Emotional safety is about being authentic and sharing thoughts and feelings with another person without any fear. Frequent criticism and invalidating remarks, especially from a loved one, is a sure path to stripping any relationship of emotional safety.
Unfortunately, growing up, I had never learned to share my emotions, especially negative ones, freely. First, I was protecting my mom from what I thought could upset her. Then my “protecting” spread to everyone else around me — my grandparents, my friends, and my boyfriends. Eventually, I carried this habit into my first marriage. Whenever I tried to explain how I felt to my ex-husband, we would immediately fall into a criticism-defense pattern. I felt criticized and invalidated, and he felt like I didn’t understand him at all.
When we started dating other people, one of the guys I was seeing would bring up uncomfortable topics on occasion. I learned that it was possible to discuss negative feelings in a peaceful way. One day he told me he felt that our relationship was becoming too predictable and not exciting for him. It was tough to hear, but because he brought it up, we were able to brainstorm what we could do about that and moved forward. That relationship eventually fell apart for other reasons, but it gave me a chance to experience conflict in a different way than what I was used to in my marriage.
When I met my current partner, I immediately felt one hundred percent safe to bring up any feelings and thoughts, no matter how uncomfortable they were. Is a good personality match the only reason for the deep level of comfort? What made it so different in this relationship? Is it possible to create emotional safety in any relationship if it’s missing? Although, in my opinion, strengthening the feeling of emotional safety starts with internal work, I believe there are behavioral changes that can help.
One thing that has helped me tremendously was having a dedicated space and time for discussing difficult topics. My husband and I have started a tradition — we do quarterly check-ins, where we ask each other important and sometimes uncomfortable questions. Having dedicated uninterrupted hours to talk about our relationship on the calendar helps us mentally prepare for the conversation.
I think of anything I’d like to bring up in advance, set aside distractions and any ongoing issues for later, and show up in those conversations with intent and presence.
For example, I often feel anxious. Whenever I would bring up my anxiety with my previous partners, they would usually try to calm me down by saying that I had nothing to worry about, so I should just stop worrying and relax.
That didn’t ease my anxiety at all. In fact, it just made me feel angry and invalidated. I still feel anxious sometimes in my current relationship. But when I bring up my fears and worries to my husband, he doesn’t immediately jump into trying to make me feel better.
First, he gives me an opportunity to share and really listens to me. Then he asks if there is anything he can do to help me feel better. He’s able to help me process my feelings without taking responsibility for them and without making me feel bad about having them in the first place. Also, we don’t protect each other’s feelings by hiding things — giving them the right to exist and an opportunity to come to the surface.
For example, one time, my husband told me about a girl he had a crush on at work. At the time, I didn’t have too many negative emotions about it, but that story surfaced again over a year later. Interestingly, I had a much stronger reaction at this later time. I had doubts that my reaction was adequate and, at first, wasn’t sure if I would say anything. He noticed that I was looking worried and asked about it.
It was hard for me to admit that I was feeling jealous. I wanted to be more open-minded than I actually was; I wanted to feel compression instead of jealousy.
Yet, there I was — feeling insecure and triggered.
After we finally talked about it, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. My husband was supportive and understanding. He created the space for me to experience my emotions without judgment.
I feel emotionally safe when:
My partner listens to me with reciprocity.
My partner doesn’t try to convince me that my feelings are wrong or that I shouldn’t be feeling them.
My partner is vulnerable with me and shares things that I know are difficult for him to bring up.
I have enough trust to know that my partner can handle hearing about my feelings without taking responsibility for them.
I know that no matter what difficult topic comes up, we can talk about it for as long as we need to until we both feel comfortable.
I believe that we are both interested in the well-being of each other and that neither of us has a secret agenda.
This happens to be one of the nonviolent communication principles.
If only all of my difficult conversations went this way… Creating an emotionally safe space in difficult conversations is a skill that many of us are still learning. And even though it is not easy, I believe that with just a bit of effort, we can all become more aware and make our partners feel emotionally safe.
If you have any other tips about creating emotional safety, please share them in the comments.
Check out my author page on Amazon and read my book — “My Journey To Polyamory And Back: How I Fell In Love With Myself By Experimenting With Non-monogamy, Healing Ceremonies, and Psychedelics” to learn more about my growth path.