Couples seek relationship counseling for numerous reasons. No matter what issues they present to therapy with, it often can be boiled down to a problem with the emotional safety in their relationship. The most hostile, distant, or disengaged couples are not the only ones who can be challenged with a lack of emotional safety. Those who minimize their feelings or are conflict-avoidant can often ultimately be the most at risk. Often the presenting problems that couples go to therapy for, are actually symptoms of a lack of emotional safety in their relationship.
“Emotional safety” encompasses important elements. It exists when both partners feel:
- they can trust each other
- empathized with
If you’ve been struggling to communicate, are easily brought to conflict, have disconnected, and are sweeping feelings under the rug, it’s important to do a deeper level check on the status of your relationship. These are all often signs of distress.
Do a quick mini-assessment of your own relationship by asking yourself how you feel, on a scale of 1-10, in each of the following areas.
Respect: How respected do you feel by each other? People who report low levels of respect often experience criticism, judgment or neglect. Perhaps your partner makes important decisions without you.
Trust: Are you clear your partner will not betray you? Betrayal can include physical and emotional trust violations. It can also feel like they don’t truly have your back in other ways. Questions about whether you can trust your partner can lead to insecurity about the relationship and impact your self-esteem.
Prioritized: How much do you each feel prioritized by each other? People who don’t feel prioritized can start to wonder if they matter to the others. Perhaps your partner spends a lot of time with others or doesn’t take your requests or needs seriously.
Feeling Heard: How much do you feel heard by each other? Those who don’t feel heard can feel ignored or minimized. It can feel like your partner doesn’t care what you think you feel, which can be painful and over time build resentment.
Understood: How much do you feel understood by each other? People with low levels of understanding from the other report frustration around their partner not taking the time to truly know them. You might feel like your partner doesn’t care to understand. The end result of this can be loneliness in the relationship.
Validation: How much do you feel validated by each other? Low levels of validation are problematic to any relationship in that one or both don’t experience their partner acknowledging their emotions. Even if you don’t understand why your partner feels a certain way, it’s important to validate their experience.
Empathy: How much do you feel empathy for each other? A relationship that lacks empathy is particularly challenging as it’s experienced as an even lower level of care or concern for each other’s feelings. Your partner may be clear something is painful for you yet behave as if they don’t care. Experiencing a lack of empathy from someone who is supposed to be there for you is a deeply painful experience.
Love: How much do you feel loved by each other? Couples who report low levels of feeling loved by the other can reach a state of hopelessness. Believing your partner doesn’t love you can be the assumption that is made from deficiencies in all of the above.
A lot of lower numbers in this exercise indicate some deficiencies in your emotional safety. It’s also important to reflect upon how you’re showing up in the relationship.
The piece 7 Ways to Create Emotional Safety in Your Relationship on PsychCentral.com sums it up well:
Emotional safety also goes both ways. When you feel emotionally safe and reveal your true self, it opens the door for your partner to do the same. And when both people in a relationship feel secure, it provides a safe environment where a deeper and more loving connection can form.
If you’re concerned that the level of emotional safety in your relationship is in trouble, try talking to your partner about this. If he/she is willing, have them look at this mini-assessment themselves. Explain that this is a significant issue that if left unchecked can literally lead to the end of your relationship. If needed, consider couples counseling to help navigate through as it can be tricky. You might benefit from deeper exploration into your dynamic, why it exists, and learning tools to make changes. Family of origin work can be an important piece of this. There are a lot of undercurrents that can lead to challenges in creating, maintaining, and re-establishing emotional safety. If this comes up for one or both of you and you’re interested in trying a self-help alternative before couples therapy, check out Family of Origin Work: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots to shed some light on what you may be bringing into your relationship that is not serving it well.