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Creating Emotional Safety In Relationships

When couples come for counselling, the most common concern they share with me is their struggle around communication. Most couples say that if their communication was better, they could work through problems that arise in their relationship on their own. I do agree with this assessment, but also believe there’s one more important layer that needs to be in place for good communication to occur. This foundational element is emotional safety. Emotional safety is the feeling of trusting your partner with your emotional well-being. It means that you believe your partner cares about your own emotional experience and vice versa. Emotional safety means that we feel comfortable sharing with our partner our hopes, fears, vulnerabilities and pain, because we trust that our partner will tend to these emotions with warmth and concern. Emotional safety is established when you share your feelings, and your partner conveys back to you that they care about your pain, hurt, emotional experience, etc. The listening partner shows how important his or her partner’s pain is through:

  • Empathy – understanding what the experience would be like from your partner’s perspective (“That must have been really stressful when…”)
  • Validation – affirming that your partner’s pain is legitimate (“It makes sense to me that you would feel _____ in that situation”)
  • Body language – as your partner is sharing you reach out and take your partner’s hand, or stroke their arm, or make eye contact
  • Putting your own feelings, thoughts, and comments on hold while you focus on your partner’s pain until your partner has shared all of their feelings and feels understood

One of the biggest hurdles that couples struggle to overcome in establishing emotional safety is that sometimes our partner’s pain is a result of something we have or haven’t done. Hearing your partner share their complaints and frustrations about you is difficult because we don’t want to disappointment our partners or feel like we fall short in some way as a partner. As a result, we might become defensive, and rather than fully listening to our partner share, we respond by vocalizing our own complaints. Here are some guidelines to be aware of to help you and your partner create more emotional safety in your relationship:

  • Whoever expresses their emotions first (whether through words or body language) gets to share their feelings completely first
  • Even if your partner is sharing complaints about something you have or haven’t done, try to remain focused on what they are sharing and not on preparing a response or retort to what he or she has shared.
  • Be aware of how your partner’s sharing makes you feel. Once your partner has shared their pain and you have validated their emotions, it’s okay to share with your partner these tender emotions (“It was hard for me to hear you share about ______ because I hate the thought of disappointing you.”)
  • Before you share your perspective or your “side” of the issue, check to make sure your partner feels fully understood. Once it is clear that your partner feels understood, and you can see that he or she has calmed down, you can begin to gently share your own feelings.

If you are the partner who is sharing, here are some important guidelines to consider to help your partner feel more willing to listen and to help them from getting defensive.

  • Speak calmly and gently. If you are feeling worked up about something, try calming yourself down as much as possible before engaging in the discussion with your partner.
  • Remember that if you are sharing a complaint specifically about your partner, a defensiveness response is more likely; it’s not easy hearing someone we love share how we may have disappointed them. Try to be sensitive to this, and express to your partner how much they mean to you in light of your disappointment.
  • Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. If you’re feeling upset because your partner didn’t follow through on a promise, rather than accusing him or her of not caring, a better response might be: “I was hurt when I saw you forgot to make arrangements for our evenings, because it makes me fear that I’m not important to you, even though I know it probably happened because your boss has been making you work so much over-time lately.”

Emotional safety is developed when the partner sharing their feelings talks gently, and when the listening partner focuses on what their partner is sharing and responds with warmth and caring. As you build emotional safety, you will feel increasingly comfortable communicating problems you are experiencing in your relationship. Karla Reimer, MA specializes in the areas of grief, couples work, addictions and emotional regulation as well as many others. For more information on Karla, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.