Emotional Safety for Couples

Joseph Sandler was a psychoanalyst who coined the term “Background of Safety” in his 1960 paper. His “safety principle” was way ahead of its time when Freud’s “pleasure principle” dominated the psychological landscape. What he meant by “safety principle” has now been verified by Bowlby’s attachment theory and his ideas of “safe haven” and “secure base.” That is to say that in every relationship there must be an underlying feeling that each partner is safe – safe not only from physical harm, but from psychological harm as well. A background of safety goes a long way in provide a sense of connection and attachment between two people.

In relationships there is often an unconscious goal of maximizing safety rather than just diminishing anxiety. In trying to maximize safety each partner seeks to increase his or her feelings of security and the availableness of the other. This is not often achieved due to the increasing anxiety between the partners when discussing emotional topics. This is why it’s so important to use words that are not divisive or extreme in order to build a foundation of safety rather than anxiety.

For example, many couples may say things like, “you always do this” or “you never appreciate the things I do for you.” These are words of absolutes and they increase anxiety rather than increase safety. Furthermore, no one ever does anything all the time. Other times couples will say, “I hate it when you don’t listen to me.” Hate is a divisive word that creates tension and anxiety rather than increasing safety and security.

These feelings of safety and security in our most intimate relationships are not just a “nice to have” or even a convenient “add on.” Our feelings of security are part of our biological endowment that informs all of our lived experience. And whenever we lose these feelings, when it is replaced by feelings of fear and anxiety, we tend to revert to words and behaviors that protect us from harm – especially psychological harm. We begin to act defensively, attack others, and lose perspective on the matter at hand. Oftentimes we become flooded and unable to think in the moment and therefore are unable to use language that softens our approach to our spouse and reinstates a sense of safety.

To correct this, first you must be able to survive the flooding. This may involve taking a break and regrouping later to continue the conversation. Or you may want to step back and slow the conversation down. Being mindful of the “here and now” can go a long way in not becoming flooded with anxiety and losing perspective. Secondly, using words that are approachable and softer around the corners creates safety in the relationship. Things such as, “I feel like your not hearing me right now” is a much better way to express yourself than previously written. Or you might say, “I feel frustrated when you sometimes forget to take out the trash and I have to remind you.” This expresses your feelings at his forgetfulness, and stays away from the absolutes of his behavior.

Increasing a sense of safety is — in my opinion — one of the most important goals any couple can achieve. If both partners feel safe enough with the other, then most issues can be worked through in a healthy way. There would be less defensive behavior and feelings, less bringing up things from the past, and more sharing and listening to each other’s perspectives, that ultimately move the relationship forward to greater maturity.

If your discussions with your partner are not built around a sense of safety to speak openly and expressively you may need to call a Tulsa licensed professional counselor to help them learn. To take the first step toward a healthier relationship call us at 918-398-7678 or request a counseling appointment online.

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