The importance of emotional safety in relationships and how to assess the level in your own.
As a couples therapist, I have a pretty good idea of what people struggle with the most in their intimate relationships. It's not what you think. It's not about sex or finances but rather something deeper that impacts everything.
What is “emotional safety” in a healthy relationship? I see this as the degree of security and comfort both people feel with each other. It's an integral part of a solid relationship foundation. In my definition, there are eight aspects in which to assess the emotional safety in a relationship. They are respect, trust, feeling prioritized, feeling heard, understanding, validation, empathy and love. If you do well in all of these areas, good for you! But if you're like many, there are areas of vulnerablity that can benefit from some attention.
You can assess the level of emotional safety in your relationship
You and your partner take out a piece of paper and rate, from zero to ten, (zero being “never” and ten being “all the time”) how much you feel each of the following eight aspects/descriptions of emotional safety from each other. Chart it out with each person’s name written on the top of the paper with a column under each. Then on the left side list the eight aspects with rows next to them.
1. Respect: How much do you feel respected by your partner? People who report low levels of respect often experience criticism or judgment from the other.
2. Trust: How much do you trust your partner? Many issues can spring out of a basic lack of trust like insecurity or doubt.
3. Feeling Prioritized: How high do you feel on your partner's list of priorities? Feeling low on the priority scale can lead to a build-up of resentment which can be toxic.
4. Feeling Heard: How well does your partner listen to you? Those who don’t feel heard complain of being ignored, tuned out or talked over by the other.
5. Understood: How much do you feel understood by each other? People with low levels of understanding from the other report frustration around their partner "not getting" them or twisting their words into a different meaning.
6. Validation: How much do you feel validated by each other? Low levels of validation are problematic to any relationship in that one or both feels the other is rejecting their feelings which can increase resentment.
7. Empathy: How much do feel empathy from your partner? A lack of empathy in a relationship means a lack of attunement to the other's emotions. The partner experiencing a lack of empathy can experience a great deal of sadness or anger. “You don’t care how I feel.”
8. Love: How much do you feel loved by each other? This encapsulates and reflects the state of the previous seven aspects.
Doing this type of charting makes it easy to compare and contrast how emotionally safe you and your partner feel in the relationship. But assessment is the only the first step. The next action step is making the needed changes to create a stronger and safer connection. First try communicating with each other in an open and loving way. If issues come up that you're unable to sort out on your own, a couples therapist can help guide you through the process. The greatest evidence of change in your relationship will be these numbers going up – and they can!
The previous relationship enhancing tool is one of many in both my premarital counseling workbook and marriage workbook. Couples at any end of the relationship spectrum can benefit from learning how to strengthen the foundation beneath them to have the most secure, loving relationship possible.
For more of my tips related to emotional and relationship health: