By: Lisa Kift, MA MFT-I
Couples seek relationship counseling for
numerous reasons. As a professional who works with many different
couples with a variety of issues, I've identified one similar thread
that runs through all of them. Their relationships lack in varying
degrees of "emotional safety." Typically, the couples who present as
the most hostile, distant, angry, disengaged or otherwise
dysfunctional are the least emotionally safe together. Even people
who come for counseling who have less glaring issues can benefit
from a tune-up in this area.
So what is "emotional safety" in a relationship? I define this as
the level of comfort both people feel with each other. There are six
aspects in which to assess the emotional safety in a relationship.
They are respect, feeling heard, understanding, validation, empathy
and love. How can one assess their own relationship based on this
paradigm? When working with couples, I often ask each partner to
rate, from zero to ten, (zero being "never" and ten being "all the
time") how much they feel each of the six mentioned aspects of
emotional safety from their partner. I chart it out with each
person's name written on the top of a piece of paper with a column
under each. Then on the left side I list the six aspects with rows
next to them.
1) Respect: How much do each of them feel respected by their
partner? People who report low levels of respect often experience
criticism or judgment from the other.
2) Feeling Heard: How much does their partner listen to them?
Those who don't feel heard complain of being ignored, tuned out or
talked over by the other.
3) Understood: How much do each of them feel understood by
their partner? People with low levels of understanding from the
other report frustration around their partner not getting them or
twisting their words into an entirely different meaning.
4) Validation: How much do they each feel validated by each
other? Low levels of validation are problematic to any relationship
in that one or both don't feel that their partner gets what they're
saying. Its one step beyond understanding and it doesn't require the
partner to necessarily agree with them.
5) Empathy: How much do they each feel the other can be
empathetic with them? A low number on this is the most toxic of the
six aspects in that a lack of empathy in a relationship means a lack
of attunement to the others emotions. The partner experiencing a
lack of empathy can experience a great deal of sadness or anger.
"You don't care how I feel."
6) Love: How much do they feel loved by each other? This
encapsulates and reflects the state of the previous five. Couples
who report low levels of feeling loved by the other typically have
low numbers in the other aspects.
Doing this type of charting makes it easy to compare and contrast
how each person feels in the relationship. This tool is very helpful
to anyone wanting to assess the emotional safety in their
relationship. Be aware that it will likely bring up a lot for both
partners. If the topic proves to cause too much emotional reactivity
then a trained therapist can help flesh out the results and provide
a roadmap to make changes. In my work I find that it often involves
altering communication styles, behavior modification, exploration of
family of origin issues and identification of core beliefs. The
greatest evidence of change in the relationship are these numbers
going up - and they can!
Lisa Brookes Kift is a Marriage &
Family Therapist Registered Intern practicing in San Diego,
California. Her focus is individual, couples and premarital
counseling. For more information or to schedule an appointment, see
her website at