Emotional Safety: What it is and Why it's Important

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By: Barbi Pecenco, MFT-Intern

My major task as a couples therapist is to help establish emotional safety in the relationships of my clients. Emotional safety has to do with three things. First is the belief that your partner accepts you and trusts you. The more accepted and valued by your partner you feel, the more you are in the safe zone emotionally because your sense of self is intact. However, if you feel that your partner believes something negative about you, your sense of self may suffer and you will start to feel emotionally unsafe.

The second thing you need is to care about and accept yourself. If you feel that you are lovable and adequate, your self-esteem will generally be pretty high and you will feel entitled to receiving love and care in your relationship. If you don't feelgood about yourself you will be wondering how your partner could possibly care about you. Both you and the relationship will feel insecure, which will lead to you feeling emotionally unsafe a majority of the time, which can lead to a lot of arguments.

The third thing you need for emotional safety is a secure relationship. That means that there are no threats to how loved and cared about you feel by your partner. This includes anything that could affect your relationship security such as feeling that your partner is not making enough of an effort to nurture the relationship, or an affair, or one person threatens to leave the relationship.

Most things couples fight about have emotional safety as the underlying concern. But they don't know that is what it's about. So they get stuck on topics such as the bills, the housework, the kids and so on. If my husband seems to be putting a lot more effort into work and hobbies than into our relationship, and I experience our relationship as insecure, I will do different things depending on how I generally feel about him, myself, and the relationship. Here are a few examples of how I can respond to feeling emotionally unsafe in this scenario...

1) If I feel that I am worthy of his time and attention and feel pretty sure that he cares, then I will let him know I'm concerned about our connection and would like more time together. So even if I feel the relationship is insecure right now, I'm still feeling generally OK about myself (I am lovable and adequate) and OK about him too (I accept him, I trust him, and I can give him the benefit of the doubt). Now I am able to talk to him about the lack of effort I sense in a way that he can likely hear me and respond well.

2) If I feel (unconsciously or even more consciously) that I am somehow not worthy of his time and attention OR that he really may not care about me or the relationship all that much, I will be feeling really emotionally unsafe in the relationship. I won't feel entitled to ask for the connection to be repaired (I am unlovable), and I won't likely be able to give him the benefit of the doubt either (He is not someone I can trust). When I approach him it will probably sound blaming and critical. And he's not going to be able to figure out that I really don't want to fight, I just want him to be more engaged with me. He won't hear my implicit message, "I'm lonely! Let's spend more quality time together!" and he won't know that I am sad and feeling unsafe about the disconnection. He's going to hear, "You are a bad husband! You are failing me!" and feel that I'm attacking him and we will jump right into a negative cycle of me pursuing for closeness and him distancing to protect himself.

3) If many instances like the one above keep happening without repair, I may feel like the situation is hopeless and stop reaching out at all. I will try to distract myself from the unsafety in the relationship by throwing myself into hobbies of my own, or focusing on my friends, or by responding to that flirty guy at work because he's giving me the attention I'm craving.

We aren't critical because we are bad people. We do it because it feels safer to blame than to let ourselves be vulnerable and talk about our emotional needs (and also because talking like this was probably never modeled for us). And we don't get defensive because we are bad people. But we hear our partner's criticisms as an attack on our person and we will do whatever we can to not feel the sense of inadequacy and shame our partner triggers in us.

Hopefully I will never get to scenario number 3, because I will realize that I am a good person, my husband is a good person, and that we have a pretty good relationship that is worth saving. So I will find a good couples counselor and work on getting out of this negative pattern. And I recommend that you do the same as it hard to see this as a cycle when you are in the middle of it, and it is even more difficult to break out of it. 

This article was written by Barbi Pecenco Kolski, Marriage & Family Therapist Intern. She specializes in relationship counseling in San Diego, CA. You can find more information at her website www.sdcouplestherapy.com.



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