Emotional safety in relationships

Last Updated on

To love and be loved. Love, acceptance, respect, to be desired, security, passion, are all things we may want in a relationship. There are certainly others and each person has specific desires. What I want to focus on here is the aspect of emotional safety in relationships. How we feel in terms of safe may have more than a thousand factors from our history with parents, childhood friends, eppi-genitics, attachment style, heartbreak, and the influence of movies and books or our belief system narratives. It doesn’t matter the source, we can notice their manifestations in our own actions and in-actions if we are aware.

Aside from the the basic survival instincts in our biology that generate fears, we develop another layer of emotional safety, or insecurity in our social relationships. Two major belief system factors  are the fear of being alone, and criticism from our partner. In my experience women are more alert to the issue of being alone, while men more fear criticism from their partner. While being “alone” might trigger associated hurtful emotions of feeling rejected or not wanted, it is also influenced by the biological history of humans surviving better in community tribes than on our own in the wild. In any case, to feel secure we will have to overcome these historical patterns in our beliefs and nervous system either way. In short, there are multiple factors as to why we might feel unsafe in our relationship, and what we need to work through to create a feeling of safety.

One challenge is that the feeling of “safe” is sometimes generated from opposing dynamics, and this can create conflict.

First let’s understand some of the aspects that create a feeling of safety in a relationship. A man’s unconditional acceptance of a woman means that there is no judgment and criticism. She can communicate honestly, be herself, and feel emotionally safe. There are also physical and financial factors that can appeal to a woman’s sense of safety. Sometimes a woman will trade one of these comforts for another in her relationship. Sometimes her history with men, or because of experiences growing up, she will develop a belief system that inhibits her from feeling really safe. Putting that aside here for now, let’s talk about the relationship dynamic itself.

A confident man creates the feeling of trust with a woman.

A woman will feel emotionally safe with a man who is emotionally available, honest, trustworthy and authentic. These are emotional character strengths she can respect and admire in a man. A man of character and emotional depth is a man who knows who he is and likes himself. His love for himself is so strong he does not need to gain the acceptance of others by trying to be something he is not. His strength is not physical so much as it is in the clarity of his mind and emotions. These are character strengths that a woman not only admires, but feels safe with. He is not a weak man that will bend to the whims of other people. He doesn’t have buried emotional wounds that vent repressed emotions, or a fragile ego that feels attacked when he is asked questions. She can trust him to be who he is. I describe this kind of man as being in his emotional integrity. It probably sounds as if a woman can feel emotionally safe with this consciously aware man. It’s not that simple.

A woman feels safe if she believes the relationship is going somewhere.

A different factor for women that creates safety is her trust that the relationship is solid and will work out. When a man spends time doing activities as simple as cleaning house and cooking together it sends a message that he is committed to being with her. It is wasteful to invest her time with someone that may be gone soon. You want to know if your prospective partner has the capacity and willingness to match you for a deeper emotional commitment.

There is also the fear that if after getting emotionally invested in a man there will be a break up. It makes sense for us to wonder where the relationship is going. Sometimes a woman wants to be “safe” from the potential pain of a broken heart. She wants to avoid the emotions associated with being alone. This kind of safety is really about protecting herself from the painful emotions that come from break up and being alone. When a man is distant emotionally or physically from her, is out late with his guy friends without updating her, it may bring up feelings of loneliness, or fear of a break up.

Fears and insecurity in relationship takes a woman out of her emotional integrity.

In order to avoid her fears of being alone the woman may make efforts to keep her man close. It might be a criticism for going out with the boys for an evening. By discouraging him to do other things she is increasing their time together. A critical comment is a means to reject his behavior so he would avoid criticism in the future. Being sad is a way for the man to notice her and get what she wants. If there is a lot of emotional charge the dynamic might include anger or jealousy. It is possible the man ends up feeling guilty for having done the “wrong” thing that caused her to be upset. The man may want to avoid the night out with the boys just so he doesn’t have to deal with her emotional reaction. He might also take it as a sign that it is time to grow into a mature relationship.

The Downside of getting what she wants

If a woman engages in patterns of anger, jealousy, sadness etc, and is successful in controlling her man she will have influenced his behavior by her emotional reactions. With influence over his emotions she will have influence over what he does with his time. He will learn to avoid the activities that bring emotional reactions and criticism and do the things that she approves of. They will spend more time together which will help her to feel solid in the relationship. It also distracts herself from the fear of being alone. In one part of her mind she has helped their relationship, but she may have unknowingly created a separate feeling of not being safe.

When a woman see’s that she can modify her man’s behavior she might perceive him as not being as strong. She will see him as someone that gives up his interests, runs around trying to make her happy. He has stopped being his authentic self and started being what she wants him to be. At some level she perceives him as no longer being his own man. She could perceive him as having weak character and could lose some respect for him. More importantly she will not feel safe with a man she sees as having a weak character. Some women will conclude that if they can control their man then other women will also be able to control and influence him as well. All of this adds up to losing respect and trust in the man for these reasons, all the while feeling safer because of getting more time and attention.

One assumption sometimes deep in the mind is that the stronger person controls the weaker person. If she can direct him then he must be weaker than her. This image of weakness is amplified if the woman already considers her self as weak to begin with. The loss of trust in her man’s strength may not be conscious to her, but at some level it affects her feeling of safety with him.

On the one hand the woman has driven her man to be near her so that she can feel secure in the relationship. On the other hand because she now, consciously, or unconsciously, perceives her man to be controlled by her emotional reactions she no longer sees him as a solid foundation of strength.

Desire for closeness is from our emotional integrity but can also be from fear

A woman’s desire to be in close companionship with a partner can come from her emotional integrity. The desire to spend time with a partner to have fun and create together can be completely authentic. When in her emotional integrity the sense of safety she feels is normal because together they are a stronger force than if she were alone. She is out of her emotional integrity when her motivation for time together is for protection from fears of being alone.

A woman in her emotional integrity is free to ask for what she wants, and that includes spending time with her partner. It can is difficult to discern whether we are acting on behalf of a desire to be with someone, or avoiding a fear of being alone. One way to measure is to observe the emotional reaction when we don’t’ get what we want.

The situation appears impossible. If the man acquiesces he may appear weak to her. If he doesn’t then it appears that he doesn’t care. For the woman it is also impossible. If she doesn’t make an effort to bring him close she may feel fearful and uncomfortable with being alone. If she works to keep the man close she is acting out of fear and runs the risk of being controlling and losing respect for herself and her man.

Giving up limiting fear based beliefs

It only looks impossible if we limit our options to the impulsive strategies of control. If we are to find happiness in our relationships it will require dissolving the beliefs and assumptions that create the painful fears and controlling behaviors. We will have to seek an emotional solution beyond what the mind offers as safety from fear. What if there was another way?

In a conscious relationship, where both partners are committed to growing out of their childhood beliefs and past relationship baggage you have other options. It involves the bold, and liberating act of sharing with your emotions and thoughts in a way that is without judgment of yourself, or them. Making a full disclosure puts your fears and thought out there in front of your partner and will feel vulnerable. It will also be liberating from the effort you spend hiding them and compensating for them. To do this you will need to set up a safe communication practice and trust. You will need to meet each other in a way that is accepting of this process of emptying out your baggage, not in an effort to control your partner, but so that you can unburden and free yourself from it. The purpose of this honest communication is to help identify and break the beliefs and emotions trapping you in drama.

Great Love in Relationship is present when there is no fear.

The fears of being alone are coupled with assumptions and other associated beliefs. Those beliefs usually involve not being good enough, unworthy, self rejection, and other people rejecting us. This is the painful emotion that people are seeking protection and safety from. These beliefs are lies that we carry in our relationship baggage. There have been many times when we have been alone and been happy. We have just learned to associate being alone with lonely, and then with misery. When core beliefs of self rejection are dissolved there is no longer fear of being alone and there is ample room for self acceptance and self love. Changing beliefs also eliminates the need and behavior of being controlling to your partner. Great Love thrives in the absence of fear.

What motivates the man to be with his woman?

There is ample material here to talk about the man’s half of the relationship. The man’s motives and his integrity with himself are completely unknown. He might respond to the request of his woman just because he loves her and desires her to be happy. In this way he is completely in his emotional integrity. However a man that is uncomfortable with her reactions or feels guilty may respond the same way but is out of his emotional integrity. Even though his actions to be with her are the same the motivations are different. What is happening in the man’s mind, beliefs, and emotions is a completely separate dynamic.

Man’s Fear of Criticism and Judgment

At the surface of relationships it appears that men’s sense of safety depends heavily on the acceptance, or criticism from his partner. Men are highly aware and sensitive to how their female partner speak of them.  A harsh word or criticism can be crushing. Something as simple as a smile is going to feel like a load of love and acceptance supporting them. If a man feels like he will be criticized, he will shut down and avoid sharing. If he is sharing about a struggle at work and is sad or angry a woman may feel that she is on his side if she gets sympathetically sad or angry as well. This may seem compassionate or empathetic but it is far off the mark. The man might construe this as having “made her” sad or angry by telling her about work. Not wanting her to feel “bad” he might avoid sharing similar information in the future as “it just upsets her.”  Unconsciously the man may blame himself for her “bad feelings” even if she doesn’t.

The man’s sense of responsibility in protecting his partner is over blown.  His unilateral choice to not share as much so it doesn’t “upset her” is also a way to cut their communication, sharing, and trust. In an effort to “help” he has unintentionally harmed the trust and security by creating isolation. The solution for building emotional safety isn’t to share less. It is to share more fully but in a more healthy way. More complete sharing would be to notice his impulse to share less. Notice his belief to take responsibility for her emotions, and to share about how her reaction causes in him a sense of not feeling as safe. Perhaps, with some awareness and searching he will find a belief that he feels responsible for her emotions. In an emotionally safe environment these types of layers in their relationship can be explored and talked about.

In a conscious relationship it is healthy and helpful to have discussions about what you each feel is causing your emotions and where the responsibility lies. How much of it is from baggage from our past projected into an event? How much of it is from our belief systems generating our emotions? How much of it is actually from our partner’s actions. As you learn to identify and share about these different sources you learn to understand and appreciate each other better. You also develop trust. More importantly, you are able to repair from arguments and upsets so you don’t carry them forward where they can build up to more trouble. As you clean your baggage, emotional history of wounds, false beliefs, you will have fewer reactions. Through this progression you will create more trust with your partner and emotional safety going forward.

In my perception a small percentage of men actually live in their emotional integrity. It is the man’s loss. Not only is the emotional quality of life much more beautiful, but it imbues to a woman something that is very attractive to her. In the depth of her emotional integrity a woman desires to be with a man of emotional depth. Not all women are comfortable here but at some level they are yearning for a deep emotional connection.

A woman can choose to wait for a man with the character and integrity that she respects and wants. But as she waits she should prepare herself as well. Being with a man of integrity will not be like being with other men. He will be seeking a partner that will treat him with the same level of unconditional love with which he treats himself. If she brings her judgments, fears, and emotional reactions to the relationship, he may decide that he would rather be with someone else.

When a woman asks where the relationship is going there are often different parts of her asking. Authentically she will want to know if the man has the emotional depth for greater commitment, or if fear keeps him trapped. But she might also be asking because her fears are driving her mind to search for symbols of safety in relationship. In this case her motivation to know may be more about her fear than about his depth. My point in all of this is that finding or creating emotional safety with your partner can be a journey. If you just believe it’s something that you may just “land” into by luck, or you might be in denial of unconscious beliefs or the emotional baggage you bring from past relationships. My experience is that honest exploration of thoughts and feelings, with an accepting partner, devoid of judgments and criticisms is the path to get there.

You will be much more effective in being aware of another once you become self aware of your own emotional motivations, and beliefs. Whenever you evaluate your relationships, begin by looking at your half.

To gain mastery over your half of the relationship, including your perceptions, expectations, thoughts, beliefs and emotions, begin by practicing the exercises in the Self Mastery Program.

My perspective comes from working with men and women clients over the years to identify and change  the core beliefs that sabotage their relationships. Any description of a group is never completely accurate as each individual is different. I share this here for people that find it valuable in understanding their emotional dynamics or that of their partner.

Related Material

What makes you Happy in Relationships?

The False Images Understanding Relationship and emotional drama

Relationship Insecurity What core beliefs create insecurity and fear

21