Couples seek relationship counseling for numerous reasons. As someone who works with many different couples with a variety of issues, I’ve identified one similar thread that runs through all of them. Their relationships lack in varying degrees of “emotional safety.” Typically, the couples who present as the most hostile, distant, angry, disengaged or otherwise dysfunctional are the least emotionally safe together. Even people who come for counseling who have less glaring issues can benefit from a tune-up in this area.
So what is “emotional safety” in a relationship? I define this as the level of comfort both people feel with each other. There are six aspects in which to assess the emotional safety in a relationship. They are respect, feeling heard, understanding, validation, empathy and love. How can one assess their own relationship based on this paradigm? When working with couples, I often ask each partner to rate, from zero to ten, (zero being “never” and ten being “all the time”) how much they feel each of the six mentioned aspects of emotional safety from their partner. I chart it out with each person’s name written on the top of a piece of paper with a column under each. Then on the left side I list the six aspects with rows next to them.
1) Respect: How much do each of them feel respected by their partner? People who report low levels of respect often experience criticism or judgment from the other.
2) Feeling Heard: How much does their partner listen to them? Those who don’t feel heard complain of being ignored, tuned out or talked over by the other.
3) Understood: How much do each of them feel understood by their partner? People with low levels of understanding from the other report frustration around their partner not getting them or twisting their words into an entirely different meaning.
4) Validation: How much do they each feel validated by each other? Low levels of validation are problematic to any relationship in that one or both don’t feel that their partner gets what they’re saying. Its one step beyond understanding and it doesn’t require the partner to necessarily agree with them.
5) Empathy: How much do they each feel the other can be empathetic with them? A low number on this is the most toxic of the six aspects in that a lack of empathy in a relationship means a lack of attunement to the others emotions. The partner experiencing a lack of empathy can experience a great deal of sadness or anger. “You don’t care how I feel.”
6) Love: How much do they feel loved by each other? This encapsulates and reflects the state of the previous five. Couples who report low levels of feeling loved by the other typically have low numbers in the other aspects.
Doing this type of charting makes it easy to compare and contrast how each person feels in the relationship. This tool is very helpful to anyone wanting to assess their own level of emotional safety. Be aware that it might bring up a lot for both partners. If the topic proves to cause too much emotional reactivity then a trained therapist can help flesh out the results and provide a roadmap to make changes. In my work, I find that it often involves altering communication styles, behavior modification and exploration of both partner’s families of origin. The greatest evidence of change in the relationship are these numbers going up – and they can!
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