Do you walk on eggshells around certain people in your life?
Do you avoid telling your partner or best friend the truth out of fear they’ll disagree or be unhappy with you?
Would you like your relationships to feel safer?
Then this episode on emotional safety is for you. I go over the signs of an unsafe relationship and give you the steps to create more safety in your relationships.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
This blog does not apply if you are in a physically abusive relationship or experiencing domestic violence. Instead, read about how to safely leave an abusive relationship, because your safety is your top priority.
To establish the difference between unsafe and safe relationships, let’s first look at the elements of an unsafe relationship. From there, we will juxtaposition them with elements of safe relationships.
What Does an Unsafe Relationship Look Like?
The elements of an unsafe relationship are:
- Manipulation or guilt if you do not do what the other person wants
- Too much intensity, especially early on in a relationship
- Someone sabotaging your good efforts
- Deflection of responsibility and having an excuse for why they did not do what they said they would do, either for you or in the relationship
- Jealousy or being possessive
- Isolation from family and friends; wanting you all to themselves
- Belittling and making you feel bad about yourself with comments or actions
- Unpredictable volatile reactions (which are scary)
Of course, some relationships will have some of these elements. No relationship is ‘perfect.’ But seeing a lot of these behaviors in a relationship creates a lack of safety.
Want to determine whether you are in an emotionally safe or unsafe relationship? Download the guide for a checklist to see which behavioral dynamics are present.
6 Ways to Create Emotionally Safe Relationships
If you have found your relationship has a few unsafe behaviors, the following six tips will help you create more emotionally safe relationships.
Note: everything I suggest applies to both you and the other person in the relationship.
#1: Have Healthy Boundaries
The first step toward creating emotional safety in relationships is having healthy boundaries. Boundaries protect both us and our relationships.
Your boundaries are your preferences, desires, limits, and dealbreakers.
Boundaries can be physical, intellectual, sexual, emotional, and financial. Being clear about and communicating our boundaries in these areas is crucial.
Establishing and communicating your boundaries (especially your limits) early and often in a relationship is key. This teaches your partner how to treat you.
It is helpful for both of you to share your preferences and to genuinely care about each other’s preferences.
An example of a healthy boundary is sharing your personal information with someone else gradually, even if you like them.
You can also protect your time by not over-committing or over-giving.
You can ask for space, too. There is a tendency to spend all our time together in a new relationship, but if you like your alone time, be honest about it. You have a right to your feelings and preferences.
You also need to be comfortable with the pace at which you are intimate with someone, even if the other person wants to go faster. Honor your needs by communicating your comfort level.
#2: Be Aware of Body Language
There are many ways we can create both a lack of safety and safety with our body language.
Think about it- have you ever felt scared by menacing body language? Like someone physically intimidating you by standing too close and dominating you with their physicality? This can result in feeling unsafe.
On the flip side, we can create safety by giving our full attention to someone when they tell us something important.
You know how impactful facial expressions are. Be mindful about not rolling your eyes. Nod, smile, and lean in to show you are listening.
#3: Be a Deep + Active Listener
Speaking of listening, active listening is when you put aside distractions and defensiveness to be present and take in what someone is saying.
Being listened to is one of my love languages, even though it is not technically one of the five we know about.
If I tell my husband, Vic, something important, I need to know he is with me and thinking about what I am saying. It may not directly affect him, but I need him to care enough to actively listen. I do the same for him.
It’s inconsiderate if a person is on their phone while you are saying something important to them.
This behavior does not make you feel important, and not being present in our interpersonal relationships damages them.
To create safety and connection, avoid looking at your phone, ask expansive questions, refrain from auto-advice giving, and ask for clarification.
One of my favorite techniques is to summarize and mirror back what you hear someone say. You do not have to do this every time you talk, but if you want the person to know you are with them, say, “Okay, you wish this person wasn’t doing this, and you’re trying to figure out what to do about it. Did I hear you correctly?”
This is a takeoff of Harville and Helen Hendrix’s work, Imago Therapy. They have scripting ideas for being a great listener and allowing the other person to fully say what they want without cutting them off or giving them advice.
Their work is wonderful. If you are curious to learn more, I interviewed them wayyyy back when which you can listen to here. (I may have fangirled a bit )
#4: Talk True – Be Transparent
Talk True is part of the subtitle of Boundary Boss for a reason: it builds trust.
Trust and emotional safety come from knowing you can believe what someone is saying. They are saying it in a way you can receive it.
Talking true involves direct communication, where neither person feels like the other is hiding anything.
This does not mean sharing every nuanced thought you’ve ever had in your life or talking about what you discuss in therapy.
Talking true is a general openness about your thoughts, feelings, and activities.
Many years ago, I was in a relationship with a very secretive person. I dated this guy for a year and never went to his apartment or met anyone in his life. (He told me my apartment was nicer.)
Eventually, someone told me they saw him making out with someone else at a party. I broke up with him, but my initial gut instinct was: this guy isn’t trustworthy.
I ignored my gut because I was lonely and wanted to be in a relationship.
Lesson learned: transparency is important and learning to like my own company turned out to be a valuable lesson in self-love!
#5: Stop Judging + Get Curious
Another aspect of creating an emotionally safe relationship is giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.
I am not encouraging you to be naive. I am inviting you to stop judging and move into radical curiosity about why your partner does things a certain way or makes certain decisions.
Before my many years of therapy, I was attached to my “yum yuck” – my right and wrong of all things.
Instead of being curious about and asking why someone did something the way they did, I created negative narratives about them. This was an intimacy blocker. Had I asked, I might have learned something about the person.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard on my need to be right. While it made me feel safe, it was beyond bad for my relationships. Life is not black and white, right and wrong. There is a lot of gray area.
#6: Follow Through on Commitments
Another way to create safety in relationships is to do what you say you are going to do.
Behaving like a trustworthy individual looks like following through with our commitments to others and ourselves.
Emotionally trustworthy people do what they say they will do or let you know in advance when they cannot.
Here is the thing: all of us will over-commit or assume something will be easier than it is. The crime is the lack of communication and not doing or showing up for the thing you said you would.
An example of emotionally untrustworthy behavior is asking your partner to do something and your partner saying, “I will, I will! Stop nagging me about it” whenever you ask.
Either say you will not do it or do not want to do it and let me hire someone, or do it myself!
Following through and not placating the other person is important.
You also need to do what you say you are going to do. Be precise with your language about when you will do it, too.
If you want to commit to something but can’t do it for three weeks, be clear. Set a limit, communicate it, and manage the other person’s expectations to avoid resentment.
If you are already too far down the rabbit hole with an emotionally unsafe relationship, consider couple’s therapy (if your partner is open to it).
For a deeper dive into safe versus unsafe behaviors, download the guide here.
I hope this added value to your life. I hope you have the most amazing week and as always, take care of you.