Vulnerability is a key component of every relationship. I’m not just referencing a romantic relationship either. In any relationship, whether romantic, familial, or friendship, fostering emotional safety cultivates genuine intimacy. However, people often feel emotionally unsafe in their relationships.
The foundation of intimacy is emotional safety. When there is emotional safety, it creates a climate for closeness by allowing a person to feel internally relaxed when they are with someone.
According to John Gottman, a psychology researcher, defensiveness is one of the four key factors that leads to trouble in relationships. Along with defensiveness, the other key factors are stonewalling, contempt, and criticism. When a person doesn’t feel safe, they will naturally be defensive and guard themselves against potential criticism, rejection, blame, and shame. Therefore, intimacy doesn’t have a way to truly develop and deepen.
Emotional safety often gets neglected in relationships. Let’s be clear, there are multiple factors why a person may not be emotionally expressive; it could stem from trauma, limited emotional vocabulary, cultural or social norms, childhood neglect and abuse, substance use and/or their parents didn’t teach them how to be emotionally expressive.
However, even if those are the case, you could be contributing to the uphill battle by not fostering emotional safety.
Missing The Emotional Mark By…
It is easier for us to find the faults in someone else than to look at our own. We are all full of flaws.
We all have certain ways to defend ourselves that lead us to push others away. In fact, the closer we become to a person, the higher our self-protective defenses work to protect us.
It’s important to be aware that negative past experiences leave us on high guard. Especially when we don’t vocalize them. Which is why communicating in a relationship (any relationship) is so important.
Instead of attacking the problem as a team, you may be inclined to point the finger at what your partner did wrong. Let’s be clear, accountability should never leave the room (or relationship rather). However, when a problem arises, don’t rush to build a case of wrongdoings against your partner. Instead, attack the problem together by working to find a solution.
Lack of Validation
When you hear someone using language about their feelings, validation must occur. In any healthy relationship, it is important to validate someone’s feelings when they express them to you. Validating a person’s feelings lets them know that you respect them for telling you and you care about their feelings.
Clear ways to validate someone’s feelings:
- Give verbal responses that your are listening to them with “Uh huh” or “Okay”
- Show body language that you are listening to them by turning towards them and giving periodic eye contact if you are doing something else
- Ask clarifying questions to help them develop and elaborate on their feelings
- Apologize for how you made them feel
Let’s be clear, at no point should someone dismiss your feelings by immediately using that as a window to talk about their feelings too. Be aware of emotional manipulation. However, if this does happen, attempt to redirect the conversation by making it clear that your feelings have not been validated and you can move forward after acknowledgment.
Lack of Empathy
A top contributor to feeling emotionally unsafe is a lack of empathy. If we all had empathy for one another, understanding and individual appreciation wouldn’t even be an issue. Empathy involves you understanding how a person feels through their language to reference their feelings. Empathy is the pathway to compassion and selflessness.
If you can have understanding for a person, then respecting your differences will come that much easier. However, relationships that lack empathy tend to manifest as one or both parties viewing feelings as trivial. Instead of validating and acknowledging, they will dismiss and suppress. They’re also unable to pick up on moods and facial expressions because they are too focused on their own.
Tone of Voice
A large amount of misunderstanding happens when feelings are expressed in the wrong tone of voice.
If you allow your emotions to take over while expressing your feelings or disagreement, then what you’re communicating could get lost in translation. Let’s be clear, communication is the foundation of any and every relationship. However, translation and comprehension are just as important.
How To Change It
All hope is not lost. If you or the other person feels emotionally unsafe in a relationship, then the problem can be fixed. It will take two of you to tackle it together.
Practice using vulnerable emotional language even when it feels uncomfortable, so that you both won’t feel emotionally unsafe in the relationship.
I feel _______ when ______ and I need ______.
When using emotional language, it sets the tone of the conversation. If you have a hard time figuring out your triggers, ask yourself what made you react with emotion. THAT is your trigger. What we give power to says a lot about us. For more on this, please check out my book What Is Shade Work: A Step-by-Step Guide To Enlightenment.
Empathize & Validate
Again, show your partner that you have understanding for them through empathy. A deep and lasting relationship requires emotional closeness to one another. Intimacy thrives on empathetic connecting because it is the mark for selflessness.
Put aside your viewpoint and validate their perspective. Listen to understand and not to respond. In the heat of the moment, things get blown out of proportion. It’s never a bad idea to schedule time out of the week to talk to one another about areas of discontent. Check out my blog post about Creating New Family Traditions and download the Family Planner Guide. Another way to practice empathy is to ask the other person what they would do in that situation to have their perspective.
Listen First, Solve Later
We are sometimes so ready to get the issue resolved or have our experience validated that we rush to talk over each other. If a person feels emotionally unsafe, then this will heighten a lack of attentiveness.
If you find that the other person is long winded when expressing their grievances or feelings, be vocal about it. Make it clear that you want to make sure to address ALL of feelings, but need the appropriate space to do so. This will allow you both the appropriate space in the conversation to be heard and understood. Which will decrease the need to interrupt.
Listen With Love
Again, we naturally may have our defenses up when we are discussing a problem. In turn, we don’t hear what the other person is saying with love. We take it as an assault on us personally and react from that perspective. When you listen with love, you consciously take down your defenses and allow vulnerability to take the driver’s seat.
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