My major task as a couples therapist is to help clients establish emotional safety in their relationships.
Don Catherall, creator of the Emotional Safety Model, helped me understand that emotional safety has to do with three things.
1. Acceptance and trust
First is the belief that your partner accepts you and trusts you and that you accept and trust your partner—I am okay and my partner is okay.
The more accepted and valued by your partner you feel, the more you are in the safe zone emotionally because your sense of self is intact.
However, if you feel that your partner believes something negative about you, your sense of self may suffer and you will feel emotionally unsafe. The same goes for your partner. If you think something negative about him or her, their self-esteem will likely suffer as well and they will feel emotionally unsafe with you.
The second thing you need is good self-esteem—I am okay.
If you feel you are lovable and adequate, your self-esteem will generally be pretty high and you will feel entitled to receiving love and care in your relationship.
If you don’t feel good about yourself, you will be wondering how your partner could possibly care about you. Both you and the relationship will feel insecure, which will lead to you feeling emotionally unsafe. This tends to contribute to a lot of arguments and a lack of intimacy.
The third thing you need for emotional safety is a secure relationship with trust and commitment—we are okay.
That means that there are no threats to how loved and cared about you feel by your partner. This includes anything that could affect your relationship security such as feeling that your partner is not making enough of an effort to nurture the relationship, or more obviously the threat of an affair, or one person threatening to leave the relationship.
The underlying concern
Most things couples fight about have emotional safety as the underlying concern. However, they don’t understand this and can’t identify it so they often get stuck on topics such as the bills, the housework, the kids, and so on.
If my husband seems to be putting a lot more effort into work and hobbies than into our relationship, and I experience our relationship as insecure, I will do different things depending on how I generally feel about him, myself, and the relationship.
Whose responsibility is it?
It’s our own responsibility to identify and manage our own triggers, but it’s our partners job to help us.
We can’t help each other if we don’t know what we are really fighting about.
It’s also our own responsibility to work on our self-esteem, and our partner can also help us with that job. Even if we come into the relationship with a shaky sense of self, our relationship has the opportunity to become a safe and healing place where we feel loved and cared about and completely whole, perhaps for the first time.
Escaping a negative cycle
Unfortunately, many couples get into a negative cycle that can last for years, which damages the relationship and fills it with resentment. This sort of relationship is an unsafe place for the majority of the time.
If this is happening to you in your relationship and you can’t get out of the negative cycle on your own, a good couples counselor can help you make your relationship a safe and secure place.