. This is a preference, not a life altering consequence.
However, when decisions are made that hurt, wound or set aside the well being of your partner, resentment takes root. It may be subtle at first, but eventually (if there is a habit of disregarding your spouse) resentment occurs.
Again, I’m not talking about minor issues; rather consequences of decisions that have a negative impact on one partner. Over time, this resent will erode the foundation of a healthy marriage.
If a husband continually disregards the opinion and desire of his wife, she will begin to resent his decisions. Marriage is a partnership. This implies working together to move forward toward goals, dreams and purpose. To the degree this becomes one-sided, the potential of resentment increases.
We all want to fell apart of the relationship. When we feel apart, we feel connected. When we don’t feel apart, we feel disregarded. I see like a math problem…
1 + 1 = 2
Decision + Disregard = resentment
Maybe we could put it another way:
Decision – Regard for your spouse = resentment
The answer in either case is increased resentment which kills emotional safety in a relationship.
Think about it, how safe can we feel if we are never considered; if we are always disregarded and over-looked?
Pete and Jen
Remember the story about Pete in Jen in Part one?
Pete felt disregarded by Jen. On one occasion he shared how his wife had ridiculed him over a restaurant he wanted to go to. Yet, hours later a friend suggest they go with them to that same restaurant, Jen was excited to go.
Seems petty to some. But the underlying issue is one of disregard. Pete felt his desire was disregarded; yet a close friends desire was perferred.
A one time event like this doesn’t deserve or create disregard (which leads to resentment). But a lifestyle of disregard does.
Watch Dr. Dean Dorman describe the Aftermath of Resentment
You can check out more about Dr. Dorman’s book on Amazon. Click here to check prices.
Just a heads up; I am an Amazon Affiliate. Read my disclosure here.
This is closely related to resentment, but different.
A little clarifiation:
I’m not talking about minor disappointments. We all experience those. We thought the weekend would be relaxing, but the hot water heater went out and we spend all Saturday at Home Depot or Lowe’s trying to buy a new one. That’s a minor (though it seems major) disappointment.
Or, I thought my husband would bring me flowers today, but he didn’t. Again, minor. It may be emotional, but it remains on a lower level of disappointment.
A major disappointment would be if your husband never celebrates your birthday, doesn’t care well for you on Valentine’s Day, and completely disregards you as a wife. Sure, we all have our holiday traditions; my wife and I will sometimes forgoe getting each other a gift on birthdays. Instead we will plan a special vacation to celebrate. The point is, we do not neglect each other. If there is an expectation, I want to know what it is so I can try to meet it.
Resentment happens when the opposite of that occurs. When one partner pays no attention to the wants, desires, needs and expectations of their partner.
Story of Email I Received
Not long ago I received an email from one of our readers. She wrote because she was desperate for help. Here’s the bullet point version:
- She overheard something her husband said to another woman on the phone
- It caused her to distrust him (see principle #3 above)
- He continued to deny it
- She continued to feel betrayed, confused and fearful
- Rather than discussing the matter, he simply accused her of over reacting
- Her disappointment in her husband made her close down emotionally
I trust you see the big key: He did not see that his wife needed reassurance. Instead he was focused on his own feelings about being accused.
Whether she was justified in her response or not is a secondary issue. The primary issue is that he didn’t talk about in a non-emotional way, but contined to accuse her of accusing him. The cycle would not stop.
Disappointment was inevitable.
Desire to Affirm Offsets Disappointment
When you have a desire to meet your spouses needs, you off-set disappointment. You don’t even have to get it right all the time; the desire is enough to keep disappointment at a distance.
It’s when that desire is not present that problems take root. We sense it. We know that our spouse doesn’t care about our needs. This causes disappointment on a deeper, soul level.
It’s not that they forgot an event. It’s when you realize they don’t care for your needs. This type of disappointment happens at a whole new level.
It’s destructive to emotional safety. After all, feeling emotionally secure is about knowing your partner cares and wants to meet your needs.
I’ll discuss real vs false expectations next…
When we talk about neglect we first need to address expectations. There are legitimate expectations and not-so legitimate ones.
I call these ‘Real vs False Expectations. It’s important to realize the difference.
My wife can legitimately expect me to be faithful to our marriage vows. She can (and should) expect me to be honest about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and who I have been with. This is normal, healthy and valuable. It builds security when she knows she can trust me.
She also can expect me to manage our finances with her interest at heart. For example, she should be able to trust that I won’t gamble away our life savings at the Casino. This is a legitimate expectation. Why? Because my decisions have an impact on her life. If I violate those expecations, it could destroy her.
I think you get the point. Some expectaions are normal, healthy and legitimate.
Others, however, are not…
While my wife can expect me to do things that will care for her, it is unreasonable to expect me to be her ‘everything.’
One of ‘Our Songs’ is Michael Buble’s ‘Everything.’ It’s our ‘go-to’ playlist when we have a romantic dinner. She even likes it when I sing it for her (proves her lack of musical prowess). While it is a great, romantic song, it is impossible.
No human can meet ALL your needs.
For example, it’s unfair to put your spouse in the position to ‘make you happy.’ You are responsible for your own happiness. That said, you can reasonably expect your spouse to care for you and desire for you to be happy, fulfilled and emotionally healthy. A good relationship is one where both parties do their best to help each other feel this way.
How does this relate to neglect?
Even though I can’t make my wife happy, if I live in such a way that demonstrates I care and WANT her to be happy, I create trust.
If, however, all of my decisions, choices and attitude never take her into consideration, I am neglecting her.
Our first responsibility is to our spouse. Not to be everything to them; but to keep them at the forefront of OUR desire. When we want the best for them, serve them well, and have them as priority in our life, we build trust. We produce an atmosphere of love.I can’t make my wife happy, if I live in such a way that demonstrates I care and WANT her to be happy, I create trust. Click To Tweet
When we fail to do this, we usually end up neglecting them. It’s really a matter of priority. What is our major priority. I believe it should be our marriage.
It doesn’t mean we have to do everything perfect; it just means we have to make them a priority.
Disgust is a cousin to contempt.
While contempt is manifest mostly through the words we say and behavior we demonstrate; disgust is demonstrated by our attitude.
Difference in Frustration and Disgust
We need to distinguish between frustration and disgust. Frustration happens over an event. It is momentary.
Disgust occurs over a person. It is permanent. It is how we see a person in general.
Hope you see the difference.
We all get frustrated by decisions and events.
Disgust is the opposite of acceptance. It is rejection on a human level. It says in essence, ‘I reject you as a person.’
It should be obvious how this affects a marriage.
Listen to Jordan Peterson discuss how disgust affects relationships.
Disgust is the natural side-effect of neglect, disappointment and rejection.
In this article we’ve seen how tese seven things can and will destroy a marriage by undermining emotional safety.
To summarize, the seven characteristics are:
Where Are You?
It’s important to identify where you are in your marriage so you can make changes to move forward.
We have a free ‘Marriage Score’ quiz that will help you pin-point what area you need to work on.
Sign up to take the quiz. It’s only 10 questions, but the questions are designed to isolate the major area where you need work.
After the quiz you will be given a summary and suggestions on how to work on your relationship.
There is Help
We have several programs we recommend that will help you move toward health in your marriage.
Our Marriage Toolkit is a great place to start. You will find books, courses, and programs designed to meet specific, targeted marriage needs.
In Part 3 of this series we will discuss 11 Characteristics that will help you create an environment of emotional safety in your relationship.
It’s Your Turn
I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about these seven qualities?
Do you struggle in your relationship with emotional safety? If so, what is the key issue you deal with?