When we feel safe in our relationships, we can have more closeness and trust
When we feel safe in our relationships, we can have more closeness and trust.
Often, we come into our relationships expecting that OUR PARTNERS are the ones who will make us feel safe and secure. We have the fantasy or wish that THEY will respond to our needs in positive ways, and THEY will be trustworthy, and THEY will be supportive no matter what we’re going through; that THEY will communicate clearly and understand us when we don’t.
It might come as a difficult realization to find out that our partners have the same wishes from us: that WE will be able to control our reactions so they can feel comfortable; that WE will be able to communicate our needs in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them; that WE will be available and supportive and affectionate in just the right ways whenever they are feeling stressed; that WE will read their minds and know just what they need, when; and WE’LL be able to prioritize their needs over our own.
We might forget that a relationship really is the creation of two people 100% and it’s never just one partner who should take on the lion’s share of the responsibility or who is the only one needing to make changes. Both people in a relationship contribute to the sense of safety (or discomfort) that is felt by themselves internally, and that felt by the partner.
I talk to so many couples who get caught in a terrible cycle of reactions that don’t feel good to either one of them, and that seems to lock them into some repeated pattern of poor communication, or who immediately feel the need to defend themselves or react intensely from what has hurt them. Many of these couples are needing a sense of safety in the relationship but have been ineffective in bringing that about.
Usually, when we are in a reactionary mode it doesn’t bode well for how the rest of the communication can go. When we feel unsafe or threatened we are reactionary and not thoughtfully responsive. We try desperately to get safe from the feeling of being rejected or hurt or pulled away from, or having somebody be angry with us. We do whatever it takes to protect ourselves, and unfortunately, this is often hurtful or aggressive toward or withdrawing from our partners.
What we often don’t remember is that our actions and reactions to our partner contribute as much as their actions and reactions do, to the wellbeing and feeling in these important relationships. We may be making our partner feel unsafe and anxious by the way that we express our emotions, or react to something they’ve opened up about, or when we pull away or come in too close in a demanding or critical way. We think that’s the way we should be because they have come at us in bad ways also, and we don’t want to be hurt again ( or taken advantage of, or dismissed, etc).
The good news is we can also impact the cycles of communication in a positive way and we can actually be creative and resourceful about bringing safety into the relationship. There are things that we can do that can create more an environment of comfort and security, that will contribute to our partner feeling safer in a relationship with us, and therefore not being so reactive with us, and so we can feel safer with them. We can take responsibility for the tone of our interactions, and actually enhance the connection that we have with our partner.
Here are a few suggestions for how to create a sense of safety within yourself, and a safe space for your partner and the relationship, and it goes without saying, it will be better for the both of you.
Don’t threaten that you will leave or that you can’t take it anymore. It is very stressful and not enhancing of a relationship to live with the uncertainty of wondering if your partner will stick around. Commit instead to not leaving, and to being there while you work on things. Even when things get hard and you think the only way to get through this is to leave. Greater willingness to stay present actually brings about more freedom and allows one to live with more security and safety.
Do the ‘Welcome Home’ exercise whenever you’re reconnecting or one person is coming home or you’re seeing each other after being apart. This rebalances a sense of safety with each other to deal with the stress, demands or distractions that do come up. To do the ‘Welcome Home exercise’, whenever somebody enters the door, stop what you’re doing and give a full body embrace or hug and hold onto each other for a few seconds, until you feel your partner physically relaxing. This re-stimulates the connected warm secure feeling we had as babies with our caretakers and restores our sense of security in the world.
Take a few moments to gaze into each other’s eyes at least once a week. This also resets the body and sense of safety that you feel. Really look at and notice whatever you see in each other‘s eyes. Hold a warm gaze and convey your appreciation or love for your partner through your eyes only. Again, this repeats important bonding that occurred when we were babies and helps us to feel loved and safe, from the inside out… If you didn’t experience this as a child, it’s not too late to begin experiencing the secure feeling this provides as an adult, and the healing that can come from this.
Be present with each other. You don’t have to discuss anything but be fully present together. Notice mentally and then out loud what you’re experiencing in your senses, emotions, body sensations, thoughts. Listen to sounds together. Maybe do a walking meditation together where you are both attentive to the experience of walking each step, and of doing that together.
Try to get to know your partner from a new perspective. Notice his or her mannerisms, body posture, reactions, facial expressions, signs of hunger or anger or tiredness or other emotion. Approach your partner with curiosity while trying to become an expert on their behavior by noticing subtleties and nuances about them. Especially look at the things you think you know so well about your partner, with new eyes. Approach your partner with curiosity in order to understand more what it feels like to be them, not through your lens as much as from their perspective.
New experiences can help to build attraction for someone. Even in your long-term relationship, you might be able to have increased experiences of novelty and share that excitement with each other. You might walk in a new neighborhood, or try out a new activity. When you do something you enjoy, tap into the good feeling that comes up in those new situations to spark enthusiasm for each other – acknowledge how happy, excited, interested, blessed you feel being with each other. Call your partner when you’re thinking of him or her in an exciting way. Tap into those feelings of excitement when you try novel experiences and direct a similar level of enthusiasm to your partner.
Do a writing exercise meant to clear the clutter before having a discussion about something potentially difficult. Both of you take a moment to acknowledge and write down your immediate stressors, your distracting thoughts, what you notice about your breath, and what you notice about any body sensations. Taking 5 minutes to write this down will help clear away the “noise” allowing for a clearer and more present conversation to be had with your partner.
In order to calm yourself and make yourself safely available (before things get too heated, or even in the moment of noticing that stress is still present) try some diaphragmatic breathing where you take slow deep breaths in and intentionally fill up the lower half of your lungs, and hold your breath a few seconds before exhaling even more slowly. A calm breath leads to a calm heart and better performance in the art of relating. Diaphragmatic breathing slows the heartbeat, helps to disengage from distracting thoughts and sensations, and promotes internal quieting and relaxation. This creates a safe space for each of you.
Another calming breath: Try breathing in through your nose to the count to five. Then hold for a count of five. Then breathe out through your nose for a count of five. And repeat five times. This kind of breathing is always available to you in whatever your circumstances are. You have the power to create calm and safety within you and to impact the sense of security that both of you have in your relationship.
So I’d love to hear from you. What do you notice brings security and trust to your relationship? What are things that you are aware of that can make the level of safety better or worse?
If you or someone you care about is having difficulty finding or bringing safety into your relationships, please call me for a couples therapy appointment.
For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.
Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist