Note: This is the first of a two-part series
- Aimee is standing in front of the mirror staring at herself. “Gary…do you think I need to get my nose fixed?” If Gary’s goal is a closer partnership, he needs to create safety for Aimee. And that means passing up the opportunity to make a joke or a dig, overcoming any urges to dismiss her concerns, and giving Aimee his most direct and reassuring answer: “I like your nose exactly the way it is.” If this is how Gary feels, this is how he must respond. To do anything else would be taking advantage of Aimee’s vulnerability and establishing that he is not safe. His response must convey the crucial message “It’s safe to feel insecure around me.”
- Chaz has just said to his wife “Sometimes I can’t believe that you married me.” Chaz’s wife could use this as an opportunity to make him insecure (“Sometimes I can’t believe it either!”), paranoid (“You’re lucky the other guy I had my eye on was already taken”), defensive (“You’re so insecure”), and so on. But she could also make him feel loved, appreciated and safe with some direct, agenda-free reassurance, such as “I consider myself very lucky.”
- Joseph is sick in bed with a horrible flu that has lingered for weeks. He has just said to his partner “Being this sick makes me think about what a burden I may be to you when I get old.” Joseph’s partner could take this moment as an opportunity to scare him (“You’re not planning on getting old, are you?”), dismiss his fears (“Don’t be so gloomy”), make him feel bad (“Just don’t get me sick with what you’ve got”), criticize him (“You wouldn’t be sick if you took your vitamins”), and so on. But Joe’s intimate partner could also make him feel cared for and safe with some well-intentioned reassurance, such as “We have our lives in front of us. Just get well.”
These vignettes, taken from Steven Carter’s book This Is How Love Works (M. Evans and Company) remind us that there are all kinds of things that one person in a relationship can say or do to make a potentially loving relationship feel hostile, insecure and unsafe. We must pay attention to whether we convey that we are emotionally safe to be around in our relationships.
When you love someone, you give that person power over you. You care about what s/he thinks and feels about you. Any judgments s/he makes about you are very important, says Carter. That makes it easy for each of us to use words, gestures and tone of voice to make our intimate partners feel unsafe to reveal and acknowledge flaws, their mistakes, insecurities or vulnerabilities, unsafe to speak how they really feel, and unsafe to relax and just be themselves.
If your priority is building a partnership that can flourish, you have to learn to create safe spaces—places where your partner can be vulnerable and honest, where s/he can speak without fear and where it’s safe for him or her to have an open heart around you. While this is something that both people must create, the very best you can do is lead by example.
The feeling of safely is something we can all create in our relationships. Every time our partner shares a moment of weakness with us, we are in the “land of opportunity,” Carter reminds us. He says we have an opportunity to advance our own agenda, assert our power, act out our anger or take advantage of our partner’s vulnerability. But we also have an opportunity to build closeness and trust. That intimacy and trust is built when we recognize our partner’s vulnerability and respond in a way that says “It’s safe to feel this way with me.”
I will continue this discussion two weeks from today.