Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?
It is easy to make jokes about marriage, but the pain of a troubled union is hard to get past. Consider the following scenario: you’ve been married for years. You are painfully aware of your spouse’s habits, which have repeatedly reminded you of how he or she does not understand you, is insensitive to your needs, and is unaware of the pain you continually experience.
At some point you were brave enough to speak up about how you felt. You took the bull by the horns and finally shared your honest feelings. You took a risk. To your surprise and satisfaction your partner actually made changes, which felt so good and so empowering. Then you watched as your spouse’s old habits slowly returned, as did your feelings of dissatisfaction. Your hopelessness sank to a deeper, darker level than it had been before. How could your spouse possibly love you if he or she behaves in this way? Can you ever again trust them? Could real closeness be possible ever again? In reaction to your disappointment, you pulled away emotionally. Damage had been done to your marriage.
The relationship described above has become emotionally unsafe. Instead of being a place of security and support, it has become a place of pain. It does not contain any overt forms of abuse; the difficulties described are caused by interactions more subtle than abuse but just as damaging. In this example the connection between spouses had been eroded over time by poor communication, laziness, neglect, selfishness and insensitivity.
Emotional safety is a vital element found in healthy relationships. It is defined as a condition where each partner is able to express him or herself genuinely without fear of invalidation, criticism, shame, ridicule, disrespect, rejection, attack, or abandonment. Put more simply and in positive terms, a relationship is emotionally safe when each partner feels affirmed by the other. This means being valued, listened to and supported.
Answering yes to any of the following questions suggests that you experience your relationship as emotionally unsafe to some degree: Does your spouse often disappoint you or hurt your feelings? Are you frequently angry with him or her? Do you avoid sharing your honest feelings with your spouse to avoid a conflict, being attacked or hurting his or her feelings? Do you make lists of your spouse’s disagreeable actions so you can prove his or her wrongdoings at a later date? Do you tell a friend about your relationship troubles or your spouse’s shortcomings rather than voice your concerns directly to him or her?
A relationship is an emotionally safe place when each partner can trust the other to provide the care and support sufficient for personal growth. To repair a relationship that has grown emotionally unsafe, both partners need be committed to making positive changes. Including a third person in the process of repairing a relationship is invaluable. The longer a relationship has remained emotionally unsafe, the more difficult it will be to repair. Andrew Aaron, LICSW