A really common statement that I hear in my office when dealing with couples is, “When things get tough, all I need is for you to hold me.” That’s a request for emotional safety. So why is it so hard for our partners to do this?
It’s about safety. When you’re in an argument with someone and you don’t feel safe, the last thing you want to do is move into that discomfort. It’s like violating your own feelings.
This is true in non-romantic relationships too: parent/child, co-workers, friends, and communities. Remember being a kid and fighting with your brother? Your parents made you hug and say you’re sorry? What about your anger? Your feelings? Don’t they mean anything?
When you are ignored, it’s invalidating. When you’re feeling like you’re not being heard, you’ve been betrayed, or that you’ve been hurt, the natural instinct is to protect yourself. To be safe. It’s not a fair ask for someone else to expect you to stay open to attack and take care of their needs. If you have a trauma history, it’s pretty near impossible.
So, if you want to connect, do what you have to do to create physical and emotional safety first. Here are some suggestions.
- Take a time out. This isn’t a walk out. It’s an agreement to return to the topic when you’ve both had a chance to cool off.
- Use talking circle rules. Listen to each other without interrupting. Don’t listen to rebut. Listen to understand. Speak only about your own experience. Don’t project your assumptions or feelings onto the other person. Be kind. If either party tends to make lengthy speeches, limit each person’s turn to 3-5 minutes each so that you don’t wear each other out.
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their facts. It just means that you still care despite the disputed facts.
- Take responsibility for your own feelings and behavior. If you deal with what you bring into the problem, the load lightens.
- Take care of your own needs. If you need to be soothed, do it yourself. It’s great to have someone else take care of you, but it’s not their job.
- Understand that not getting your needs met in the moment isn’t the same thing as rejection.
- When someone withdraws, let them. Give them the space to create emotional safety. It will help you reconnect later.
- If you are safe enough to put your feelings aside and hold your partner, do that.
- If you have a trauma history, get help. When trauma is in play, it’s much harder to make effective choices in the moment. Your nervous system is working against you.
Disagreements happen. They are not the end of the world. If we resolve them well, we return to a connected state. If you don’t know how to do these things, help is available. Learn so that your relationships can be happier.