How to Build an Emotionally Safe Relationship
Getting into a relationship may seem relatively easy, but building a long-term relationship requires a tremendous amount of work. After all, we are emotional beings with baggage entering partnerships with other emotional beings who have their own baggage.
One crucial element in a healthy and sustainable long-term relationship is emotional safety. Emotional safety allows us to build a longer-lasting bond as a couple. But what exactly is an emotionally safe relationship and how can you build one?
Wyatt Fisher, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, Colorado, defined an emotionally safe relationship: "Where you feel seen and known, and where you have confidence that your partner will respond with empathy and respect to your feelings and concerns rather than judgment."
Channa Bromley, a certified dating and relationship coach at the platform Relationship Hero, based in California, compared an emotionally safe relationship to "a container in which two individuals take 100 percent responsibility for their 50 percent."
"[Each individual does] their own inner work and does not project past wounds onto their partner," she added. "They agree to be guardians of one another's hearts and show up openly. The relationship is a mutually safe space to express, share, be seen and be heard. They understand the purpose of a relationship is to grow and evolve and they are committed to doing so."
Why it's tough to create emotional safety
Bromley explained that as many of us have not been taught much about our own emotions, it can be difficult for us to emotionally relate to other human beings.
"Many people also give away their personal power by buying into the soulmate myth, meaning that the other person is responsible for their own inner state," she added. "This leads to unrealistic expectations. An emotionally safe relationship comes after mastering the connection to oneself."
Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Colorado and the author of "Fragile Power," added that humans often "view everything that happens in the world through our self-absorbed lens," which can make it challenging to create a safe space with another person.
"[This is because] human beings are hardwired to seek approval and nurturance from other human beings," he said. "This impulsive drive for validation gets toxic when people are motivated by scarcity.
"Also, people who are raised in contexts—be those contexts family, community, political and even religious—where they felt rejected grow up living in fear that they will continue to be rejected and unworthy of love," he added. "These people feel at their core they are unlovable and can act out in conscious and unconscious ways to sabotage their most important and most intimate relationships."
All of these factors make it important for both parties to attempt to create an emotionally safe space at the start of the relationship, Hokemeyer noted.
"I need to emphasize the word 'attempt' as the couple's success in the endeavor should give the individuals in the relationship valuable information as to how much energy they are willing to put into the relationship and how much risk they want to assume that it will or will not work out," he said.
Learn how to empathize with each other
The first step is empathy.
"The key is learning to respond to your partner's thoughts and feelings with empathy and respect so they feel safe to be vulnerable," Fisher said. "When your partner is venting about stress in their life, respond with simple empathy statements, such as 'That sucks, no wonder you feel like that. That sounds [fill in blank] and it makes sense you would feel [fill in blank] because of [fill in blank].'
"Also, remember not to offer any advice unless they ask for it because no one wants to be 'fixed,'" he added.
Trying to understand each other without judgment is a crucial part of empathizing.
"Always show an intent to understand [instead of being] right," Bromley said. "Approach with genuine curiosity and hold space for your partner to share. Treat your communication and open hearts as the sacred gifts they are."
Be aware of your own fears and insecurities
Another important aspect of emotional safety is to be aware of our own fears and insecurities, and to understand how to manage them.
"Take the responsibility to be self-aware and identify your own triggers, fears, insecurities, fragmentations and also your love map," Bromley said. "Do the inner work. Do not project the past onto your partner.
"Learn to open and reopen as often as necessary, to lean into love and into your partner," she continued. "You are responsible for clearly and gracefully communicating your own needs, wants and requirements. This is important as your partner would not understand your needs if it is not communicated openly."
Resolve your resentments
If negative communication and unhappiness have caused resentment to build up over the years, couples need to untangle those feelings first.
"It can be difficult for couples to cultivate an emotionally safe environment because of unmet needs or unresolved resentments in the relationship, which creates more of an antagonistic dynamic rather than a harmonious one," Fisher said.
"I focus on resolving resentments first with all couples I see in my practice because nothing else will go well in the relationship until those are addressed," he added. "Next, I help couples learn how to meet their partner's needs while stopping behaviors that make their partner feel negative toward them."
Be aware of toxicity and dishonesty
The above tips mainly apply if both parties are genuinely approaching the relationship with good intentions and trying to work out a long-term relationship.
If you're unsure if your potential partner is trustworthy in the first place, you need to get a better understanding of them.
Hokemeyer suggested a few steps toward this goal.
"First, information gathering," he said. "At this stage, people starting out in a relationship need to put on their investigator's hat and gather as much data as they can about the person they are getting involved with, their reactions to the person, and be on high alert for relationship patterns that are replaying out in their current relationship."
Once you have enough information about the other person, you need to test the accuracy of your observations.
"If you sense your partner is trustworthy and honest, [you can] run a situation by them where their integrity can play out," Hokemeyer added.
Once this investigation of each other is completed, couples can then build the relationship one step at a time. Hokemeyer noted that it can be an enjoyable process.
Accept each other for who you are
"At this stage, partners need to relax into the hour-to-hour unfolding of the relationship, recognizing that no relationship is perfect and that people, including ourselves, are imperfect and fallible," Hokemeyer explained.
"At the end of the day, we need to recognize that true intimacy takes time to establish," he added. "It will also be an imperfect process where missteps will occur, feelings will get hurt and insecurities will flare."
As you deepen the bond with each other, you need to "be honest about whether the relationship aligns to your love map," Bromley said.
"You will not be able to build an emotionally safe relationship by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole," she continued. "Both partners need to be accepted for the reality of who they are, not who we want them to be."