In psychology, emotional safety refers to an emotional state achieved in attachment relationships wherein each individual is open and vulnerable. It means that you believe your partner cares about your own emotional experience and vice versa. We feel comfortable sharing our hopes, fears, vulnerabilities and pain with our partner, because we trust that our partner will tend to these emotions with warmth and concern.
Emotional safety can be established by sharing your feelings, and your partner conveying to you that they care about your pain, hurt, emotional experience, etc. The listening partner shows that their partner’s pain is important to them through:
- Empathy: Understanding what the experience would be like from your partner’s perspective (“It must have been upsetting when ______”). Putting yourself in their shoes.
- Validation: Affirming that your partner’s pain is legitimate (“I understand that you would feel _____ in that situation”).
- Body language: As your partner is sharing, you reach out and take your partner’s hand or make eye contact. Comfort and support them.
- Putting your own feelings, thoughts, and comments on hold while you focus on your partner’s pain until your partner has shared all their feelings and feels understood. Listen intently and attentively.
Some ways to help foster emotional safety include:
- Using “I” statements. The rule-of-thumb formula for “I” statements is= “I feel” + emotion + when you do ________ + because + what I need is. Avoid using “You” statements such as “You did _____”, because this blaming language will most likely put your partner on the defensive. Using an “I” statement allows us to take responsibility for how we feel and also share the impact of our partner’s behavior.
- Inquiring instead of accusing. It’s often easy to assume we know what our partner is thinking, but we might miss the mark. Inquiring comes from a place of openness and curiosity, while accusing often comes from a place of assumptions and judgment. The more we inquire instead of accusing, the more likely it is that our partner will feel that it is safe to open up to us.
- Avoiding absolute language. Some examples of absolute language are- “You always do this” or “You never listen to me”. But absolute language is inaccurate. It tends to put one on the defensive and escalates conflict. Some couples may be reluctant to be this straightforward. But when both partners work to give this kind of direct feedback, they’re acknowledging that it’s safe to express their wants and needs in the relationship which enhances the couple’s connection.
- Listening to understand, not to convince. Often couples fall into the relationship trap of trying to convince the other that their way of thinking is correct. This leads to disconnection in the relationship and feeling unsafe to share thoughts. Instead, when we listen to understand our partner’s perspective, we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of new ideas and increase our connection with our partner by allowing them to feel heard and understood.
- Giving positive feedback. Relationships improve if they live by the rule; for every negative interaction you have with your partner, make sure there are five positive ones. Over time in a relationship, positive feedback tends to decline. But this aspect of the relationship is essential to maintaining and supporting emotional safety. The more we organically acknowledge the things we appreciate and admire in our partner, the more easily they will be able to tolerate our negative feedback, and vice versa.
Emotional safety develops when the sharing partner talks about their feelings gently, and when the listening partner focuses on what is being shared and responds caringly. As one builds emotional safety, they feel increasingly comfortable communicating problems that they may be experiencing in their relationship. This creates a healthier and happier relationship.
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