Posts Tagged ‘self-esteem’

Emotional Safety: What it is and Why it’s Important

March 25, 2009

couples-looking-at-eachotherMy major task as a couples therapist is to help establish emotional safety in the relationships of my clients. A brilliant couples therapist named Don Catherall, creator of the Emotional Safety Model, helped me see that emotional safety has to do with three things. First is the belief that your partner accepts you and trusts you and that you accept and trust your partner (I am OK and my partner is OK). 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 OK). If you feel that 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 a majority of the time, which contributes to a lot of arguments and/or a lack of intimacy.

The third thing you need for emotional safety is a secure relationship with trust and commitment (we are OK). 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.

Most things couples fight about have emotional safety as the underlying concern. But they don’t know that is what it’s about. So they 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. Here are a few examples of how I can respond to feeling emotionally unsafe in this scenario…

1) If I feel that I am worthy of his time and attention (I am OK) and feel pretty sure that he cares (we are OK), then I will let him know I’m concerned about our connection and would like more time together. So even if I feel the relationship is insecure right now, I’m still feeling generally OK about myself (I am lovable and adequate) and OK about him too (I trust him, and I can give him the benefit of the doubt). Now I am able to talk to him about the lack of effort I sense in a way that he can likely hear me and respond well.

2) If I feel (unconsciously) that I am somehow not worthy of his time and attention (I am not OK) OR that he really may not care about me all that much (we aren’t OK), I will be feeling really emotionally unsafe. I won’t feel entitled to ask for the connection to be repaired (I am unlovable, I am not entitled to love and care), and I won’t likely be able to give him the benefit of the doubt either (He is not someone I can trust). When I approach him it will probably sound blaming and critical. And he’s not going to be able to figure out that I really don’t want to fight, I just want him to be more engaged with me. He won’t hear my implicit message, “I’m lonely! Let’s spend more quality time together!” and he won’t know that I am sad and feeling unsafe about the disconnection. He’s going to hear, “You are a bad husband! You are failing me!” and what will usually happen is that his self-esteem will take a hit, he will feel a sense of shame, and now he must defend himself from feeling bad, at the expense of repairing the relationship.  We will likely jump right into a negative cycle of me pursuing for closeness in a way that feels like an attack on him and him distancing to protect himself.

However, this is not foolproof. It’s not necessarily as simple as how I approach him or how nicely I tell him I don’t feel important to him. Whether my husband can really respond in a way that puts the relationship back on solid ground depends a lot of how he feels about himself, me, and the relationship. If he feels he is still OK even though I seem unhappy, and he doesn’t start thinking he’s a bad husband, then he might tune in and ask how he can make it better.  But, another very likely response is that my being unhappy in general triggers his shame and he suddenly feels he isn’t OK. Instead of him being able to stay with his shame and still be able to hear me, he may withdraw from the conversation because he’s feeling unsafe or he may counterattack and let me know just how much I too am not measuring up in the relationship! So we may still jump into the negative cycle if my husband is sensitive to anything that may trigger his shame. This could be because he had extremely critical parents or perhaps when he was a child and he needed something, his parents shamed him for it or he has just been exposed to many repeated experiences in which he felt bad or defective. Now when another person has needs, he gets angry and thinks they are weak. He obviously won’t be able to respond well if that’s been his experience with relationship needs. Either way, I can say as sweet as pie that I am not feeling cared about and he may still get defensive or cut off connection all together. Either way intimacy in the relationship will suffer.

3) If many instances like the one above keep happening without repair, I may feel like the situation is hopeless and stop reaching out at all. I will try to distract myself from the unsafety in the relationship by throwing myself into hobbies of my own, or focusing on my friends, or by responding to that flirty guy at work because he’s giving me the attention I’m craving.

We aren’t critical because we are bad people. We do it because it feels safer to blame than to let ourselves be vulnerable and talk about our emotional needs (and also because talking like this was probably never modeled for us). And we don’t get defensive because we are bad people. But we hear our partner’s criticisms as an attack on our person and we will do whatever we can to not feel the sense of inadequacy and shame our partner triggers in us. And it’s not only words we need to worry about. We send messages about how we feel about our loved ones through our tone of voice, body language, rolling our eyes etc.

Hopefully I will never get to scenario number 3, because I will realize that I am a good person, my husband is a good person, and that we have a pretty good relationship that is worth saving. So I will find a good couples counselor and work on getting out of this negative pattern. This will likely consist of both of us addressing any self-esteem issues we may be bringing into the relationship, and identifying any triggers or sensitivities that we have. Often these sensitivities come from childhood so if we can explore what we are carrying from the past then we can help our partner really understand and empathize with us. Without understanding some of our partner’s behaviors and responses, it’s extremely easy for him to see me as a nag and it’s very easy for me to think he just doesn’t care.

It’s our job to identify and manage our own triggers, but it’s our partners job to help us with that job. But we can’t help each other if we don’t know what we are really fighting about. It’s also our job to work on our self-esteem, but 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. Unfortunately, many couples get into a negative cycle which 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.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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