Having a healthy and satisfying relationship takes work. An area of vital importance is emotional safety. It is related to trust. While similar to physical safety, it differs in that emotional safety refers specifically to a quality found in a relationship where each partner is able to be him or herself genuinely without concern for attack, criticism, ridicule, shame, disrespect, rejection or abandonment.
The issues of trust and safety are relative. That is we do not all have the same capacity to trust. We also do not have an equal capacity to take the risk of testing our relationship to increase the level of safety and security contained within it. Each one of us comes from a past, from a childhood, where we were hurt, resulting in emotional scars. No one fully escapes the bumps and bruises of life. For many, those past hurts prevent us from trusting another. Being with someone who is important to us, a person by whom any form of rejection would hurt deeply, can present a challenge and a great risk. When the risk is too great we end up with a relationship in which there is togetherness, but without real communication or intimacy. The closeness of intimacy provides the greatest rewards having a relationship can offer.
Through a relationship, the potential for growth for each partner is great. By unconscious choice we each choose partners whose emotional makeup provides us with the exact tasks or challenges that we need. What this means is that each relationship also has within it from its inception the seeds of dysfunction. The wounds we receive in childhood need to be healed and the way to heal them is by stepping up to the risks and challenges formed by the obstacles in our relationships.
When emotional safety is not present in a relationship, the partners cannot grow beyond their “stuck” positions. There is no movement. The relationship no longer is vital and dynamic, but rather lifeless and stale, frequently with the repetition of the same dysfunctional patterns, the same argument but on a different day. When we get stuck in our relationship, we are bumping up against our limits of emotional safety.
There are two parts to being in a safe relationship: one is to eliminate the hurtfulness as much as is possible. The second is for each partner to be strong and tolerant of the other’s differences. Forever there will be the friction because of differences in preferences and style. These differences can chafe and burn. This is a fact of human life where separateness and complexity rule. Strong partners understand that this is part of a normal relationship. Each partner needs to be strong because every relationship contains within it unavoidable hurts. Every partner will disappoint us for the very fact that they can neither read our minds nor always anticipate our needs. We each hope that our partner will be more than human in their capacity to make us feel valuable and loved; a hope that is always dashed. Being aware of this can transform these hurts from situations where we feel unsafe into moments of understanding. Strong commitment between partners creates a safe container where even the inevitable hurts do not stunt the potential for growth.
When safety is present there are possibilities for growth. This, however, is not a guarantee of life without problems. The challenges remain present. With safety present each partner is freer to take the risks necessary to be freed from their old patterns that remain from childhood and the families of origin. Emotional safety in a relationship is a necessary ingredient in order to make a relationship satisfying and a haven for a growing, living life. Andrew Aaron, LICSW 508-997-6091 x106